Who stood out the most at NBA summer league this year? What are the biggest takeaways?
Our crew reviews the summer league scene.
1. Who was the best rookie you saw at summer league?
Tim MacMahon, ESPN.com: Lonzo Ball, at least once he started wearing shoes from legitimate brands. Sure, his inconsistent, funky jumper caused me to make bad Lonzo Carter-Williams jokes, especially in the wake of his 2-for-15 summer debut.
But, man, what a magical distributor. Precious few players possess the vision that Ball has, and he consistently delivers pinpoint passes, even from 70 feet away.
Honorable mention: Dallas Mavericks highlight machine Dennis Smith Jr.
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight/ESPN.com: It’s hard to contextualize “best” because these games don’t really matter, and so many people got hurt or were forced to rest at times. But I enjoyed watching Smith the most. His athleticism is obviously off the charts, but beyond that, his game is smooth, he has good vision, and he’s a good finisher around the basket with both hands.
Austin Tedesco, ESPN.com: Smith’s pick-and-roll work was masterful — distributing out of the Bulls’ many traps with just one turnover in his first game, then carving up the Suns’ switches in the next — and the best thing about his athleticism is how selectively he unleashes it. You can already see how many aspects of Smith’s game will translate to real NBA competition. It’s too bad he can’t play in the triangle.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: I suppose there are two ways to answer it. I still think Ball is the best rookie in terms of long-term outlook, with Markelle Fultz behind him. But Smith was the most effective rookie in summer league and solidified himself as No. 3 behind his fellow PGs as a prospect.
2. Who was the best veteran you saw at summer league?
MacMahon: Brandon Ingram looked like a No. 2 overall pick entering his second season is supposed to look against summer league competition, but he played only one game.
As a result, I’ll go with Troy Williams, who lit it up for the Houston Rockets after splitting his rookie season between Houston and the Memphis Grizzlies. Williams is a wing with NBA athleticism, and he showed scoring ability (22.0 ppg) that was a bit surprising.
Herring: Golden State’s Patrick McCaw. We get so used to players like McCaw simply fitting in and keeping things rolling when he comes in for or plays alongside a roster full of All-Stars. But it’s pretty eye-opening to see him dominate rookies and other young guys when given the chance to lead instead.
Tedesco: Brandon Ingram’s 31 minutes. Ingram earned the annual “he’s too good for summer league” title in about two quarters, which is huge for the Lakers after he was pretty meh as a rookie. The way he forcefully used his size with confidence really stood out. Don’t forget that Ingram is younger than Josh Jackson and Lauri Markkanen and hardly older than Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox and Jonathan Isaac. He still has star potential.
Pelton: It’s impressive that the Lakers won the NBA Summer League title with the best player on their roster playing only the first game. Ingram came out, showed growth from his rookie season in terms of strength and the ability to generate makeable shot attempts, and then was shut down for the duration after he cramped up at the end of regulation.
3. Who was the biggest surprise at summer league?
MacMahon: Ball wasn’t the only Lakers rookie who lit it up in Las Vegas. Kyle Kuzma, the 27th overall pick, was spectacular throughout the summer league. He’s a skilled 6-foot-9 guy who certainly benefited from playing with Ball, which could be the case for years.
Herring: Kyle Kuzma, who finished summer league with a 30-point, 10-rebound performance and championship game MVP honors, looked far more like a lottery pick than a late-first-round one. He has impressive range for a big, runs the floor in transition (important for a teammate of Lonzo Ball’s) and can move his feet on defense.
Tedesco: John Collins already looks like he’ll become a pretty good stretch-4 — and maybe even stretch-5 — after hiding most of those skills at Wake Forest. (More than half of his college shot attempts were at the rim, and he attempted only one 3!) He didn’t really test any deep range at summer league, but he made some nice plays out to the elbows, and I think he can extend further. At No. 19, that’s a steal for Atlanta.
Pelton: I didn’t consider Kuzma a first-round talent because he was a late bloomer, and his box-score stats didn’t really reflect an ability to utilize his obvious athleticism. In Las Vegas, he showed that he can make the NBA 3-pointer (though his 48.0 percent shooting on a robust 50 attempts surely isn’t sustainable), and his speed up the court was a perfect match for Ball’s long outlet passes in transition.
4. Who was the biggest disappointment at summer league?
MacMahon: The Phoenix Suns’ sophomore lottery picks. Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss both shot worse than 40 percent from the floor and didn’t exactly dominate the glass (each averaged 6.0 rebounds per game) as Phoenix went 2-4. That isn’t exactly reason to believe that the Suns’ rebuilding project can be fast-tracked.
Herring: The Chicago Bulls. Give the team credit for finally deciding not to straddle the line of mediocrity anymore. But if summer league is any indication, this coming season could be downright painful. Cameron Payne, Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine and first-round pick Lauri Markkanen, who figure to see considerable time this season, all shot 35 percent or worse in Vegas. Valentine and Markkanen combined for a brutal 2-for-25 showing in one game.
Tedesco: Buddy Hield turns 24 in December, and he played … fine? I didn’t love Jayson Tatum, but at least he’s only 19 and hit a bunch of his difficult shots. Hield shot 35.6 percent on 15 attempts per game. Oof.
Pelton: The Bulls’ point guards are my pick. Denzel Valentine did enough, after I picked the Bulls’ veterans as a group for my biggest disappointments at the midway mark, to escape this list, which leaves Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne.
The two young point guards, both acquired in trades within the past five months, shot a combined 12-of-38 (31.6 percent) and 3-of-12 from 3-point range. They also had more turnovers (nine) than assists (eight).
5. What’s one big takeaway from summer league play?
MacMahon: Summer league play tends to be hard on the eyes, but the large crowds in Vegas got a lot of entertainment bang for the buck this year. It was a bummer that No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz got hurt during the Sixers’ first game in Vegas, but the megahyped lottery class lived up to its billing for the most part.
Herring: The Jayson Tatum fit in Boston will be interesting. He’s incredibly talented and hits shots few other players can. But can he realistically pound the rock and rely on that much 1-on-1 offense once he’s playing next to three All-Star-level teammates, especially if his efficiency dips against real competition?
It’s a rare case. Top-five picks usually don’t have to concern themselves with fit, given that they almost never begin their careers with contending teams.
Tedesco: The league is in a good place. Sure, a pessimist would ask who cares about any of these prospects or minor signings right now, when the Golden State Warriors have a firm grasp on the next few Larry O’Brien trophies. But one constant in the NBA is that things change. People were freaking out about missed dunks in mid-July. That’s cool. Basketball is fun. Let’s get to October.
Pelton: Lonzomania shows no sign of fading. Whether they love him or want him to fail, fans just can’t get enough of Lonzo Ball, in no small part because he’s so fun to watch play.
Ball will be one of the defining stories of next season, particularly if the Golden State Warriors are running away with the Western Conference and the question of who will win the championship isn’t a key topic of discussion.