SUMMER LEAGUE PERFORMANCES IN VEGAS can be, for lack of a better word, a mirage. [I’ll show myself out.] Every year, there are random dudes who come out of the woodwork and catch fire to an unsustainable degree for a couple weeks before immediately receding back to the margins of the professional basketball world. These fluky breakouts are always fun, but the negative effect of them is the proliferation of the idea that Summer League is nonsense and what a guy does there basically can’t matter.
But we know this isn’t true, right? There is meaning to be derived from Summer League, if you know where and how to look. There are the untalented try-hards who struggle with the speed and athleticism of the NBA game; they aren’t really worth discussing, but I hope they enjoy their time living abroad. There are the dudes who find their level at Summer League and have those fluky-type performances. Again, nice stories, but teams aren’t looking for them. Then, there’s the cream of the crop, the guys who are clearly better than the environment in which they temporarily find themselves. They look to be a playing a different game than the dregs around them, and it’s safe to assume they won’t be forced to lower themselves to this level of competition in future seasons. I call them the graduates, and they are the focus today. Let’s take a look at some guys who excelled in Summer League play in a way that portends success when the real games begin. And where else to start but with…
Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies: The MVP of both the Summer League and the Championship was a revelation for the “champion” Grizzlies. Clarke averaged 14.7/ 9.8/ 2.0 and 1.8 blocks per outing on 55% shooting in only 22 minutes per game, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. His athleticism on the interior and in transition popped off the screen, and he showed a mature feel for the game, improved shooting mechanics, and command of defensive principles. He fell to no. 21 in the draft due to his perceived lack of upside (he’ll be 23 by the time the season starts) and questions about whether he can extend his shooting range, but even if those concerns prove valid, it looks like he is going to make a lot of teams regret passing on him. I look at Clarke and see a rich man’s Kenneth Faried. Brandon is the same type of high-energy, bouncy scorer/rebounder, but with a chance to be a borderline-elite defensive player (very much unlike the Manimal). In 2015-16, Faried averaged 17.7 pts and 12.3 rebs per 36 minutes with Denver in his age-26 season, and that feels like a reasonable statistical floor for prime Clarke. [Pascal Siakam and John Collins both also feel like reasonable comps, though I won’t go so far as the folks likening him to a young Shawn Marion just yet.] The paint is going to be a no-fly zone with the combination of Clarke and Jaren Jackson, Jr., and their offensive games should also mesh well (along with the scoring and playmaking of Ja Morant). It’s impossible to project anything more than a few years down the line in today’s NBA, but the Grizzlies’ future looks phenomenal.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, New Orleans Pelicans: I have a soft spot for NAW, and having seen him several times in-person at Virginia Tech, I had a sense he was going to be a steal in the draft. After seeing him convincingly prove he is far too good for Summer League, I am happy to have been right. The 6-5 combo guard dazzled with an array of passes and finishes using both hands, wrapping up his four games in Vegas with averages of 24.3 pts, 4.8 rebs, 6.0 asts, and 2.8 stls in 30.5 minutes. He looks like he could battle for early minutes with the Pels, even amid a crowded guard/wing rotation. The marriage of team and player should be a healthy, happy one for a long time. Welcome to NAWlins.
Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks: It’s not a great sign the Knicks sent most of their projected starting lineup to Vegas and didn’t even do that well, but don’t blame it on second-year big Robinson. He shot an alarming 85% from the field over five games to the tune of 13.8 pts, 10.6 rebs, and 3.8 blocks per contest. He basically had overmatched opponents voiding their bowels at the rim on both ends of the floor, and when dudes who don’t even have contracts are making “business decisions,” you know it’s terrifying. There are legitimate reasons for concern about a number of New York’s young prospects (the good, bad, and ugly of RJ Barrett’s performance is a subject for another day), but they have to feel good knowing nothing about Robinson’s surprising play from last season was a fluke. Dude is gonna stick.
Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn Nets: This one feels unfair, as I could have told you before the games in Vegas began Allen was too good to be playing with all these bottom-feeders. I suppose the Nets just wanted to get him some more game reps and let him stretch his wings a bit as a player, but from what I saw, it appeared he mostly camped out in the paint and yammed on fools who had no chance of stopping him. The Nets would have been better served sending DeAndre Jordan to Summer League, if nothing else just to make him earn every red cent of the blood money he extorted from them as part of landing Kevin Durant. But I digress. Don’t send Jarrett Allen to Vegas anymore, Nets. He’s way too good.
Lonnie Walker IV, San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs’ first-round pick from 2018 suffered through an injury-plagued rookie year and never got a real opportunity to crack the rotation for a playoff team. Now that we’ve seen him healthy, though? Damn, it seems like San Antonio has done it again. The Miami product looks the part of a do-everything shooting guard, with athleticism to spare, nice touch, and the potential to be an elite defender. DeMar DeRozan can opt out of his contract after this season and become an unrestricted free agent, and if Walker can stay healthy and take advantage of additional opportunity, the Spurs might just be OK with letting the 4-time All-Star walk. In any case, San Antonio’s young back court trio of Walker, Dejounte Murray, and Derrick White should bring a scary level of scoring, playmaking, athleticism, and perimeter defense for many years to come. [As an aside, it feels like there are a ton of teams about whom we can make similar pronouncements at this point. It increasingly looks like we are entering a golden age of overall talent in the league. I mean, outside of maybe Charlotte, Washington, New York, Cleveland, and Phoenix, are there any rosters that look legitimately terrible on paper? Basically every other team is blessed with top-line talent, tremendous depth, or a combination of the two.]
Tyler Herro, Miami Heat: A polarizing choice on draft night, it looks as though Kentucky coach John Calipari may have been keeping yet another top prospect under wraps with his star-stacking, egalitarian approach. Herro displayed the shooting touch most expected in Vegas, but he also flashed an advanced off-the-bounce game and more playmaking flair than what we saw at UK. [It’s like Devin Booker deja vu.] I don’t know if it will all translate when the bright lights come on and the defenders are bigger, faster, and stronger, but if the theory of nominative determinism is to be believed, then big things are ahead for Miami’s new folk, erm, favorite.
Anfernee Simons, Portland Trail Blazers: Much like Lonnie Walker, Simons is another 2018 first-round pick who didn’t get much run for a playoff team last year, and also flashed top-shelf athleticism and shot creation against lesser competition in Summer League. “Don’t Call Me Penny” Simons averaged 22.0 ppg on efficient 56% shooting, and along with fellow youngsters Nassir Little and Zach Collins, gives Portland a path to additional stars to flank Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and/or valuable trade assets to bring in more veteran help. A lot of folks are going to overlook Portland amid the revamped West next season, but don’t be surprised if they are in the mix with the top-tier squads.
- Carsen Edwards, Boston Celtics: He is what he thought he was — an undersized, spark plug bench guard who is going to be a professional bucket-getter and nothing more.
- Tony Bradley, Utah Jazz: I don’t know why, I’ve just always liked this guy. He possesses a legit NBA body and athleticism, but it’s taken him some time to come out of his shell as a “raw” talent, so it was refreshing to see him look like more of a real basketball player in Vegas.
- Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards: I’m not super-high on him and feel like he was a bit over-drafted, but to his credit, he came out and looked like an actual talent, averaging 19-and-7 on 50% shooting, albeit in only 3 games. I’m reserving judgment, but it was an encouraging start.
- Zhaire Smith, Philadelphia 76ers: You can read a well-written profile of him here. The development of his jumper will determine his ceiling, but damn, the athleticism and defensive potential are real. With all the other assets Philly has burned to assemble the current team, they are going to need him to play a role.
- Jaxson Hayes, New Orleans Pelicans: For a guy labeled as a “raw” athlete, he showed a fairly diverse skill set and developing footwork. He’ll have a long way to go to master NBA defensive principles and smooth out the rough edges, but the ingredients are certainly there, and further along than many would have thought at this point. And, umm, not a lot of dudes can do this:
New Orleans has got to be pretty damn pleased with their summer.
Unless there are any more earth-shaking transactions over the next couple weeks — never something we should bet against, given how this offseason has gone so far — the column will be on a brief hiatus, but check back for more great content coming soon. Thanks for reading!
Top Photo Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports