By Rahul Lal
I get it, I get it. The amount of times I’ve been told ‘calm down, it’s only the summer league’ has become frequent but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.
Just about every current NBA superstar displayed flashes of brilliance in years past, albeit against weaker competition during the summer league. While it is unfair to judge certain players based on a few games in the summer league, we can look back and reflect on what we saw compared to what we expected and try to figure out how a player can develop. It’s a science, trust me.
With that being said, the top 10 players in this draft were often considered to be the only big names but, as we saw, many players drafted outside of the top 10 led their teams to victory and played better than their draft selection (I’m looking at you, Denzel Valentine). Second year players also dominated the summer league as they’re expected to.
Let’s take a look at some of the most polarizing top-tier players in this year’s summer league.
Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers)
Simmons did just about everything needed to justify himself as the rightful top overall pick. Simmons showed us the passing ability that reminded us of, yes, I’m going to say it… Magic Johnson. He would effortlessly glide down the court, break into the middle and find the perfect amount of flash to still create an open shot for his teammates. Somehow, he’s a better passer than we all anticipated and is a respectable defender using his length and size to affect the game.
Simmons only averaged 10.8 points per game off 32 percent shooting – not eye popping. Now factor in that he was one of the only legitimate threats on that team (despite so many high draft picks over the years) and often faced double teams. Now add in 7.7 rebounds per game and 5.5 assists (would’ve been upwards of eight assists per game if his teammates were better finishers). Bottom line, Simmons is a serious talent and makes the players around him better as well. When he gets some more talented players around him in the fall, even the skeptics will have to give in a bit.
Brandon Ingram (Los Angeles Lakers)
Summer league was a mixed bag for the second overall pick. While he only averaged 12.2 points and 4.2 rebounds on 41.2 percent shooting, he also showed those flashes that I talked about above. Those flashes were enough to excite just about any Lakers fan and make them sure that Ingram would be a force in a short amount of time.
Ingram had to play second fiddle to D’Angelo Russell who was on fire throughout the entire summer league dominating the game and showing an aggression that he must have learned from that guy who retired last year (he wore number 24, I think). Ingram’s second-year teammate in Larry Nance Jr. and fellow rookie Ivica Zubac played well above expectations as well leaving little room for gaudy stat lines.
Ingram showed that while thin, he knows how to use his body and his length by coming out of nowhere to swat balls away on the defensive side and he showed a veteran’s arsenal on the offensive end, consisting of hesitation moves, spins and the ability to flat out beat his defender. When Russell and Nance Jr. sat out the final game, we got to see a taste of what Ingram is capable of when he plays aggressively and it resulted in 22 points, five rebounds and four assists on 9 of 13 shooting and two three-pointers. Lakers fans have plenty of reason to be excited about their future between Ingram, Russell, Nance Jr., Zubac and Jordan Clarkson, who sat out of summer league. Keep in mind, Clarkson is the oldest of these players at only 24.
Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Jaylen Brown exceeded most peoples’ expectations in the summer league. While being drafted third overall back in May raised some eyebrows, Brown raised those same eyebrows even more by scoring 66 points over his final three games. He showed his ability to handle the ball given his size, played some tough-nosed defense and played with a passion that makes good players play better when called upon.
His biggest problem, like Simmons, is his shooting – something that can be learned. Brown shot a miserable 30.7 percent from the field but showed the sign of a great player by getting to the line, on average, over 10 times a game. He is not afraid of contact and can really make an imprint on the game on both sides of the ball in multiple ways.
Dragan Bender (Phoenix Suns)
Dragan Bender struggled. Point blank. Bender can be very good and has plenty of things you can’t teach like basketball IQ, size and natural versatility but he has a lot of figuring out to to do before he can reach his potential. Most thought Bender would be a bit more NBA-ready given his playing time against professionals in Europe over the last few years but transitioning over to a new league that is much more physical and quicker proved to have its troubles for the teenager.
It’s important to remember that while he’s talented, he won’t be ready to seriously contribute for a little longer than expected. Additionally, he can’t contribute until his confidence rises and he gets more comfortable on the court. The first step for the Suns as an organization is to figure out exactly what position Bender is and to start polishing his game to play that position. Bender was outshined by fellow Sun Devon Booker (he outshined everyone in the summer league on the whole), Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ullis.
Kris Dunn (Minnesota Timberwolves)
Dunn didn’t look like a rookie. He played only two games in the Vegas summer league before suffering a concussion and being rested but scored 48 points off 19-for-35 shooting in those two games. Dunn looked like he didn’t belong in the summer league and was playing at the level of second-year players Russell, Booker and Emmanuel Mudiay.
While we didn’t get to see Dunn as much as we would like, he proved to us that he should be an immediate threat to Ricky Rubio’s playing time and that it’s only a matter of time before he takes over to add onto the young but lethal core for the T-Wolves. One of the few downsides to his game is that he was overaggressive on the defensive side of the ball, accumulating way too many fouls in those two games.
But, given his defensive abilities, you can’t be upset with him for trying to take advantage of his match-ups. To give an idea of just how great this Timberwolves organization is, they won the summer league with each of their last three top overall picks watching from the sidelines – two of them were named Rookie of the Year, by the way.
Buddy Hield (New Orleans Pelicans)
The stats looked good on the surface – 16.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists. Now think about the percentages – 32.7 percent from the field, 22.9 percent from three… not as exciting. In total, Hield scored 84 points on 98 shots. Hield also never had a game where he attempted fewer than seven three-pointers and totaled 11 made out of 48 total threes. No bueno – especially for a guy who was hailed as the best shooter in the draft.
This kind of reminds me of another name we’ve heard a lot lately – J.R. Smith. And no, it has nothing to do with Hield’s nickname being Buddy Love. Don’t overreact, Pelicans fans, Hield will be fine, he just needs time to get comfortable and play with more offensive threats around him considering the only other player assured to make the roster is fellow draft pick, Cheick Diallo. Buddy Love is too experienced, polished and driven to not make a difference, it will just take some time for him to learn the difference between effective and efficient.
Jamal Murray (Denver Nuggets)
Murray played second fiddle to second-year players Emmanuel Mudiay and Gary Harris for the first two games of the summer league. In his final three, those two sat out and Murray shined. Murray posted 29, 20 and 29 in those three games, respectively. Even more impressive, he shot a combined 46.8 percent from the field – a very good number for someone controlling the flow of the game and facing double-teams on nearly every play.
Beyond the statistics, Murray showed a willingness to take the tough shot and not shy away from contact. He played much bigger on the boards than anybody anticipated, averaging five rebounds per game from the point guard position and showed intense effort by not stopping for anything. Giving a taste of what he’s capable of, Murray posted 29 points on 13 of 26 shooting along with seven rebounds, three assists and a couple of threes for good measure in his final summer league game. He is an ideal fit next to the shooting-deficient Mudiay in Denver.
Marquese Chriss (Phoenix Suns)
The second member of the Phoenix Suns, Chriss showed his through the roof potential even while having to sit out a few games with an illness. We already knew Chriss was an athletic freak, we already knew that his footwork was going to be solid and we knew that he had a good jumper, but this was the first chance we really got to see it on display while surrounded by other NBA talents.
Chriss played on a stacked Suns team (when was the last time we said that?) and made the most while staying within his opportunities – something important for a young player who is still developing his game. His defensive IQ was definitely lacking but, coupled with his natural defensive talents, can turn into a strength with experience. Overall, Chriss is probably a little more NBA-ready than most projected and Suns fans should be pretty content with 10 points and nine boards a game in limited opportunities by the raw big man.
Jakob Poeltl (Toronto Raptors)
Even while watching Poeltl play, he never seemed to stand out. While he’s a solid player who does what is expected out of him, he didn’t necessarily impress over the summer. Poeltl only averaged 25 minutes a game and just over four shots attempted per game. His rebounding and blocking numbers were about as expected but it would’ve been nice to see Poeltl hit double figures at least once in either of the two categories.
Overall, while it was a solid performance by the big man, he left a lot to be desired but will also get a great chance to learn under fellow European big man, Jonas Valanciunus about how to make his mark next year.
The holder of probably the most interesting player in this draft. Some thought he would be absolutely useless for at least a few years while others think he could be the perfect running mate for similarly freakish Giannis Antetokounmpo. Maker’s first two games hit an average of 16 points with 15 rebounds – pretty impressive for a guy playing high school basketball just a few months ago. The kid is loaded with potential just like his new teammate, Antetokounmpo.
The other side came in his third game when he somehow found a way to foul out of an NBA summer league game with 10 fouls. At 7’1″, Maker plays a beautiful style of basketball that has a mix of power and grace bound together by talent and athleticism. With the exception of that one game, Maker played pretty well and looks to be much farther along than previously expected – albeit with a few poor moments along the way. As his shooting and decision making gets better, so will his impact on a game.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.