The NBA Goes to Summer Camp


Over the last decade, the visibility of the NBA’s summer leagues have increased exponentially. NBA teams recognize the importance in getting their young players competitive run so they can grow and be scouted, and streaming allows fans to watch all the games featuring their team’s draft picks and possible contributors. Last Night’s championship in Las Vegas marks the end of the 2014 NBA Summer Leagues. Since this will be the last time we see these young players in action until October, it is a good time to look at the individual performances in the leagues to get an idea of what the next season might hold for these players and the teams they represent.

 

High Draft Picks Impress

 

Unsurprisingly, both Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker looked as advertised, but Parker looked slightly more impressive in the limited action. Both averaged over 15 points per game, and Wiggins displayed his athleticism and his ability to create his own shot, but Parker showed his polished offensive game, particularly his surprisingly good post game, in Las Vegas. Remember, it took LeBron several years in the league to develop a polished post game, so Parker entering the league with one at 19 is a huge advantage. Either way, the Bucks and Cavs should have little regret over their top picks.

 

The other Top 10 pick that turned some heads the last couple weeks is Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton. He filled the stat sheet, averaging 9.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals, and a league leading 7.0 assists per game while consistently looking like the best player in Orlando. Fellow lottery picks Marcus Smart and Gary Harris also looked solid for the Celtics and Nuggets respectively, but T.J. Warren really impressed for the Suns. Warren averaged almost 20 points per game at nearly 60% shooting, while somehow hitting no threes during his summer stint. I am not sure if Warren’s game will translate like the others’ to the NBA, but he did look like the scorer everyone thought he was coming out of NC State. Another wing, Doug McDermott, also looked as advertised, receiving All-Summer League honors after averaging 18 points per game.

 

One player that did not impress and really exemplified the term “long-term project” was the Magic’s Noah Vonleh. He may be close to 7 feet tall, but he displayed very little skill at that size. His first game, he missed all 13 shots he took and had 16 fouls over his first two games in Las Vegas. Many were concerned about Vonleh’s rawness, and if something does not improve immensely over the next couple of months, he will be spending his first couple years on the bench. Although, as Jermaine O’Neal can attest to, that may not be the worst thing for his long-term career, it’s still disappointing for a Magic team trying to improve right now.

 

Some Sophomores Reintroduce Themselves

Last year’s draft, outside of Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo, seemed to largely be a bust, but some of the top picks from the 2013 draft are using the opportunity to turn some heads. Nerlens Noel, who sat out the entire 2013-2014 season after tearing his ACL while at Kentucky, impressed many with his athleticism and his skill with the ball. He only played three games in Orlando and two in Las Vegas, and seemed to be battling a few minor injuries as he worked himself back into game shape, but as he learns to play near the rim, it looks like the Sixers patience may pay off with the big man considering he is already the defensive disruption they were hoping for when they traded Jrue Holiday for him. 2011 first-round pick Donatas Montiejunas also impressed, scoring 16.2 points per game on 62% shooting while grabbing 8.4 rebounds. Montiejunas may be able to contribute some of the stretch four skills the Rockets lost out on when Chris Bosh went back to the Heat.

 

Even the players who still struggled even though they were seemingly healthy may finally be developing into the contributors their teams hoped they would be when they drafted them last year. The 2013 top pick, Anthony Bennett, seems to finally be putting it together. His shooting is still iffy, but he looks like he finally belongs on an NBA court as he hopefully enters this season healthy. Unfortunately, he plays the same position as their newest addition, LeBron James, so even if he is only increasing his eventual trade value, the Cavs are happy that they may not have a complete bust on their hands. Fellow 2013 lottery picks Ben McLemore, Otto Porter, CJ McCollum, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have also stepped up their games, easing their team’s fears that they had wasted a draft pick last year. To be fair, McLemore did not look as bad as the others’ last seasons, but he was more consistent as as scorer than he was his first year with the Kings, who drafted another shooter in Nik Staukas this year. Like Bennett, Porter and McCollum dealt with injuries last year which limited their growth, but Porter is impressing the Wizards with his versatility and McCollum may be the shooter the Trailblazers hoped for when they took him with their 10th pick. Out of all of them, Caldwell-Pope might have the highest upside as an athletic shooting guard for the Pistons. He struggled last year with his shot, but it looked more consistent in the summer competitions and may be an important cog in getting the Pistons back to respectability.

 

The Best of the Rest

 

It was not just the high picks that made an impact in the summer league. This is a chance for overlooked players on the end of the bench to prove themselves, and a few took full advantage of the opportunity. Glen Rice Jr. was by far the most impressive, and could be a great story this year for the up-and-coming Wizards who may have added two contributors in Rice and Porter by just being patient with their young players. After trouble at Georgia Tech, Rice entered the D-League before being drafted in the second round by the 76ers and being traded to the Wizards. He averaged over 25 points a game while adding 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals. Three guys who fell later in the first round in the 2013 draft, the Bulls’ Tony Snell, the Knicks’ Tim Hardaway Jr., and the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert, are also improving as they prepare for their second years. Both Snell and Hardaway will be expected to carry a larger scoring load for their teams next year, and they may have proved they can by both averaging more than 20 points a game in the Las Vegas league. The Jazz may also have found their front court anchor in the 7’2 Gobert. The Frenchman averaged 11.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game in Sin City.

 

A few second-round picks from the last couple of years who are trying to find a role with their respective teams also made an impact in the summer leagues. The Louisville standout Russ Smith led the Vegas Summer League with 6.4 assists while adding 16 points, 5 rebounds, and 1.4 steals and may end up being the perfect first guard off the bench for the Pelicans. The 76ers’ Jordan McRae from Tennessee also impressed with his ability to score contributing 21 points a game on 50% shooting. McRae will get a lot of chances to play with the 76ers, and God knows they could using scoring from anywhere they can get, which is why Casper Ware’s solid play is also uplifting for the rebuilding Sixers. Ware went undrafted in 2012, but made an impact last year for the Sixers toward the end of the season. Ware took advantage of fellow 5’10 guard Pierre Jackson’s torn Achilles by averaging 19 points per game, good for second in the Orlando Summer League. He also added 5.2 assists per game as he competes for the backup point guard spot. McRae and Ware could be a part of an exciting second unit for a team who will be grasping for fans the next few years.
Aside from a few of the first- and second-year players, most of these players will not be stars in the league, but as the Spurs have proven over the last 15 years, you need as many skilled players as possible to support your stars, and the Summer Leagues provide us with a glimpse of who will contribute in the future. Players like Patty Mills and Jeremy Lin have made the most of their chances in the Summer League and now one is a sixth man on the defending NBA champions and the other will make almost $15 million next season. The NBA continues to have the most exciting offseason of any major American sports and the hope and excitement of the NBA summer leagues is a big reason why.