NBA Summer League is Disappointing (So Far)
Here are a few thoughts gleaned from my first (and last) 72 hours watching basketball in Las Vegas.
Here are a few general observations from my three days in Las Vegas, where, even when it's windy, raining, and 2 AM, the temperature safely clears 115 degrees, while the most enriching food that can be purchased on game days at Thomas & Mack Center is a bag of sour gummy worms. Also, ten games worth of basketball is played everyday.
But, for reasons that I'll get into below, the first weekend of this year's action was relatively dull. There's a noticeable drop in star power, and a majority of the main draws are big men who rely on a more structured environment than what is currently possible in the guard-friendly, defense-averse setting they (very) briefly find themselves in in Vegas. Not all was boring, of course, and we'll get into some players who've unexpectedly shined, but the general takeaway I had was a wish for the on-court display to be a tad closer to actual NBA basketball than what was out there.
• Summer league's most thrilling, anticipated, and indelible moments typically fall under these categories: A) a lottery pick wears their new team's jersey for the very first time, B) a familiar face foreshadows what's to come by sprinkling previously unseen skills into their repertoire, C) a very cool dunk happens, D) Jack Cooley enters a game, E) a player clouded in uncertainty attempts to readjust the trajectory of his career.
The overall quality of play seen so far isn't necessarily lesser than previous years, but the entertainment value and attraction is lacking. For multiple reasons, there aren't enough players who can make the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention every time they touch the ball. Various levels of intrigue still surround every incoming first-round pick, but aside from an impatient crowd that begs Trae Young to shoot whenever he dribbles past half-court, no player is captivating enough to generate genuine buzz.
There is no playmaking phenom who creates a palpable stir with the ball in their hands—like Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball, or even D’Angelo Russell—or scorer who's strong enough to exploit summer league's allergic reaction to defense, like Devin Booker did two years ago. The roster sheets are instead filled with anonymous names, with holes that are hard to ignore.
Some of this is thanks to the Dallas Mavericks letting Luka Doncic get some rest. Every one of his touches would, for better or worse, be placed under a microscope. Some of it's because Michael Porter Jr. isn't healthy. Some of it’s due to the Philadelphia 76ers letting Markelle Fultz avoid a potential catastrophe. The opportunity to witness his refined jumper (if it exists) in live action would electrify the gym.
Most of it’s because last year's rookie class is way ahead of schedule. Dennis Smith Jr., John Collins, Jonathan Isaac, Josh Jackson, Frank Ntilikina, Zach Collins, Bam Adebayo, O.G. Anunoby, and a few others have all played in at least one game, but most of those guys are too good for this place. And then there are a handful of super sophomores that are healthy enough to take the floor but (understandably) skipping the whole thing: Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Ball, Lauri Markkanen, De’Aaron Fox, and Kyle Kuzma, to name a few.
It’s 10,000 percent logical for their teams to not risk needless injury—Malik Monk already broke his thumb, Collins injured his ankle, and Jackson had to wear a protective mask after he was hit in the face—and if they struggle it’d set off unnecessary alarms. But is there nothing any of them need to work on? I'm not saying they should play, but summer league is an opportunity to sharpen elements of their skill-sets that wouldn’t normally see the light of day. It would've been cool to see them try out different things they've been working on since the season ended, and also interact with incoming rookies, as we're seeing with Atlanta, Orlando, and Phoenix. Markkanen and Wendell Carter are Chicago's frontcourt of the future. Let's watch them interact for the first time! Fox tossing lobs to Marvin Bagley would be neat.
The incoming rookie class isn't characterless, but they can't, for the most part, supply reliable entertainment value. Here's why...
• Summer league is still not for big men, and five of the first seven players selected in June's draft are big men. (Doncic and Young are the other two. One isn't playing and the other is not playing great.) The initial Bagley-Deandre Ayton showdown was an aesthetic dud for several reasons. Nobody wants to watch two big men fight for post position, catch the ball 15 feet from the rim, then reverse pivot into regurgitated jumpers.
This doesn't mean either is bad (Bagley hurt himself and Ayton looks more like Andre Drummond than Karl-Anthony Towns), but summer league is all about ball-handlers, and most of them would rather make a name for themselves than worry about completing a proper read or making a winning play. Designed post-ups are rare and executing a tight pick-and-roll isn't. This environment fits Mo Bamba like a tube top. He's spent most possessions scrambling around, setting high screens and then not knowing what to do. He doesn't dive towards the rim or fade behind the three-point line. He just stands there as teammates and coaches scream out instructions. (Jaren Jackson, Jr. is a bit more polished and already able to stretch the floor, so that's nice.)
There are opportunities on defense and the offensive glass, but bigs who aren't prepared to put the ball on the floor sometimes have to in Vegas, and it usually doesn't end well for anyone involved.
• It's a bit wild to type this sentence, let alone say it out loud, but John Collins is going to enter next season as the third best player in his draft class. (Quick aside: Young is a fantastic passer who needed ten seconds to develop exciting pick-and-roll chemistry with Collins, but I found myself constantly fantasizing about how Collins would look next to Jackson, Jr. for the next eight years. That frontcourt could've had it all.)
Collins finished his rookie season averaging 15.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes. He shot 57.6 percent from the floor and his Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) was third behind only Tatum and Mitchell. Collins also grabbed 33 more boards than any other rookie. (In second was Markannen, who played 235 more minutes.) The guy is still only 20 years old, and at summer league he was superhuman, nailing threes and dunking just about every ball he touched around the basket.
Pick-and-roll defense is still an area he needs to work on, particularly if Atlanta views him as a long-term five, but it's still miraculous for the 19th pick to be outperforming so much talent—at his own position and elsewhere—this early on.
• I saw Zhou Qi switch onto a guard, block an outside shot, and then knock down his own three a few minutes later. It's tattooed into my memory. Qi isn't the smoothest athlete in the world, but, even though it sounds like an irrational overreaction, I came away from that sequence feeling like he can be a decent NBA player. He's 7'2" with a 7'8" wingspan and blocked five more shots in Monday's win over the Los Angeles Clippers. Can he be a legitimate stretch five next to James Harden and Chris Paul?
• Harry Giles is alive! This is exciting. Before he suffered his second major knee injury, Giles was rated number one in his high school class, ahead of Jackson, Tatum, Ball, Fultz, Fox, and, well, everybody else. Poor health shattered his stock and expectations were tattered after he missed his senior season of high school and first year in the NBA. But after scoring 25 points in his first 45 minutes of professional action—with fluidity, power, and technical skill—this is someone who needs to pop back onto everyone’s radar.
As has been mentioned dozens of times in this column alone, summer league is not a good place for big men to showcase what they can do. Giles, however, has enough individual talent to calmly create his own shot. That doesn’t guarantee he’ll dominate a real NBA game, but just seeing him on the court was awesome. If he can stay healthy for the next few years, the Sacramento Kings may have finally caught a break/not be completely gutted without a lottery pick in next year’s draft. A Giles-Bagley frontcourt, with Fox running point and Bogdan Bogdanovic and Buddy Hield spacing the floor, actually isn’t that bad!