Who were the standouts and disappointments at NBA summer league?
Our experts answer the big questions.
1. Who was the best rookie you saw at summer league?
Mike Schmitz, ESPN Insider: Often described as a safe or high-floor selection, Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr. turned heads with his play in Las Vegas. This isn’t to say he’s an NBA Rookie of the Year front-runner or on track to be the best player from the 2018 draft class, but the 19-year-old outshined every other big man drafted ahead of him, and he looks like a steal at No. 7 overall. Often compared to Al Horford, Carter’s ability to space the floor (3-of-6 from 3), beat a switch in the post, play out of short rolls, facilitate, rebound and protect the rim (3.9 blocks per 40 minutes) were all on display, making him arguably the most well-rounded big man prospect in an otherwise extremely talented crop.
Carter has gotten himself into outstanding shape, and he was far better switching onto the perimeter than expected. While Marvin Bagley III, Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Mohamed Bamba stole most of the pre-draft buzz, Carter is the type of under-the-radar star who should impact winning from day one in Chicago.
Jorge Sedano, ESPN: Kevin Knox. He was dominant through his first three games. His athleticism was off the charts, and he looks like the prototypical positionless forward in today’s NBA. His first step and ability to get to the rim were impressive; in addition, he can be dangerous as a stretch-4 due to his inside/outside ability. John Calipari, his former coach at Kentucky, compared Knox to Jayson Tatum. I can definitely see some similarities, though his footwork is not yet comparable to Tatum’s. Overall, the Knicks found a gem.
André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: “Best rookie” is a loaded question; are we going for best player or best performance? For the former, I’m going with Deandre Ayton. Ayton’s motor wasn’t always running hot, which led to him posting a clunker in his last performance against the Philadelphia 76ers. However, he did have some huge matchups against other lottery bigs such as Bagley and Bamba, and when he turned it up, Ayton was clearly able to do things that the others couldn’t. He is huge and agile, and he brings a skill set that could immediately make an impact at the pro level beyond anything I saw from other rookies in Las Vegas.
Andrew Han, ESPN.com: Apologies to Carter, Bamba, Ayton and the other top draftees, but summer league is a guard’s league. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander already had some insiders wondering if he would be the best PG from the 2018 draft (non-Luka Doncic division). Gilgeous-Alexander’s size, ability to get to his spots and feel for the game were apparent, and while his set shot was still mechanical, SGA never seemed overwhelmed in Las Vegas.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: Wendell Carter Jr., as I wrote last week. For the most part, the athletes taken ahead of Carter played as expected — not counting Luka Doncic, who did not suit up for the Dallas Mavericks. However, Carter showed the kind of NBA-ready skill set that his believers touted before the draft, one that he wasn’t able to showcase at Duke in yet another sign that the NBA and college basketball are increasingly two different sports.
2. Who was the best veteran you saw at summer league?
Han: The annual “This sophomore is too good for this” award goes to John Collins of the Hawks. It took all of one half of his first game to confirm many people’s suspicions he had squeezed every bit of knowledge one can from summer league as he popped and rolled at will. Honorable mentions go to the Lakers’ Josh Hart (seemingly a lock for Vegas MVP) and OG Anunoby, who had most asking themselves, “Shouldn’t guarding LeBron in the playoffs exempt you from summer league duties?”
Pelton: John Collins. Collins was one of three second-year players who made the All-Rookie Second Team to suit up in Las Vegas, and while the other two (Josh Jackson and Dennis Smith Jr.) were uneven because of poor shot selection — more on that later — Collins led all scorers with 24.0 points per game in his two appearances. Collins wasn’t quite that good at the Utah Jazz summer league before reaching Vegas, but it was always evident that he was the most talented player on the court.
Sedano: Josh Hart. He is averaging almost 23 PPG and has taken on the most important defensive assignment in every game the Lakers have played. The Lakers have not only won all five Vegas games, but they’ve also only dropped three of their 20 quarters so far. Hart has been disruptive on defense while carrying the load on offense for the most dominant team. He’s my early summer league MVP pick.
Snellings: John Collins. He only played in the first two games, but he was highly productive in those outings. Collins was more of a rebounder and interior presence for the Hawks as a rookie, but in Vegas, he went after his offense aggressively and showed that he has the chops to score if called upon. He even knocked down 5 of 10 3s in those two games, showing off a perimeter scoring ability that could give him an entirely new dimension as a floor-spacer, if he can carry it over to the regular season.
Schmitz: It’s hard to call 20-year-old second-year big man John Collins a veteran, but as far as non-rookies go, Collins shined the brightest. The most important takeaway revolves around Collins’ improved 3-ball, with what looked like a translatable stroke. Collins and rookie sensation Trae Young appear to be building a Steve Nash-Amar’e Stoudemire-like rapport, as Young is one of the 2018 class’ best passers, and Collins’ ability to space the floor both vertically and as a shooter makes the duo one of the most lethal young pick-and-roll pairings in the league. Collins still has his shortcomings as a team defender and a passer, but his improved shooting and chemistry with Young should culminate in a huge sophomore season.
3. Who was the biggest surprise?
Pelton: Stanton Kidd of the Utah Jazz. A combo forward who graduated from Colorado State in 2015, Kidd was making his first NBA summer appearance after playing last season for David Blatt with the Turkish club Darussafaka. He developed strong chemistry with Jazz first-round pick Grayson Allen and was accurate on corner 3s, shooting 47 percent overall from beyond the arc. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kidd get a two-way contract from the Jazz.
Sedano: Mitchell Robinson. The Knicks did a really nice job in the 2018 draft. Robinson was a big question mark because had had not played organized basketball in 14 months, but at times he has been dominant on the floor, averaging 13 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks per game. He needs to clean up the turnovers, though that is a combination of rust and inexperience showing there. Having no idea what to expect from him, I came away thoroughly impressed.
Schmitz: Mitchell Robinson. He has never been short on talent, but the fact that Robinson came out and had such a positive impact was a bit of a surprise, given the fact that this was really the first organized competition he had played in since the Jordan Brand Classic in April 2017. In five games, Robinson averaged 21.0 points, 16.5 rebounds (10 offensive!), 1.6 steals and 6.5 blocks per 40 minutes. He is still foul prone and raw in a lot of areas, but for Robinson to play with such a consistent motor and add value as a rim protector, rebounder and finisher is an extremely positive development for a Knicks team in search of youth up front. Between Robinson’s and Knox’s flashes of talent, there’s reason for optimism in New York.
Snellings: Trae Young caught plenty of negative assessments before the draft that suggested he had huge bust potential, and then he went out and had multiple poor shooting performances in the Utah Summer League to lower expectations further. However, I watched him in three different Vegas games and he looks legit to me. Not so much for the shooting ability — though he did score more than 20 points in all three full-length games — but more because of his ability to break down a defense and set up teammates off the pass. His scoring is streaky, and he doesn’t get the greatest separation. However, his pure point guard skills are NBA-ready, and with the scoring as a secondary threat, he looks like a strong pro prospect with great upside.
Han: The boos from Barclays transformed into oohs at Thomas & Mack as Kevin Knox showed an ability to get to the rim and stay with his man on defense. It seemingly felt like Knox was an upside pick by the Knicks as he was one of the youngest prospects in the draft, but if summer league is any indication, Knox’s potential might start being actualized sooner than previously thought.
4. Who was the biggest disappointment?
Sedano: Dragan Bender. He’s in his third summer league and he has been unbelievably disappointing. He has averaged almost as many points as shots. Neither total is very inspiring (both around 7 per game). He’s going down the path of a guy who might not be on the Suns’ roster for much longer.
Pelton: Josh Jackson. Granted, Jackson played his usual impressive defense, but instead of working on setting up Ayton, he spent most of his time on offense jacking horrendous shots off the dribble. Jackson shot 24 percent (10-of-41) and that appropriately reflects the quality of the shots he attempted. Yes, summer league is about players expanding their games, but under no circumstances should Jackson or anyone but the best off-the-dribble shooters play as he did.
Schmitz: Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender. On a Suns team that has added considerable wing depth in Trevor Ariza and Mikal Bridges, poor shooting with twice as many turnovers as assists was less than ideal for the 21-year-old Jackson. He wasn’t short on impressive moments with a couple explosive defensive plays and slashes to the rim, but his hitchy jumper and subpar decision-making stole the headlines in what should have been a breakout tournament for him. However, once the regular season hits, he should be able to slide into more of an off-ball role, focusing on defending his position, getting out in transition, moving off the ball and keeping things simple.
Bender also struggled to get much going in his third career summer league. Touted as a playmaking big man early in his career, Bender finished with two assists and 11 turnovers, and he has struggled to have much of an impact when he’s not making shots. He doesn’t turn 21 until mid-November, so there’s still hope, but his lack of toughness and streaky shooting were front and center.
Snellings: Donte DiVincenzo, though it might not have been his fault. He missed the early games while still recovering from a groin injury, and he was only able to return for the two most recent games. Perhaps he’s not fully healthy yet, or maybe he’s still rusty. Whatever the reason, his combined one point on 0-for-8 shooting from the field (including 0-for-7 on 3s), four assists and four turnovers through his only two games is disappointing. The Bucks have an open lane at shooting guard that DiVincenzo should be able to compete for, assuming he’s able to significantly up his game from what he has shown in Vegas.
Han: Disappointment comes with context, as Marvin Bagley played only one game in Las Vegas after the Kings opted to shut down the No. 2 overall pick after he suffered a pelvic bone bruise. Again a victim of his guards, Bagley had little help in his lone Vegas outing, mostly relying on a face-up game out of the half court. Ultimately, there’s nothing predictive to Bagley’s solo match other than better assistance and more time could’ve been insightful.
5. What’s your one big takeaway from summer league?
Schmitz: The Rookie of the Year race is wide-open. As we said all year long, there’s no clear pecking order in terms of the best long-term prospects to come out of the 2018 draft, which should make this upcoming season that much more exciting. It remains completely up in the air which big man will turn into the best player five years down the road. Point guards Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Collin Sexton all had their highlights in Vegas, with each bringing something different to the table yet none looking like the definitive top PG prospect. Then there’s jumbo playmaker Luka Doncic, who could be the best prospect of them all — yet we likely won’t see him until the preseason. The 2017 draft class took the league by storm, but the somewhat unpredictable 2018 class might not be far behind.
Sedano: The second-round draft picks have really impressed. Guys like Jevon Carter, Mitchell Robinson, Gary Trent Jr., Bruce Brown Jr., Khyri Thomas, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and De’Anthony Melton have all had moments that wowed the summer league crowds. Melton, in particular, seems to be the steal of the draft. He can be a contributor on a team with championship aspirations.
Han: In years past, superstars have struggled in Vegas while end-of-bench players showed out in jaw-dropping fashion. So while it’s impossible to prove someone is actually good, it typically is not a good sign if a potential star struggles in a second or (gulp) third summer league.
Snellings: The incoming rookie class includes a lot of talent across the board, which should produce a large number of rookies contributing significantly in their first seasons. Many of the top-end rookies are big men, which is a welcome change, but there also are several perimeter threats. There is no clear ROY favorite in my mind, but I could make a case for probably five to 10 players who have a legit chance to compete for the award.
Pelton: Without even playing a game, Doncic solidified his position as the best prospect in the 2018 draft in my opinion. Ayton was as physically dominant as anticipated and would have performed far better had his teammates been better equipped to set him up. Yet Ayton’s performance reinforced my concerns about how much impact he’ll make defensively, which goes double for Bagley, who shot 33.3 percent between Vegas and the California Classic. And while I wouldn’t overreact to Trae Young’s poor shooting early in summer play, I feel even more strongly that I wouldn’t have passed on Doncic for any of those three players.