Mid-Summer League Update
Summer League is underway! Thoughts on the top draft picks and returners in this year's field.
When I was invited to join the No Ceilings collective back in March, I was thrilled to hop on board. However, in the coming days, I would learn something that made my heart sink. Many of my fellow colleagues would be going to NBA Summer League, and I would be missing out. Not because they didn’t extend the invite— they did! But foolishly, not realizing that this type of getaway would be on the table down the road, I’d booked a separate vacation elsewhere just two weeks before. There was no way I could swing two major trips in such a short timespan. So sadly, while the rest of the crew is having the time of their lives in Las Vegas, I’ve been relegated to catching up on as many games as possible after my daughter goes to bed. While my setup may not be as exciting, I’m still having a blast watching these games. The rookie crop has shown a great deal of promise, and several returners look ready to make a mark as rotation players this coming season. Folks, it’s time for your mid-Summer League Update!
The Top Picks
Paolo Banchero earned the “you’ve done a good job, so we’re letting you go home early” treatment. In his two games, the number one overall pick posted an efficient 20 PPG on 13.5 FGA/game with shooting splits of 40.7/50/80. While his percentage on two-pointers is indicative of his penchant for settling for tough dribbles off the jumper too often, Banchero also looked like a man possessed attacking the basket, and he averaged 10 free throw attempts per contest. In college, too often would Banchero waste a mismatch opportunity by chucking long twos instead of bullying a smaller defender. Though it was only a two-game sample size, Banchero did a tremendous job of feasting on these chances and getting to the rim. Defenders have no choice but to come help in these situations, and Banchero’s six assists per game demonstrate his ability to sling the ball to the open man when he forces rotations. While his 5.5 turnovers per contest aren’t ideal, it’s Summer League, and if there’s ever a time to be overambitious and push his limits as a playmaker, it’s now. He didn’t take many threes, but the ones he took looked silky, and I wouldn’t anticipate a massive drop in percentage as he adjusts to the longer distance of the NBA line. The questions surrounding his defense likely won’t be answered until we see him against better competition in bigger games. I didn’t see anything that changed my perception about his spotty rim protection, but I will give him credit for his awareness off the ball and his lateral movement. Banchero looked slimmer in a good way, and he didn’t find himself getting roasted when he switched down onto guards. Magic fans have plenty to feel good about with Banchero. While I’m disappointed that we won’t get to see more of him, I understand their decision.
That Chet Holmgren fellow sure can play basketball! It’s been a “he is who we thought he was” series of games from Holmgren so far. Players who drive to the basket and think they can lob a shot over him are rejected in hilarious fashion. His recognition as a rim protector is every bit as good as advertised. For how much noise was made about how thin he is, it’s rarely been a factor. In a match-up against the Jazz, Holmgren found himself banging bodies with Kofi Cockburn, one of the largest and most imposing big men in college hoops last season. Holmgren didn’t allow any easy buckets, and Cockburn finished the night 2-for-5 from the field. Few NBA bigs can match Cockburn for size and strength, so that should be an encouraging sign for any doubters. Holmgren’s lateral mobility already seems more fluid than it did at Gonzaga, and he’s shown flashes of self-creation that he didn’t get to dip into much there either. So far, he’s been the three-point shooting, rim-protecting big man who can pass and do a little off the dribble that we all hoped he would be.
Jabari Smith was having the roughest go of it among the top three picks before a rock-solid outing against the San Antonio Spurs. Through his first two games, the warts his critics had noted were on display. His handle can get too wide, his first step isn’t great, and he doesn’t have the offensive footwork to create separation, instead needing to shoot over opponents who are smothering him. His outside shot wasn’t falling at first, and the ball was coming out flatter than it did at Auburn. Right now, he doesn’t have a way to create positive offensive value if the shot isn’t falling. Teams know they can’t leave him open, but he’s basically just a spacer if he can’t cook in the mid-range. The last negative I want to touch on is his lack of strength. So much of the “he needs to get bigger!” or “he’ll get bullied” energy was directed toward Chet Holmgren, and I feel more of it should have gone to Jabari Smith. In fact, it was Chet Holmgren who backed down Jabari Smith with ease to get a better look closer to the basket when they were matched up against each other, not the other way around. As someone who is into weight lifting and strength training, I can verify that it isn’t going to happen overnight. But for Jabari Smith to get himself better looks and create advantages more effectively, it is critical that he becomes more powerful. If he can get looks closer to the block than the elbow, he’ll not only be closer to the hoop, but it will compensate for his shaky handle by giving him more space from help defenders. In turn, that will also give him easier passing reads.
Passing in general is a big swing skill for Smith, and I like what I’ve seen on that front. Later in his lone college season, he developed solid recognition and could move the ball well when doubles came, and he’s continued to progress on that front. Smith has been stellar on the defensive end. His stance on the ball is outstanding, especially when he’s switched onto smaller players. He glides exceptionally well in space for a player his size. I’ve also been blown away by how much better Smith looks as a leaper. His ability to get off the floor higher and with more speed raises his ceiling even higher on defense and increases his odds of being a great help-side rim protector. Smith was the top-ranked player on my board heading into the draft, and I’m not wavering on him. I’d long felt he would be a bit behind Holmgren and Banchero out of the gate, but that as he gets stronger, gains more experience, and fills out his game, he has the highest ceiling. The shot is bound to come around, and his issues aren’t anything new or surprising. I could understand Rockets fans feeling frustrated with him, but it’s important to remember that it’s about the long game with Jabari Smith.
There has long been a sentiment among certain members of the draft community that Keegan Murray is boring, which I’ve never quite understood. His leap from being simply an energy big man off the bench for Iowa to an all-out star with a flourishing wing scoring package was one of the most exciting stories in college hoops this past season. We’re seeing even more of that scoring package from Murray, who is launching threes at high volume as if to send a personal “eff you” to every single person who doubted the validity of his percentage last season. Murray has been connecting on these triples and taking them in an interesting variety of ways. Though it didn’t fall, he set up one of his attempts against the Pacers with a dazzling step back that generated him a good amount of space. Murray will need to add more as a creator for others in order to reach a greater tier of players, and he’ll also need to be more impactful on the defensive end. I’ve always been more bullish on his defense, but he’s gone quiet on that side in Summer League so far. I’d like to see more attentiveness and aggressiveness from him off the ball.
We didn’t get to see much of Jaden Ivey due to an ankle injury, but what he did see was very cool. His drives to the basket look much better with NBA spacing. After a big uptick in his three-point percentage this past season, Ivey has continued to look comfortable from long range. He’s also still the same livewire in transition who can sling impressive passes at full speed. Summer League only gave us an appetizer of Jaden Ivey, and I can’t wait for the main course to reach the table.
-For Jalen Williams, it’s like the NBA Combine all over again. He’s clearly a step ahead of the pack. JDubb manages to get wherever he wants on the floor, and it feels like he dunks one every other trip down the floor. I’m glad his defense is finally getting some flowers, too, as it was wildly underrated during the pre-draft process. His performance when matched up against TCU’s Mike Miles was always going to be telling: he can wall off guards with his length no matter how quick they are, and he has outrageous hip flexibility that allows him to slink around screens.
-Bennedict Mathurin has continued to evolve on the ball. He looks comfortable doing basic pick-and-roll navigation and pulling up in the mid-range. Isolation situations, even against slower big men, are still not his forte. He’s grown on the ball these past few years, and that is the next mountain for him to climb.
-In a cruel twist of fate, Jalen Duren has once again received an annoying lack of touches. Still, he’s making the ones he gets, he’s protecting the rim, and his growing passing game has been on display. Don’t sell his stock because he hasn’t gotten opportunities!
-Ochai Agbaji looks FAST out there. His three-ball has been on point, and NBA spacing should open up his cutting even more. He hasn’t put up big counting stats on defense, but he’s rotating well and visibly communicating on the court.
-Blake Wesley needs to either develop a strong floater package or work out his body mechanics so that he can jump higher in traffic. If he can do one or the other, he’ll be a terror. He’s routinely beating opponents off the bounce, but it’s a big “and then what?” for now, as he’s a below-the-rim finisher who is prone to getting his lay-ups swatted. Wesley is currently shooting a much better percentage on threes than twos, and it’s because of his struggles as a finisher. Everything else is looking good— his shooting motion is more succinct and consistent, he’s keeping his head up better on drives, and he wants the smoke in big moments.
-I was not prepared for Keon Ellis’ development as a passer. As a four-year college player who primarily took open threes, went straight to the rim, or made the simple “keep the ball moving” pass, I didn’t anticipate him to be a true connector piece. So far in Summer League, he’s made more sophisticated reads on the go and looks comfortable doing it. If it sticks, this will drastically increase his chances of making it as a role player.
-Tari Eason is adapting! While his role isn’t small, it’s still much different than it was at LSU. With less burden as a creator, Eason is channeling his aggression exceptionally well. He cuts hard, attacks with a purpose, and has reduced his habit of pedantically dribbling before making a decision. Eason is simply playing the game quicker and with more explicit intention. The increased speed of the game hasn’t tripped him up at all, which is great. He’s dominating on the glass, too. His poor left hand is still a problem. On a drive against RJ Hampton, he was either unwilling or unable to go back to his left as Hampton tried to force him in that direction. Instead, Eason settled for a forced floater that didn’t fall. He’ll have time to develop before he’s playing in big games, but this is going to show up in scouting reports, and he needs to be prepared for it. Outside of that issue, he’s done everything the Rockets could have hoped for and then some.
-I tried to tell you all about Josh Minott! When the metrics tell you he’s a winner, the measurements tell you he has size, and the film tells you he has the rare combination of a high motor, frightening athleticism, and passing feel, you take that bet in the second round every single time. His jumper needed to be burned to the ground, and it was. His reworked stroke is much less noisy and doesn’t require him to fling the ball across his body. It’s falling for now, but more importantly, Minott looks confident. He’s taking 2.5 threes/game, and his mechanics seem far more certain. All Minott needs to be is “near respectable” from distance for the rest of his game to open up.
-I have no choice but to start off with one of my 2021 “My Guys” Neemias Queta. After an amazing career at Utah State, where he dominated defensively and showed upside as a passer, I had high hopes for Queta. Unfortunately, he was stuck behind a glut of centers on the Sacramento Kings roster. I’m hoping that a pair of breakout Summer League performances can get him more opportunities next year. Queta reminded everyone how great he is as a rim protector, and he was once again keeping defenses on their toes as a passer. The real kicker, though, is his expanding shooting range. Queta took and made a three in both of his outings. He also hit an elbow jumper when the Pacers gave him too much room in their outing. We often move on too quickly from prospects, and Neemias Queta’s recent games are an example of why that isn’t always the wise thing to do.
-Seriously, what was Josh Giddey doing here? The Aussie dominated in ways that felt wholly unnecessary, but I like that he was willing to show up and start to build chemistry with his new teammates.
-It was great to see James Wiseman again. He’s still flying around everywhere and doesn’t appear to have lost a step, though some rust was evident with his incessant fouling. Moses Moody’s one-off in Vegas wasn’t a shock after he was awesome in the G League. I think he’s going to be a high-end starter down the road. Jonathan Kuminga was spotty. He’s still too forceful when given a chance to lead the offense, his shooting was a mess, and his passing feel is lacking.
-Quentin Grimes is looking slick. It’s easy to forget that he was billed as a combo guard type coming out of high school. After a tumultuous journey that saw him reinvent himself as a 3-and-D wing at Houston, those guard skills are resurfacing. Grimes has been dicing into the lane and slinging passes in ways I didn’t expect to see from him so early in his career. He’s going to be around for a long time. Teammate Jericho Sims has looked good, too, filling the role of the athletic big man who protects the rim, moves well, and takes out the trash. His upside will come down to how he can impact the game offensively and whether or not he can add wrinkles to punish smaller players inside for easy baskets. Miles McBride is still an absolute pest on defense who can shoot and manages the offense well. He also looked a bit more comfortable going downhill and navigating around the basket, which was a big question about his game going into college. He still feels like such a Thibs guy that I could see him getting minutes even with their backcourt becoming more crowded after acquiring Jalen Brunson.
-AJ Lawson and RJ Nembhard both went undrafted last season, but they came back this year looking like they might be ready to offer something to NBA teams. Lawson was a long-range bomber in college who carried a preposterous usage load but still flew all over the place on defense. His mentality is still aggressive, but it’s more refined and controlled. Nembhard was a slasher with a spotty shot who was turnover prone. Now, he’s keeping his head up more consistently, and his jumper looks cleaner. These two are why it’s worth getting into the depths of the draft: it’s always rewarding to see under-the-radar prospects put it together in real time.
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No Jabari Walker love?