The summer is a dry time for sports, especially basketball. Baseball and the World Cup every four years are the sources of sports entertainment during the offseasons of basketball, football, and hockey. Which means events such as the NBA Summer League are going to attract all sorts of eyes for starved basketball enthusiasts.
The Summer League provides fans small sample size insights into the players their teams drafted in the lottery. It also allows players who have spent time in the G League and overseas to prove themselves and potentially make an NBA roster. It’s basically one giant tryout with some players participating just for the hell of it. Because in reality, the Summer League is a giant mirage of talent. It is not a great indicator of how good a player is going to be in the NBA. It’s essentially young G League level talent trying not to get embarrassed in front of lottery selections.
This isn’t to say there aren’t things that we can take away from Summer League. Players such as Kyle Kuzma, Damian Lillard, and John Wall have dominated Summer League in the past and went on to continue that trend into the regular season. If players are consistently taking control in the Summer League, there’s a good chance they’ll continue to build off that. But, then there are examples such as Josh Selby and Glen Rice Jr., who have both been named Summer League MVPs in the past but have long been removed from the NBA. Steph Curry shot 32.5 percent in five Summer League games back in 2009.
We can take away little tidbits, such as how players respond to defending off the ball, defending the pick-and-roll, and running plays. In my opinion, watching how players move within the offense and defense is more beneficial for us as fans than how they shoot from three or their field goal percentage. Watching for minuscule things such as how a player attacks the ball in 50/50 scenarios or if they’re reading defenses and anticipating passing lanes is a more efficient way to judge these players. Players can go through bad shooting slumps, but if they don’t have a clear grasp on fundamentals or natural awareness, that’s a solid sign of knowing how to project them as NBA players.
This Summer League has been no different in terms of evaluating talent and everything should be taken with a grain of salt, with a few exceptions. Second-year players such as John Collins (Hawks), Josh Hart (Lakers), Jordan Bell (Warriors), and even Bam Adebayo (Heat) have all shown that they have no need for the Summer League. They may not be putting up big numbers, but they have clearly been the best players on the court. It goes back to looking for smaller details and these four clearly look like tenured NBA players. Rookies such as Trae Young and Marvin Bagley III have been relatively disappointing, but that isn’t to say that will continue at all. Lauri Markkanen was the seventh overall pick in the 2017 draft and shot under 30 percent from the field in Summer League, but was one of the most productive rookies of last season and made the All-Rookie team.
These games are test trials. Exhibitions. Most of these guys haven’t been surrounded by this type of talent, even if it isn’t anything close to the NBA. This is their way of feeling it out and gaining a better understanding of how the game works at the next level. They’re encouraged to make mistakes, especially the lottery picks. Learning a new system and style of play isn’t something that can be taught overnight. For some players, it can take years before they buy into how they should play. Jeremy Lamb of the Charlotte Hornets was a Summer League success six years ago, but it wasn’t until this past season at age 26 that he became the player he was expected to be when drafted out of Connecticut.
Kevin Knox dropped an impressive 22 points in his Summer League debut for the New York Knicks, getting to the rim at will but only connecting on one of his seven three-point attempts. Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks has shot terribly from the field but displayed some dazzling passing performances. On somewhat of the flip side of that, Justin Jackson was not an NBA caliber player last season for the Sacramento Kings but averaged 17 points per game on 53 percent shooting over three games in Sacramento’s Summer League this year. The same can be said about Antonio Blakeney from the Chicago Bulls, who recently poured in 25 points during a Summer League game in Las Vegas. Do I expect either of those players to be better than Knox or Young next season? Not even a little bit.
Most Summer League players, especially the most recent draft picks, don’t have the benefit of being surrounded by NBA organizations for an extended period of time. They have to do everything they can with a limited sample size to individually prove that they belong on an NBA roster. This doesn’t apply as much to lottery/first round picks from the most recent draft, but they are still essentially being thrown into a situation with little practice time where they are expected to perform at a high level on live television.
If Knox averages 20-plus points per game for the remainder of Summer League and continues to impress like he did Saturday night, I still wouldn’t expect him to transition into the regular season like that. I’ll say the exact same thing if he doesn’t even break 10 points the rest of Summer League.
If anything, Summer League places unfair expectations and ridicule on players who haven’t even played an NBA game yet. At it’s best, it gives basketball fans something to discuss and argue about during the month of July. There is still another nine days left of the Las Vegas Summer League. All I ask is we don’t take any definitive answers out of what we see.
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