Thursday, July 20, 2017

THE 2017 NBA Summer League Report

I understand those who scoff at Summer League. From a basketball standpoint, a larger percentage of what happens in Vegas, is moot, versus the percentage that matters. I get it.

However, that's not how we get down. Our space in the web-a-verse is for the hardcores that KNOW fractions matter. A small glimmer of golden information can be the advantage that separates winning from losing.

So, as we do annually, we have dissected what we observed and audited the numbers compiled so we can be "data informed" as Len Elmore would say. We go deeper than the highlights of what the most popular players did, and no, we don't care about what brand of sneakers anybody was wearing.

So let's get to it. Who were the best of the best players in Las Vegas? 

Our Hoop Obsession All NBA Las Vegas Summer League Teams

  • First Team: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas. Kyle Kuzma, Lakers. John Collins, Atlanta. Caleb Swanigan, Portland. 
  • Second Team: Chris Johnson, Houston. Wayne Selden, Memphis. Troy Williams, Houston. Jarnell Stokes, Portland. Matt Costello, Minnesota. 
  • Third Team: Yogi Ferrell, Dallas. Mike James, Phoenix. DeAndre Bembry, Atlanta. Vince Hunter, Memphis. Deyonta Davis, Memphis. 

How did the lottery picks that played in Las Vegas fare? 

Markelle Fultz, the first pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, only played 15 minutes before leaving with a sprained ankle. Philadelphia decided to rest Fultz for the remainder of the Summer League. 

Lonzo Ball was terrific! He displayed all the tools that excite us about his game. He routinely passed ahead and hit open jump shooters on time and on target. Ball posted a 2.43-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and showed the defensive instincts that will make him a dangerous ball-hawk in the NBA. He struggled with his deep shooting (23.8% 3-pt fg.) but the rest of his game was so special it was easy to overlook his shortcomings as a shooter. Ball strengthened our belief that he should have been the first player taken in the NBA Draft. Time, of course, will tell. 

Jayson Tatum (pictured) was better in the Utah Summer League than he was in Las Vegas. He was good in Vegas but probably not nearly as good as the mainstream media outlets made him out to be (he shot 42% FG in LV). Tatum showed he can score and defend his position. His rebounding ability, in particular, was nice to witness. He will need to be a better decision maker. He was guilty of not sharing the ball enough (for our taste).  

Josh Jackson, the fourth pick in the NBA Draft, by the Phoenix Suns, struggled with his deep shooting (18.8% 3-pt. fg) but did an excellent job on the boards due to his outstanding athleticism. 

De'Aaron Fox played 85 minutes, showing his trademark speed. He also struggled mightily with his perimeter shooting, connecting on just one his eight three-point attempts. He shot 63% from the free throw line. His performance in Las Vegas was curtailed by a minor injury. 

Lauri Markkanen didn't shoot the ball well but he did show me more defensive ability than I previously believed he possessed. He is known as a shooter, so it was perhaps just a fluke in a small sample size that led him to make just 12 of 41 field goal attempts (29.3% FG). Markakanen's touch was on full display at the free throw line where he connected on 92.3% of his attempts. 

Dennis Smith Jr. (pictured) was among the best young, talented players in the showcase. The Dallas Mavericks first round choice from North Carolina State showed an ability to break down defenses off the dribble. Smith looked more like a two-guard than a point guard (in a small sample size). Defensively, we thought Smith was very good. 

Zach Collins played just 70 minutes and honestly did not look good. While he was okay defensively, he was just shy of terrible on offense (26% FG, two assists, nine turnovers). 

Donovan Mitchell played only 66 minutes in Vegas after a starring role in the Utah Summer League just days prior. Mitchell looked every bit like a two-way, top-tier guard. He impressed us to say the least. 

Bam Adebayo (pictured) was very good in Vegas. He was great in the Orlando Summer League. Adebayo showed that he has better touch than was previously believed. His nose for the ball was on display but his ability to make free throws was a nice surprise (21 of 25 (84% FT). 

Pertinent stats and per-minute leaders

Now for some real stat-geek stuff... Here are the top-five (among those who played 80 minutes minimum) in per-minute categories:
  • Points per minute: 1. Bryn Forbes, San Antonio .897, 2. Troy Williams, Houston .818, 3. Wayne Selden, Memphis .742, 4. Quinn Cook, New Orleans .691, 5. Kyle Kuzma, Lakers .683.
  • Assist-to-turnover ratio: 1. Monte Morris, Denver 4.33-to-1, 2. Trey McKinney-Jones, Miami 3.5-to-1, 3. Royce O'Neale, New Orleans 3.5-to-1, 4. Jawun Evans, Clippers 3-to-1, 5. Isaiah Taylor, Houston 2.84-to-1. 
  • Rebounds per minute: 1. Matt Costello, Minnesota .466, 2. Jordan Bell, Golden State .417, 3. John Collins, Atlanta .398, 4. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brooklyn .391, 5. Jack Cooley, Sacramento .371. 
  • Blocked shots per minute: 1. Edy Tavares, Cleveland .139, 2. Jordan Bell, Golden State .120, 3. Eric Griffin, Utah .118, 4. A.J. Hammons, Miami .086, 5. Daniel Ochefu, Washington .084. 
  • Efficiency per minute: 1. Jamil Wilson, Clippers .941, 2. Matt Costello, Minnesota .932, 3. John Collins .885, 4. Jack Cooley, Sacramento .766, 5. Cheick Diallo .763. 

Summer Growth

NBA Summer League continued to grow in 2017. The first weekend actually sold out of tickets in Las Vegas! The mass media influence should NEVER be underestimated, and the NBA was smart to align with ESPN on a deal that has the ability to invade the brains of those in an estimated 88 million households, not to mention every sports bar in the United States. The WatchESPN app reaches upwards of 40 million people at last check. So, yes, NBA Summer League is still growing and the hype reached a new apex this time around.
The set-up remains beautiful for a hoop obsessed fan. One ticket purchase ($30 for an adult) allows the fan to see the entire slate of games between the Thomas and Mack Center, and the Cox Pavilion. As many as eight games were played on some (but not all) of the eleven days of the League. Once inside the arena, you never have to go outside in the Vegas heat because the two venues are connected.

The NBA does a really good job of providing activities for the kids who are in attendance. They can test their maximum vertical leap, have their picture taken, and gather autographs from the young stars.

Despite the initial push on opening weekend, it should be noted that by day six of the League, seats were much easier to come by. Perhaps due to day six falling on a Wednesday or due to many teams "shutting down" their most promising prospects after even the smallest of agitation to an ankle or cramp to the calf. 

In the past the only place to wager on NBA Summer League games in Las Vegas was at the Westgate Super Book or one of the Station casinos off the Strip. This summer, you could add the Caesar's properties (Caesar's Palace, Harrah's, Paris, Planet Hollywood, Rio) as prime locations to place a bet. 

Perspective changes and affirmations

One of our favorite aspects of having another chance to observe prospects in a live setting is to be honest with ourselves about players we see improving. Just because we previously rated a player a certain way does not mean that they cannot gain traction in our mind. Here are our thoughts on a handful of players that came more clearly into focus... 

John Collins somehow slipped to the 20th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. For the record, we rated him eighth. Collins did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm for his potential. The 19 year-old was dominant at times. 
Sir Dominic Pointer is now simply being called "Dom". He stood out as a prospect that reaffirmed our belief in his ability to impact the game. He has more energy than 99% of the players on the floor at any given time. Heck, Pointer has more energy than 99% of the KIDS running around any given playground. While he is not a prolific jump shooter, we steadfastly maintain that Pointer brings enough to the table in his overall game to overlook the fact that he is not a consistent three-point threat. Pointer made one of his three deep-ball attempts in Las Vegas. He posted a 1.66-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, had the best Defensive Rating of any player in the league that played over 80 minutes, and he ranked eighth overall in Las Vegas Summer League efficiency per-minute. Pointer was the 53rd pick in the NBA Draft in 2015. The Cavs still hold his rights. 
Jamil Wilson (6'7", 230 lbs, age 26) played so well for the Clippers in Las Vegas they signed him to a two-way contract. We previously viewed Wilson as a wing prospect that was "close" to being an NBA player. Our view now is that Wilson is unquestionably ready. Wilson made 10 of his 16 three-point attempts and continued to show a desire to play defense with the honest effort he has always provided. The former Marquette "glue guy" played in Italy last season. He was undrafted in 2014. 

Kyle Kuzma was so much better than what my perception of his abilities were that I was embarrassed to call myself an "obsessive" scout. It is NEVER easy for me to deal with the reality that I was so wrong about a player. Although I am starting to realize that one of the many benefits of intently watching Summer League games is to be able to "check yourself". Suffice it to say, I am now fully aware of Kuzma's skills. 

I continue to have faith that Vince Hunter will find his way to the NBA. Hunter reaffirmed that he can fit in due to his athletic prowess and improving skill as a perimeter shooter. ...Cheick Diallo was among the more impressive BIGs playing in Las Vegas. He left me believing he can be the third wheel in the New Orleans rotation of pivots. ...Markel Brown barely played for Portland but he earned an uptick in our mind with his outstanding power-guard game. ...Eric Griffin, who we have campaigned for for many years, was signed by the Utah Jazz following Summer League. He is an explosive leaper that can rim-protect and bring energy to a team off the bench. ...I never considered Matt Thomas as a prospect but the way he shot the three-ball for the Lakers raised my eyebrows enough to now think maybe he CAN make it someday. The undrafted Iowa State guard was automatic (17-28, 60.7% 3-pt.). 

Going the other direction, I was disappointed in the play of Bryce Cotton, Denzel Valentine, and Cameron Payne. All three players were previously guards we would mention as possible NBA rotation guys. They were sketchy enough in Vegas that our perception of their abilities changed. Valentine looked a step slow in every area. Payne displayed virtually zero ability to lead a team, instead just jacking bad shot after bad shot. ...We felt terrible for Jordan Adams who battled back from injuries to lace up his sneakers in Las Vegas this summer. Unfortunately, he looked like a guy that aged fifteen years. His hands were still quick but his wheels could barely lift off the floor. ...Kobi Simmons who left Arizona after his freshman year only to go undrafted in June, struggled in Vegas as much as he did as a Wildcat. He reaffirmed that he is a "freak" athlete but his basketball feel is a "work in progress". 

Our Hoop Obsession Las Vegas Summer League All-Defensive Teams ...

First Team - Kay Felder, Cleveland. Sir Dominic Pointer, Cleveland. Eric Griffin, Utah. Matt Costello, Minnesota. Jordan Bell, Golden State

Second Team - Demetrius Jackson, Boston. Casey Prather, Cleveland. DeAndre Bembry, Atlanta. Anthony Gill, Cleveland. Edy Tavares, Cleveland. 

Small sample ballers

Some players played really well but they didn't play a high volume of minutes. Standouts in that category included: Ante Zizic, Boston. Kennedy Meeks, Toronto, Gary Payton II, Milwaukee. Brandon Paul, Cleveland. Milton Doyle, Brooklyn. Chris Walker, Chicago. 

Meeks was signed by the Raptors after his strong performance. Brandon Paul earned the ultimate nod of respect by being courted by and signing with the San Antonio Spurs. Ante Zizic is expected to play in the NBA in 2017-18. Do not be surprised if he plays a major role in the Celtics plans. He is a seven-footer that will help give the C's some paint presence. ...Payton is property of the Bucks. We believe he is capable of playing rotation minutes in the NBA. ...Doyle is a 23 year-old guard from Loyola (Chicago). We thought he played well enough this Summer to at least earn an invite to NBA Training Camp for one of the 30 teams. ...Walker is still just 22 years-old. He is a veteran of the G-League and we think that he remains as one of the most interesting prospects not under contract to any NBA team. 

Time to move on...

Annually, we list players that we feel just do not meet NBA standards. We do this not to be "mean" but to be credible as a critic. Any evaluation where the evaluator likes everything is not an evaluation, it is cheer-leading.  In no way do we want to discourage players from chasing their hoop dreams. But as someone looking to find a job consulting in professional basketball personnel, we feel obligated to comment on players we would be "moving on" from at this point.

To save on the snark, we will simply list the ten that we would "cut" as future prospects: Mychal Mulder, Eric McCree, JeQuan Lewis, Bronson Koenig, Sam Cassell Jr., Jordan Adams, Danuel House, Sanjay Lumpkin, Dejan Todorovic, and Tim Kempton

The Sacramento angle

High expectations for summer success were quickly squashed as the Kings lost their opening two games. Their best player was Jack Cooley, a 26 year-old, 6'9", 246 lb. pivot that came off the bench. That Cooley, a classic journeymen professional BIG, was more efficient (by a wide margin) than first rounds picks, and second year vets, tells you all you need to know about the reality of what happened in Las Vegas for the Kings. 

The team improved each time Jakarr Sampson entered the game as well. Sampson, a 6'8", 225 lb., unrestricted free agent forward, stood out defensively, providing much needed toughness. On offense, he is a guy without a position. He doesn't stretch the floor well enough (career NBA 3-pt. pct. is 23.7%) or make consistently sound decisions. He can be "o/c" (out of control, for those that don't know). We presently see his only position as a small-ball pivot. 

Frank Mason was very good before he went down with an ankle injury in game four for Sacramento. Mason carried Sacramento in a comeback during the third game against the Lakers. He finished that contest with 24 points, five rebounds, and six assists as a bench reserve to De'Aaron Fox (we wrote about Fox in the lottery picks section above). 

Buddy Hield had some good moments, showing an increased ability to create his own shot off the dribble. In his defense, teams could easily key on him due to the lack of post presence provided by two disappointing Kings, George Papagiannis, and Skal Labissiere.

Labissiere reverted to fading away from contact too much for our liking. Papagiannis struggled to keep pace with the fast play, and he showed us again that his hands do not respond by NBA standards. 

Justin Jackson's good moments were too few and far between. He really struggled with the NBA three-point shot, making just 9 of 38 shots (23% 3-pt. fg). The Kings first round pick (15th overall by Portland, acquired via trade) did show his bright feel for the game. He just didn't have enough success in Las Vegas to warrant thinking he can immediately be a successful part of a winning NBA team's rotation. He may reach that status with NBA experience but Sacramento was wise to add a veteran like Vince Carter to not only teach but also be able to play meaningful minutes. 

Harry Giles did not play, and Malachi Richardson played only half of a game before injury forced him to miss the remainder of the Summer League. 

Kings fans who could not make the journey to Las Vegas improvised. Such was the case Monday (July 10th) in Sacramento as supportors crammed into the Golden 1 Center to watch the Kings play the Lakers on the arena's massive big screen. 


One thing we have noticed in years of watching Summer ball is that coaches NEED to "over-coach". The familiarity of players to their teammates is easily not like that of a NBA team or a college team. Guys are thrown together, and some plays are put in, but well-oiled execution is not the norm in Summer League. In game-closing, crunch time situations where we would normally encourage a coach to skip a timeout and let his players make a play by reading and reacting, we think it is much more prudent to call a timeout and get organized. The Clippers, being coached by Sam Cassell, did a great job in that area. Watching Cassell mentor young talent up close has me believing he will one day be an excellent NBA Head Coach. ...Former Kings player Randy Brown was Head Coach of the Chicago Bulls entry. ...One of the fun aspects of Summer League is how crazy the fan base can be. The multi-cultural crowd that cheers for the Lakers adopted Chinese player Ding Yangyuhang as their cult hero while Ding's Dallas squad played the game before the Lakers took to the court at Thomas and Mack. Ding received standing ovations and MVP chants during some of his games! ...We caught the Michael Jackson, One, Cirque De Soleil show at Mandalay Bay. WOW! Crazy acrobatics, special effects (including a hologram MJ), and high energy music and dancing made for a memorable production. ...One of the beautiful things about Las Vegas is the quality of choices for dining after 10 pm. In eight days we dined three times at Firefly on Paradise. The tapas are top notch! ...Another restaurant of choice was Asian BBQ and Noodle (S. Jones blvd.), a 'hole in the wall' joint that was recognized as one of the ten best Chinese Restaurants in the United States (at least, that is what they claim). We believe the hype! Their Hong Kong style chow-mein is world class! ...Las Vegas is alive and loud darn near 24 hours a day. For a real feel of Vegas we recommend taking a walk in the area by the High Roller, a 550 foot tall Ferris wheel. Since our last visit, a new In N Out Burger has come online near the attraction. Also included in that cluster of shops are: Brooklyn Bowl, Yard House, Tilted Kilt, Flour and Barley, and Virgil's BBQ. ...The Italian chain, Maggiano's (at Fashion Show Mall) is a perfect place to get away from the loud music and 21-26 year-old demographic vibe that permeates the city. 

It is safe to say that we LOVE NBA Summer League in Las Vegas! See you all there in 2018!

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