Photo by Arthur Puu / Spark Sports
Basketball in July, where a bunch of undiscovered prospects, lottery picks, and journeymen all come out to prove their worth against each other towards a spot on an NBA roster, more playing time for their team or perhaps provide a glimmer of hope for fans to get a first look at the next NBA stars.
The Las Vegas Summer League has served as the center of offseason exhibition play since 2004 while featuring as many as eight games each day over the course of eleven days between two courts on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas: the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion. The event, on top of the Orlando and Utah Summer Leagues, has become an annual staple for dedicated NBA fans to follow the next generation of hoopers
For this year’s Las Vegas summer league, some of the biggest storylines surrounded the top picks of the 2015 and 2016 draft class: D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay, Devin Booker, Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, and Buddy Hield to name a few.
However, following more than a week of nonstop basketball in the Sin City, the highlights were plenty, consisting of ice-cold game winners, high-rising dunks and appearances by some of the league’s biggest stars simply to hang out with fans, support their team and check out the incoming talent.
Now, with 67 games in the books and the Chicago Bulls crowned as champions in dramatic fashion, here are five things to take away from the 2016 NBA Las Vegas Summer League:
1. It’s a Guard’s League
Devin Booker, Jordan McRae, Kris Dunn, D’Angelo Russell.
These four guards made up the top five leading scorers in points per game during the Las Vegas Summer League. Only Utah’s Trey Lyles, a forward, was the lone wolf in the category, leading the league with 29 ppg.
(Stats per NBA.com)
Given that Lyles, Booker and Dunn only played 2 games each (Emmanuel Mudiay and Gary Harris of the Denver Nuggets both played 1 game each), much can be said about the other scorers taking up the remaining spots in the top 10, especially for Minnesota’s Tyus Jones. Jones, who captured the Las Vegas Summer League Most Valuable Player, makes a fair argument for himself to be selected for the award to go along with a selection for the All-NBA Summer League First Team by appearing in eight games, including the championship game. Fans argue that players such as Los Angeles’s D’Angelo Russell and Boston’s Terry Rozier should have made an All-NBA Summer League team with their numbers, but if both had played one more game, it would add to their validation.
With the direction the NBA is headed now, having all-star caliber guards are some of the biggest needs for teams to have, especially when contending as the best teams in the league: Kyrie Irving of the 2015-16 champion Cleveland Cavaliers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors, etc. The list goes on and on for these elite guards, but for these summer league participants, displaying their ability to score and orchestrate offenses not only proves they belong in the NBA, but it also serves as a step in the journey to become the league’s next big all-stars and NBA champions.
2. Cold Shooting despite Hot Weather
Over the eleven days of nonstop basketball action, lots and lots of ice-cold buzzer beaters made up the highlight reel. However, cold shooting percentages shrouded the Thomas and Mack Center as well as the Cox Pavilion.
Again, looking at the top 10 scorers and their statistics, only three players shot 50% or higher: Kris Dunn, Gary Harris, Terry Rozier.
For many of the other seven, most shot over 45%, which is still a very effective clip. Outside of the top ten, looking at the 2016 lottery picks, a majority of the standouts from the draft class struggled with their shot.
(Stats per NBA.com)
Over the course of 4 to 6 games, these rookies still provided a punch of offense for their respective teams, given most experienced the up-tempo pace of the NBA for the first time in their careers. Despite also learning how to play under NBA rules and defenses primarily on the fly, these young players got the opportunity to get a glimpse of what to expect when they suit up for their respective teams come October and will try to make adjustments to their shot with trainers over the remainder of the summer.
As for the other players, shooting wasn’t as much of a problem, but it will definitely be something that all these young players will need to work on if they hope to get playing time.
3. 2016 Picks Show Flashes
The 2016 NBA draft picks didn’t take long to show their potential and talent in hopes of becoming the next superstar for their franchise.
From the start, Ben Simmons justified his selection as the No. 1 overall pick for the Philadelphia 76ers, as he excelled as a crafty ball handler and a creative playmaker who wasn’t afraid to make flashy passes. With highlight pass after highlight pass, Simmons caught the attention of everyone with his skills as an oversized point guard.
According to Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com, the Sixers are already talking about potentially listing the 6’10 Simmons as their point guard to begin the 2016-17 season. Outside of his passing, Simmons has a long road ahead of him in terms of developing and growing his shaky jumper. However, his averages of 12.3 ppg, 7.8 rebounds, and 5.5 assists already show Simmons made the most of his first chances and has provided Philly fans with hope and excitement for the upcoming season.
As the No. 2 selection, Brandon Ingram’s five appearances won’t blow anyone away, as he played behind second year guard D’Angelo Russell. As the second option, Ingram averaged just 12.2 ppg, 4.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists. However, when given the ball, Ingram’s high potential as a scorer shined whenever he had possession of the ball.
Despite only shooting 41.2 percent (again, shouldn’t be a shocking stat for a rookie playing his first games against NBA-level defense), Ingram’s 7’3 wingspan is something to be amazed at to go along with his footwork, hesitation skills and ability to draw fouls on the offensive end to complete plays. His 22 point outburst against the Utah Jazz displayed his full arsenal of skills and offensive capabilities as a scorer. Just from this game alone, it makes fans drool over his offensive capabilities that are only going to get better while proving why scouts saw so highly of his sky-high offensive ceiling.
As the No. 3 pick in the 2016 Draft, Jaylen Brown surprised a lot of people on draft night when the Celtics selected him. He continued to surprise the league throughout the eleven days in the Sin City. Despite starting slow in the first few games, Brown came on strong over his final three games to finish with solid averages (16 ppg, 6.2 rebounds, 2.8 steals). Although his jumper was missing oftentimes, Brown made his mark by playing hard-nosed defense and attacked defenders hard off the dribble, which is something he prided himself during his lone season at Cal. It’ll be interesting to see how he fits in Boston’s picture, with the team already containing the likes of Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder.
The Mile-High City has lots to dream about for their young players, but their newest addition Jamal Murray proved he can definitely be an immediate contributor for the Nuggets right away. After averaging 19.6 ppg on 42.5 percent, 5.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists, Murray showed he was capable of heating up when it mattered.
In a 82-81 overtime loss to the Phoenix Suns, Murray struggled out of the gate, going scoreless in the first quarter while shooting 0-for-4 and only recorded his first point midway through the second. With just five points on 2-of-8 shooting entering halftime, he came out of the second half with an offensive eruption, finishing the game with 29 points on 50 percent shooting.
Of course, Murray will have to battle against guards Gary Harris, Emmanuel Mudiay and Will Barton in a crowded backcourt, but with his offensive prowess on full display in Summer League, there is no doubt he will find time on the court.
Tyler Ulis was by far one of the biggest surprises during the NBA Summer League. Although friend and now fellow teammate Devin Booker captured the spotlight, Ulis still impressed at the summer showcase with 14.5 ppg, 2.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.8 steals per game en route to All-NBA second team honors. Despite it also being a crowded backcourt as well in Phoenix, Ulis should fit well with their youth movement by providing serious minutes behind Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.
4. Savvy Sophomores
D’Angelo Russell, Devin Booker, Bobby Portis, Trey Lyles, and Norman Powell all impressed in their returns to Las Vegas.
Although Booker and Lyles only suited up for two games, Powell for five games, and Russell for four respectively, they all produced big numbers for their clubs.
For Lyles, he showcased his arsenal of skills as a big man. On July 9th against the Washington Wizards, he put up 28 points, 5 rebounds, and two steals while knocking down perimeter shots and attacking the paint. Three nights later, he again exploded, this time against the Portland Trail Blazers for 30 points and 9 rebounds with five three-pointers. For the Jazz, they couldn’t be more impressed based on what they saw from Lyles:
“He’s had a fantastic summer and he’s played really well,” said Jazz assistant Mike Wells, per Jason Lieser from the Courier Journal. “You see a kid that at Kentucky played mostly the wing, and he’s playing the 4 now and he’s getting more comfortable for us. He’s in the position where he has the ball at the top of the key a lot and he can make the reads and make the plays.”
With only two appearances in Vegas, Lyles proved he was ready to take the next step in his young career.
As for Lyles’s former running mate at Kentucky, Devin Booker continued to show continual steps in his shooting ability and potential stardom, which emerged after the 2015 All-Star break. After two impressive outings while averaging 26.0 ppg, 5.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists, the Suns decided to rest him after seeing he was one of the best players playing in the summer showcase. Booker, who is still only 19, looked so good in his performances against the Trail Blazers and the Boston Celtics and impressed with his leadership and confidence, as he scored off the dribble and sought out isolation matchups. With youth in mind for the Suns, Booker’s high ceiling will definitely bring much excitement back to the desert.
For the second consecutive Summer League, Powell stood out from the crowd by doing just about everything for the Toronto Raptors. As a 2015 second-round pick, it seems like the Raptors got a steal in Powell, as he averaged 19.8 ppg, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists while showing his ability to knock down open jumpers and finishing strong at the rim. During Toronto’s run to the franchise’s first Eastern Conference Finals last season, Powell got major minutes despite playing behind DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross, which can be attributed to his newfound confidence. With his showcase of skill and ability, Powell proves to be a keeper on a deep bench for a Raptors team looking to build upon its latest successes.
Bobby Portis will get some MAJOR minutes this upcoming season for the Chicago Bulls, and rightfully so. With last year’s starters Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah out of Chicago, Portis resembles the direction the Bulls are going and what the team is supposed to be: young, competitive, athletic and hungry. After averaging 15.8 ppg and 9.3 rebounds for the 2016 Summer League champs, Portis helped lead the Bulls to the championship with energy and physicality. During the championship game, he recorded 26 points, 10 rebounds and four steals while knocking down 4 triples in the process. Flashing his toolset of new skills and speed, Portis has become a complete player that is ready to be the floor-spacing big that can play with newcomers Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo.
By far the player who has shown the biggest difference in a year, D’Angelo Russell, 2015’s No. 2 overall pick, showed the league what to expect this upcoming season under a new system. Head Coach Luke Walton had high praise for the 20-year-old’s summer performance and his growth as a player:
“He’s been absolutely phenomenal for us,” said Walton in an interview on LA Today with Bill Reiter and Leeann Tweeden. “He’s been a leader, he’s been talking in practice and trying to constantly pick the coaches brains about what we see.”
Russell, in four contests for the Lakers, averaged 21.8 ppg, 6.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists while shooting 47.7 percent from the field. However, the biggest leap for Russell was the way he played the game. Last season, he looked out of flow and couldn’t hit a shot. However, after a full NBA season under his belt, Russell has played with more leadership and confidence, taking and making big shots down the stretch while looking to involve his teammates. Although he still needs work on the defensive end, the young Lakers point guard looks ready to inherit the historic franchise from Kobe Bryant with the help of his fellow teammates.
5. Young Cores Galore
The next generation of NBA stars are among us.
Phoenix, Denver, Los Angeles (Lakers), Milwaukee, Chicago and Minnesota are just a few teams that have bright futures in the NBA. Despite a few down seasons for these franchises, having a core of young players provides a beacon of hope for these organizations and their fanbases.
Most of these young players have seen Summer League action now that the 2016 summer showcase is now in the books. Now, it will be time for adjustment for these players and playing with one another will be the ultimate test.
Spark Sports Editor
Follow Arthur Puu on Twitter @arthurpuu