The NBA Summer League system has become quite the spectacle over the past several years which provides a stopgap in a long summer otherwise without professional basketball. Las Vegas outshines its Orlando and Utah counterparts, but they all provide a platform for overreactions and naive optimism for fans of every team. As we find out season after season, Summer League does not strongly correlate with the final outcome of these players, but here are a few things we learned during Summer League as we keep a watchful eye on the NBA’s newest players.
It’s a Lakers’ Summer and We’re All Just Living In It
It pains me to say this, because I’m just further fueling the media fire that favors large market superpowers, but the Lakers had the most impressive Summer League output. However, unlike the Lakers past few bland seasons, all of the attention is deserved this time around. They sported the most polarizing player in this year’s draft in Lonzo Ball, an underwhelming sophomore who showed vast improvement in his limited time in Brandon Ingram, an overachieving late 1st rounder in Kyle Kuzma, and even a feel good underdog story in Alex Caruso. Not only that, the Lakers also won the categories that don’t really matter as we march on slowly towards the regular season. Lonzo Ball won Summer League MVP, Kyle Kuzma won Summer League Finals MVP, the Lakers won the Summer League championship, and they visibly had the most fans by a large margin of any other team due to proximity and expansive fan base.
Lonzo played how the #2 pick should play, and Alex Caruso most likely will not be someone the Lakers rely on once they start winning. The two most exciting components for the Lakers are the improvements Brandon Ingram showed in one game and the surprising play of Kyle Kuzma who was chosen #27 (pick acquired in Brooklyn trade as part of D’Angelo Russell trade). The best contracts in the NBA are rookie contracts and max contracts, so hitting with late first rounders and second rounders are a great way to build a contender. Pair that with their market power of Los Angeles, and you have a blueprint for building a contender in 2-4 years depending how free agency shakes out for them.
The Marquee Draftees Fulfilled Their Hype
The prospects that headlined the 2017 draft came out full force in Summer League in a mostly impressive showing. Only one player (Ntilikina, NYK) did not participate out of the top-10. Markelle Fultz (PHI), Lonzo Ball (LAL), Jayson Tatum (BOS), Josh Jackson (PHX), De'Aaron Fox (SAC), and Dennis Smith (DAL) all showed that they will be able to immediately contribute for their respective teams.
– As a Sixers rite of passage, Markelle Fultz has already suffered an injury as a rookie which kept him out of most of the Summer League games. Fortunately for the Sixers it was a minor ankle injury, and he will easily be ready by training camp. In his limited action, he showed he was a safe pick at #1, though his leadership and assertiveness still need improvement.
– Lonzo Ball was polarizing. He made his teammates better, which is what most of the great NBA players of the past has been able to achieve. If passing and court vision were his only NBA level skills, he would still find a place in the league. That’s how strong he already is in that facet of his game, and you can see his style of play influence how his teammates play the game more loosely and confident.
– Jayson Tatum played solid, which is all Boston will need out of him in year one. He showed can score inside, outside, with his back to the basket, and facing up. He should quickly find his pace in a limited role for the reigning #1 seed in the East. If you are not familiar with his game, I recommend checking out his Summer League highlight package.
– Josh Jackson was smooth this Summer League. He quietly had a group of great games and was able to score in a variety of ways within the flow of the offense. The Suns could have something special coming together down in Phoenix.
– Dennis Smith was a nightmare athletically for opposing defenses. He could become a Steve Francis/Russell Westbrook scorer with his current skillset, and of course has room for growth. The Dallas Mavericks have a steal at pick number nine as long as he can stay healthy.
– De'Aaron Fox was the least impressive statistically of this group, but his intangibles are what makes him such an attractive prospect. His leadership, speed, and competitiveness is something that every team needs. That drive is infectious in motivating teammates, especially during a long 82 game season where a lot of guys lose their fire during stretches of the season. It will be interesting to see his improvements and production during the preseason and regular season.
The Late First Rounders, Caleb Swanigan & Kyle Kuzma
As I referenced earlier, great teams find guys that can contribute in the late first round or second round. These are the best value contracts in the NBA. Caleb Swanigan (POR) and Kyle Kuzma (LAL) (whom we rated as the 16th best overall prospect) stuck out the most in the 20-30 range of the first round.
Caleb Swanigan, big man out of Purdue, quietly had a great Summer League and helped lead the Trailblazers to the final game in Las Vegas. In 8 games, which is a larger sample size than most, Swanigan averaged a double-double with 16.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game. He put up his best game in the championship with 25 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 assists.This was a perfect example of how small-to-mid market teams are at a disadvantage with the media power as we didn’t hear much about Swanigan, but don’t let that overshadow that value that the Blazers have potentially found with the 26th pick. Swanigan bullied smaller guys in the post, showed great footwork, impressive passing, and stepped out to knock down three pointers. It will be interesting to see how many minutes he gets at PF vs C this year for the Blazers, but he should fit well with Lillard and McCollum. He could be a great small ball center with his shooting and passing ability, but Nurkic will most likely begin the season as the starting center for the Blazers.
One of my favorite moves he displayed several times was the drive hand off/screen. This is harder to defend than a typical pick and roll, because the screener starts with the ball in their hands. It’s almost impossible to hedge the screen, because Swanigan is a real threat to take the ball to the hoop. This should be a fun set to watch with Lillard and McCollum coming off the handoff instead of Jake Layman.
Kuzma, who coincidentally went one pick after Swanigan at number 27 to the Lakers, got HOT during Summer League. He averaged 20.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3 assists per game on 48.4 FG% and 45.5 3P%. He was drafted as a power forward, but it looks like he has the talent and quickness to develop into a reliable small forward as well. It appears that Kuzma will be a direct beneficiary of the Lonzo Ball treatment. Watch Kuzma get several easy layups and open jumpers from Ball in this video. We will see how his shooting evens out during the season as Kuzma was a streaky shooter in college, but Kuzma is primed to become a bargain for the Lakers. He could cause matchup problems against certain NBA lineups, especially those with power forwards that have trouble defending behind the arc and small forwards who struggle with post defense.
The Second Year Veterens, Jaylen Brown and Brandon Ingram
Jaylen Brown is only 20 years old, and showed mixed results in his second Summer League. He began with a godly 29 point, 13 rebound performance, but he actually put up poor offensive numbers after that game, finishing with 10.3 ppg average of 30.3 FG%. Luckily for the Celtics and Brown, he will not be a top-3 option on offense and will be able to focus on his strengths while continuing to develop his scoring and playmaking.
Ingram is another extremely young second year player. Unlike Brown, Ingram quit while he was ahead after scoring 26 points in his first and only Summer League game. It would have been nice to see Ingram in more games, but he showed an improved ability to create his own shot which is important with his skinny frame. He only averaged 9.4 ppg in 28.8 mpg on poor shooting splits last season, so his efficiency and output both need to improve in year two. He should be fun to watch alongside a young Lakers squad this season.
Dante Exum, technically a third year player, has been victimized by injuries in his first two seasons. However, he is currently healthy and showed that he can be a George Hill type of point guard who controls the tempo of the game with the ability to hit open threes and floaters over bigs. He is a very different point guard from Ricky Rubio and could be a great pairing with Rubio in Utah. He is another case of “if he can stay healthy”, so we will see how many game he actually plays this season.
The Utah Jazz Ease Their Breakup
After Gordon Hayward left Utah Jazz in free agency to reunite with his former college coach Brad Stevens in Boston, the Jazz caught a little case of Summer League fever as Donovan Mitchell dominated Utah Summer League. It is critical for any team to draft effectively, but even more so for a small market team like the Jazz. Luckily for Jazz fans, the team has historically drafted key franchise players well in John Stockton, Karl Malone, Paul Millsap, Deron Williams, and Gordon Hayward. That’s a great group to claim over an approximately thirty year period for a team that can’t afford to tank and has had only four top-10 picks over that same span.Their problem lies in retaining players and finding max level free agents that are willing to play in Utah. The Jazz may have found their next franchise star once again.
In five Summer League games, the 6’2 combo guard out of Louisville averaged 24 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 3.7 steals per game. It is unclear how those stats will translate in a real NBA game, but at the very least it is providing Utah with the hopeful optimism that we expect to find during Summer League. Mitchell will need to continue improvement on playmaking, especially in the pick and roll to build upon his success going into the regular season, but he had one of the best performances of Summer League with 37 points and 8 steals. Mitchell was drafted at #13 after the Jazz traded Trey Lyles and the #24 pick (Tyler Lydon) to the Denver Nuggets to acquire the pick.
Buyers of Donovan Mitchell stock beware though. It’s easier for a player like Donovan Mitchell to be disruptive on the defensive end in Summer League. The players have very little chemistry and time to practice together. His ability to create steals and fast break opportunities may not translate well to regular season NBA games.
The Long-Term Projects
Every draft, there are players chosen based on their ceiling rather than their current level of talent, which makes evaluating prospects that much more difficult at this early junction in their careers. This year definitely seemed to produce less “projects” in the lottery, but Jonathan Isaac (ORL), Lauri Markkanen (CHI), and Zach Collins (POR) are lottery draftees that, quite frankly, had underwhelming Summer League performances.
– Zach Collins was brought into complement Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and should theoretically have an easier time adjusted to his role with the Blazers as it will be limited, which is similar to his role at Gonzaga which he proved to be very effective.
– Markkanen, a player who we viewed as a major reach at 7, is going to have trouble getting open shots for Chicago Bulls team that is going to be one of the worst in the league. I’d expect him to have a rough rookie season, but he should have limitless playing time and a long rope to learn and improve.
– Isaac, who was expected to be a project from the start, is joining a weirdly accumulated roster in Orlando. The Magic have a plethora of wings in Aaron Gordon, Terrence Ross, Jonathan Simmons, Mario Hezonja, and Evan Fournier. He should find some playing time, but this will be a year of development for him.
It’s not all trouble for these guys though, as we learn every year that Summer League does not have a strong correlation with success in the NBA. Some current all-stars struggle to find their form even for a few seasons: Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Gordon Hayward stick out off the top of my head. Luckily for them, these guys are lottery picks and will have at least three years of being given the benefit of the doubt to blossom into the potential player they were chosen as. It was disappointing not to get a look at Frank Ntilikina (NYK), who is looking at a long road ahead as well.
Two way contracts and the development of the G League
One of the changes the league implemented heading into next season is the addition of two, two-way contracts for each team. These contracts are guaranteed money that allow teams to develop their prospects in the G-League and the opportunity to play with their respective NBA team up to 45 days over the course of the season. With the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver on a long path of restructuring the G-League into a proper minor league system, this move will be beneficial to teams and players alike expanding the NBA rosters from 15 to 17 players (that is 60 more jobs in the NBA than last year). This makes Summer League all the more interesting as fringe NBA players are now able to lock up contracts well before training camp with hot performances and GM’s are able to invest more resources in these prospects. This raises the stakes of Summer League even higher for undrafted free agents and second round picks.
There have been 19 players to sign or reportedly sign two-way contracts as of July 19 that would have otherwise been unsigned at this point during the summer. A perfect example, Alex Caruso played his way into a two-year, two-way deal during Summer League that guarantees him money from the Los Angeles Lakers. Caruso will probably never see significant time with the Lakers, but he is now able to make at least $75,000 per year as opposed to the $26,000 for one-way G-League contracts. He will also be eligible to earn a portion of the NBA rookie minimum for days spent on the Lakers roster, which is approximately $816,000 prorated up to 45 days. His potential earnings can now be as much as $279,000 over each of the next two seasons, whereas in the past he would only earn the $26,000 G-League salary, plus any 10-day contracts he MIGHT have received from the Lakers. This is great for players like Caruso, but will probably not benefit players who believe they can secure one of the 15 one-way NBA contracts each team has to offer. Torrey Craig (DEN) and Eric Griffin (UTA) are other examples of players that have earned contracts with their impressive Summer League performances this year.
This is a great step forward for the league and is a stepping stone to begin incentivizing talent to spend time in an NBA affiliated developmental system. Expect more changes that include higher earning power for G-Leaguers in coming years that slowly turn Summer League into a higher stakes event and more important tool for recruiting.
The Troy Williams Predicament
The Houston Rockets need to sign Troy Williams to a multi-year contract ASAP. There are two main reasons: 1. Troy Williams could develop into a reliable 3&D wing player that can play SG or SF on a cheap contract for a legitimate contender. 2. At the very least, Williams can be a prospect in a potential package at the trade deadline to acquire their short term “missing piece” in pursuit of a championship after giving up most of their prospects in the sign and trade for Chris Paul.
Troy Williams is not Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball, etc., but Williams could be an important cog in the Houston Rocket’s system. He is merely an undrafted sophomore who will most likely fight for a roster spot throughout a lackluster career, and he will probably not be the NBA hero who inevitably takes down the evil empire known as the Golden State Warriors. However, Troy Williams is worth the risk for the Rockets as he will probably demand a relatively cheap salary.
Williams played well in Summer League averaging 22 points in five games. He is a 6’6 hyper athletic wing with potential to be a reliable two-way player. He literally bounced around from the D League, Memphis Grizzlies, and Houston Rockets last season, but he showed flashes of talent and reliability throughout. The undrafted sophomore wing has shown this summer that he can turn his elite athleticism into points, hustled all over the court, and was visibly set the tone of the game for his teammates, which are all valuable commodities on bench units around the league. In a market where Tony Snell and Solomon Hill can demand $12 million a year in the modern NBA, surely a 22 year old Williams can AT LEAST land a roster spot on the Rockets, right? Well, hold on a second. The Rockets have signed PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute this offseason, as well as a seemingly imminent trade to acquire Carmelo Anthony (Ryan Anderson would be gone in this scenario). Add in Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, and James Harden, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call a hot mess of a positional logjam for Troy Williams.
Troy Williams main concern is that he has been wildly inconsistent, but the great thing about the Rockets’ situation is that they don’t need him to be consistent. They need him to come in with electricity off the bench. They are already loaded with experience, talent, and consistency.
A player of Williams caliber is looking for two things, a long term contract or playing time to prove they are worth a long term contract. The Rockets can’t offer playing time, and are probably hesitant to offer anything long term to a player who may never even see time on the court. The Rockets will be over the salary cap and will to before the next few years. This would be a perfect opportunity for them to retain and lock in a prospect, who at the very least be used in a trade package to acquire their “missing piece” at the trade deadline.
The problem for the Rockets is that Williams may believe he can sign with a team such as the Nets, Pistons, Hawks, etc. that will allow him to play more NBA minutes that could unlock higher, long term earnings moving forward.