(Note: this is the same intro that ran with part 1, and if you have already read part one you can skip ahead to the players below)
Anytime anyone ever tweets/writes/thinks about a rookie’s performance during summer league the phrase “It’s only Summer League, but….” is somehow involved. Historically there are just too many examples of bad NBA players playing phenomenally well or future mainstays in the league dramatically disappointing in Summer League to take the results from Summer League with much more than a grain of salt. Logically, it is easy to debunk both good and bad performance in SL. If someone plays poorly it just means they haven’t yet adjusted to the speed and length of the athletes they’re playing against or they’re being forced to play a role that doesn’t suit them, but in the NBA they eventually adjust and/or are able to find a role that maximizes their skill set. On the other side, someone playing great might be scoring in ways that won’t translate against NBA defenses which are both more athletic, and much smarter about game planning to stop opponents.
So, figuring out what matters and what doesn’t in SL is really hard. Generally, as Kevin Ferrigan outlined in this string of tweets…
To quickly rehash a conversation I just had with @jzmazlish re: summer league and what can be gleaned.
— Kevin Ferrigan (@NBAcouchside) July 14, 2015
…if a rookie plays really well and does it in ways that can translate to the NBA level that is probably a good sign about their future. Otherwise, there might be something to be gleaned, but there is probably nothing of great value to learn from their SL performance.
From a statistical perspective, Kevin Pelton did some research on SL and found that for rookies SL stats do have some predictive value, specifically “shot-blocking and rebounding translate particularly well” but 3-point percentage, 2-point percentage, offensive rebounding, steals and usage rate all failed to translate.
Combining knowledge of what stats matter, and what should matter from an overall perspective, hopefully, something can be learned from how the rookies did in Summer League. I didn’t watch quite as much SL as I wanted to so I don’t have opinions on all the rookies, but for the ones I did get the chance to watch somewhat closely here are my thoughts. Without further ado, it’s only summer league, but……
Devin Booker (PHX) started SL off shooting somewhat shakily from the field but ended really strong with a couple fantastic performances. Booker was given a much larger creation role than he had at Kentucky, and likely much larger than the opportunity he will get in Phoenix’s crowded backcourt. Booker still struggled to get all the way to the rim, largely settling for pull-up jumpers, but his poised demeanor on the offensive end showed. His speed and handle aren’t elite, but his first step looked good against SL competition, which allowed him to create space for those pull-ups. When he did get to the rim, Booker did a great job of extending right to the rim like he did at Kentucky, not trying to contort his body to avoid shot blockers. On the defensive end, Booker was much shakier, failing to really impact the game and struggling on closeouts. Booker still strikes me as more Anthony Morrow than Klay Thompson, but he showed enough handling and creating for himself that I’m a little more optimistic about his NBA future.
Trey Lyles (UTA) remains one of the more vexing players for me to think about in this year’s draft class. His movement and coordination when attacking from the perimeter is really outstanding for a man his size, and with a strong first step and good feel for attacking he does a great job creating lanes for himself. However, his three-point shot is still way too flat, and if defenses don’t respect his three he’s going to have a tough time getting into the lane and largely will have to rely on pull-up mid-rangers, which is far from ideal for a backup 4. His defense in SL wasn’t great, he provides almost no rim protection and his lateral mobility doesn’t at all match the quickness of his first step. His NBA career probably comes down to whether he can shoot the ball from 3 at a >33% clip. If not, he’s an inefficient scorer who doesn’t finish well inside and is below average on the defensive end. He shoots the ball with good form and a lot of confidence, but the shot is really flat and hasn’t gone in at an even close to acceptable rate in SL or NCAA play.
Myles Turner (IND) didn’t get the same spotlight as some other rookies due to only playing in Orlando, but in his time on the court he was as spectacular as any rookie who played in SL. Freed from Rick Barnes spacing cramped Texas team and with improved running motion Turner was a true inside-outside threat at SL. Turner did a great job rolling down the lane hard in screen actions and with his frame and soft touch is very effective catching the ball on the roll in the dead 8-15 foot area. Turner was dangerous because he not only rolled so effectively, but also flashed the ability to pop out to 18 feet comfortably, and even nailed a couple above the break threes. Indiana also let Turner post up some, and though he remained a little too contact averse his ability to nail fadeaways and face up J’s is darn impressive. Amazingly, Turner’s offense wasn’t even the best part as he averaged 5.9 blocks per-40, using his length and impeccable timing to be a menace at the rim. Turner’s movement in space looked good, his shot looked good, and his shot blocking looked great. I was high on him pre-draft, but still think I might’ve been too low; overall he had the best SL of any rookie who played.
Justise Winslow (MIA) was given a lot of opportunity with the ball in Orlando but played a lesser role in Vegas due to some slight injury concerns. In Orlando, Winslow was given the chance to run some pick and roll, and while he showed good patience and some nice change of pace he struggled to create good looks for himself or others. What’s worrying is that his low FG% wasn’t as much about inability to hit shots, but more about inability to create good ones. Additionally, on the extremely small sample that it was, Winslow only shot 31% from three; an area of his game in which skepticism is justified. The noticeably less intense SL game isn’t a great place for Winslow’s strengths to shine through, but his defense was still noticeably good, particularly the way he pressed up tight when facing Stanley Johnson and Emmanuel Mudiay. Winslow’s SL performance wasn’t awful, but as someone who had him #4 pre-draft I’m a bit worried that I overlooked his lack of any clearly strong offensive skill.
Frank Kaminsky (CHA) should have been expected to succeed at SL due to his age, and did not disappoint with his performance. More than anyone else it was visibly obvious that Kaminsky was in the process of adjusting to superior athletes as he played. He would attack a closeout, make a move, rise up for his shot, and the defender would be right with him. He would take a couple dribbles into the lane, look for the logical first kick out to a shooter, and find that a rotation had been made as he awkwardly picked up his dribble. However, he would also flash what made him so special with his ability to consistently nail above the break threes, attack closeouts and finish in the lane creatively, and kick to shooters off penetration like a guard.
To be the offensive stud that his skill set suggests he can Kaminsky still needs to become a more willing shooter from beyond the arc, but his ability to attack and create for himself once he gets the defense leaning toward his shot is definitely there. Kaminsky’s defense was solid, and the questions on that end have always been overblown since his mobility is solid and he has good awareness on that end. When protecting the rim Kaminsky did a good job of going straight up, but he too often just stood straight up instead of jumping straight up to make himself more imposing. He was still working out the kinks, but SL showed that Kaminsky definitely can adjust to that level of athlete, and should be able to adjust to NBA ones.
Stanley Johnson (DET) only played in Orlando like Kaminsky and Turner but also like the two of them starred in his time on the court. Johnson did a great job showing off his all-around game in SL, shooting the ball well from outside, making plays on the defensive end, and doing a good job creating shots for both himself and his teammates. Like many other rookies, Johnson didn’t get all the way to the rim consistently in the way that suggests he could in the NBA, but his advanced offensive game with floaters and pull-ups was evident. Johnson still lacks that burst to make him a go-to scoring option for a team, but he’s really above-average in almost every other area. If Johnson is given too much responsibility on offense he might devolve into an inefficient midrange/floater heavy Joe Johnson type, but if Stan Van Gundy lets him play as a 2nd/3rd option he can be really successful as a complementary scorer/spot up shooting/defensive stopper. I absolutely loved what I saw out of him in SL.
Emmanuel Mudiay (DEN) grabbed the hearts of all the Vegas bloggers with his wonderful SL play. Mudiay’s advanced feel for pick and roll was always undersold leading up to the draft, and in Vegas he got the chance to show the full arsenal. Mudiay plays with rare patience for someone his age, and his poise and creativity in manipulating the defense to either find shooters or create driving lanes for himself is exceptional. Mudiay had/has some serious warts in his play, but his quickness and ball handling combined with his vision at his size is truly rare. Mudiay also played solid defense throughout, and though someone with his tools could be even better, he’s a promising defensive prospect.
The issues for Mudiay are largely turnovers, and actually putting the ball through the hoop. Turnovers at SL aren’t that big a deal, but Mudiay has consistently had problems with his decision making at every level, and even if he develops well is still a couple years from running an offense at a high level. The other area Mudiay struggled with at SL was scoring efficiently, he didn’t shoot well from outside and didn’t finish well on the interior. Again, these are problems that are fine to have at SL, but since they have always been questions for Mudiay it is a little more worrying for him specifically. Mudiay lacks the burst to be a great finisher inside, and will need to drastically improve his outside shot or become a lot more creative with his finishing to be an efficient scorer from any area. Still, Mudiay’s ability to create shots for him and his teammates while playing good defense is awesome at his age, and his SL performance was certainly one of the most magnificent.
Willie Cauley-Stein (SAC) probably got less attention than any other lottery pick in Vegas, but as a non-scoring big doesn’t have a game suited for SL. Cauley-Stein basically did what was expected of him in SL, and I walked away without my opinion of him even considering changing. Offensively his touch around the basket was nicer than expected, but his timing and feel in pick and roll play still needs a lot of work. He wasn’t given the same opportunity to switch picks and guard on the perimeter like he was at Kentucky, but his incredible movement for a big was still obvious, and he did a good job of protecting the rim. Cauley-Stein has a ways to go mentally on both ends to become Tyson Chandler like, but he’s no Javale McGee either, and is on the right track to being a good rim and roll big with some extra juice on the defensive end.
Mario Hezonja (ORL) only played two games in SL, but still managed to give us the full Mario experience with his game-winning three, poster dunk, two consecutive missed dunks, and incessant complaining to the refs. He didn’t shoot well from outside, but his ability to get off a high volume of looks from three is impressive and bodes well for his efficiency in the NBA. Creating with the ball Mario had his hiccups, his handle is too high and rigid, he has no idea what to do with help defenders in the lane, and he only usually makes the first read on the pick and roll. Despite that, Mario consistently went by his man with his first step and flashed his quality passing vision. Mario’s shooting alone can make him a valuable offensive player, and with his athleticism and vision he can become a good weak side creator. Defensively Hezonja exceeded my expectations, he played with high energy level, did a great job staying with his man, and his experience playing high-level defense with Barcelona was obvious in the way he rotated around the court. His weaknesses are still closeouts and getting through screens, but Mario showed enough for me to be slightly more optimistic about his defensive future.
Kristaps Porzingis (NYK) was very effective in his small role he played for the Knicks SL team, but it was unclear why he didn’t get more of an opportunity to create for himself. Porzingis did some striking things at SL. His touch in the midrange areas and around the basket was really soft, his passing was much better than it had been at Sevilla, and he used his length well on defense to alter shots. A lot of people were happy with his play, but I still came away underwhelmed. He was almost completely unable to create his own shot on offense, and he doesn’t yet shoot threes with the type of volume needed to really help his team. His fluidity moving in straight lines is fine, but he still looks stiff and awkward changing directions, and it hurts him on both ends. I still see his ceiling (in terms of value, not style) as somewhat of an inverse Ibaka (his defensive value=Ibaka’s offensive, his offensive value=Ibaka’s defensive), but that’s his ceiling, and he needs to become a more dangerous shooter and think the game at a much higher level if he is going to hit that ceiling. I remain a firm skeptic.
Jahlil Okafor (PHI) had one of the more up and down SL’s, mixing in some great stretches with some disastrous ones. The worrying parts were obvious; he got his shot blocked a ton, he really struggled with turnovers, and his FT shooting continued to regress (it got worse throughout the season at Duke). That being said, Okafor had some real positives as well. Despite getting blocked a lot Okafor generated a high volume of good looks around the basket, got to the line a bunch, and played pretty solid defense throughout. The defense wasn’t necessarily positive, but it wasn’t an obvious weakness wither, and with his solid mobility and length he can probably avoid being a damaging minus on that end.
The offense was more concerning as it was clear that he is going to need to adjust to the length and athleticism of NBA bigs, and defenses in general. The fact that Jahlil still created a bunch of good looks is a great sign, and while he definitely will take some time he could still be a devastatingly efficient scorer. The good thing about Jahlil is that it is easy to argue that he can dramatically improve at all his weaknesses, the bad thing is that he has a fair amount of weaknesses he needs to improve on. SL didn’t move the needle one way or the other in regards to my opinion of him.
D’Angelo Russell (LAL) played in a Princeton system directly contrary to his strengths (pick and roll), making it hard to really judge his play. The times when Russell did get to play some pick and roll he definitely looked better, but despite all the contextual reasons I was still disappointed by his SL play. Russell only shot 11.8% from three, now it was only on 17 attempts, but looking back on things now I think I somewhat overrated how good a shooter Russell was pre-draft. He shot phenomenally well at Ohio State but didn’t come into college with that great a shooting reputation, and the chances of his OSU shooting not being representative weren’t fully accounted for in pre-draft analysis. He’s still likely to be a good, and possibly great shooter, but the chances of him struggling mightily are also there.
The most worrying thing about his SL play was his inability to create space for himself. Russell had a couple nice looking drives, but largely struggled to create any separation from his man, and didn’t probe into the paint on pick and rolls, instead settling for long jumpers. Some of his passing looks were phenomenal, but he also really struggled with his decision making, and might be even farther behind than Mudiay in that respect. One positive is that his defense was generally solid, he needs to get a lot better off the ball, but he did a good job getting low and staying with his man on the ball. Due to the toxic environment in which he was in it honestly might be more prudent to completely ignore Russell’s SL play. I’m definitely more worried than I was before the draft, but it’s very possible that this wasn’t an important indicator for Russell’s future.
Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) did a great job of showing the difference between being a good player and being a good prospect with what he did in SL. Purely as a player, Towns was far worse than many of the rookies at SL, and probably had a negative impact on his Minnesota team. He shot really poorly from the field, he air-balled threes, he turned the ball over a bunch, and he fouled at a crazy rate on defense. However, Towns was still clearly the best prospect on the court. He came up with amazing blocks at the rim, he knocked down one dribble step backs out of the mid-post, he took above the break threes, he attacked the lane with the fluidity of a guard, he dropped in beautiful running hooks, and he threw some of the most breathtaking over the head passes a big man can throw.
Vegas was a playground, and Towns was running amok trying new things. It’s clear that Towns isn’t going to be a star from day one. His defensive fundamentals really need to improve, he needs to get better at establishing position in the post, and his outside shot needs to become a lot more consistent. But Towns is still awesome; he can score from beyond the arc, in the low post, rolling to the hoop, and even in the mid-post, and he’s a rim protector who moves well in space on defense. He’s not quite the shot creator or defensive force of a truly revolutionary Lebron-level star, but he’s got everything he needs to be somewhere between very good and right in that next tier of stars.
This class as a whole was really outstanding at SL. Lottery picks mostly played great, and a bunch of guys outside of the lottery were really impressive while very few guys obviously struggled. This class looks like it could be one of the better ones in recent years, and right now it looks much better than last year’s more heralded crop.