NBA Summer League: Scout Takes, Rookie Impressions, and League Gossip
Garrett Ellwood / Getty Images. Pictured: Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green
“You have to be careful with summer league,” a longtime league personnel official remarked to me this week. “Too long and your reality starts to get distorted.”
I spent three days in Vegas this year to start Summer League, and came away with a lot of impressions.
More than any deep analysis (which is not what Summer League is for), it was incredible to be back in the gym with two games of young guys and fringe NBA players playing summer hoops. It wasn’t normal, the Delta variant’s threat was omnipresent, but everyone seemed happy that a low-stakes NBA tradition was back.
Here’s some of what I learned from Vegas Summer League, starting with takeaways on the rookies.
SCOUT TAKES: “Looks great. That’s who he’s going to be in the league, and this is a good environment for him. It would have been concerning if he hadn’t looked good, given his skill set and experience, but he looked good. The side-step threes are what get you paid in this league. Those shots are what separates guys.”
“His poise has been much better than expected.”
MY TAKE: Green’s going to put up numbers. The takeaway from two summer league games from both Green and Cunningham including Tuesday’s “showdown” is that Cunningham does a lot of things that makes the team better, but Green’s such a spectacular talent, he will look more impactful.
The Rockets are very likely to be a lights out offensive team that plays at a blistering pace. They were 6th in pace last season and are likely to wind up tanking down the stretch again (sitting John Wall at least).
High pace and a player with Green’s scoring profile is a great combination for ROY.
Another key component? Green showcased great passing skills in his first two Summer League games, including dishes in pick and roll.
SCOUT TAKES: “Nothing spectacular, but the word has always been that this is a bad environment for him. Cade’s entire game is built on making guys better. He was fine.”
“He’ll look so much better when he’s surrounded by better players.”
MY TAKE: Cunningham had too many times where he drove and didn’t know where to go with it. He’s going to need to have a couple of go-to moves when the defense solves the initial action. The shot may come and go a bit as a rookie, but he’s going to be good in time.
Defensively is where I was most impressed. Cunningham’s genuinely disruptive. He read passing angles and had a knack for the ball. He won’t be a high-volume rebounder but he’ll be consistent just by finding opportunities.
On the one hand, Summer League was a continuation of Cade’s college career, where none of his teammates could make a shot. So when he’s in the NBA, his assist numbers should rise considerably.
On the other hand, he’s going to play for the Pistons and they aren’t exactly brimming with top-end talent. However, Detroit did have the 8th-best assist percentage in the league.
I’m not sure Cunningham will be so good immediately as to raise the Pistons’ win total this season. But longterm, he looks very much like the kind of lead creator that makes their team into playoff teams in short order.
SCOUT TAKES: “You see a lot of the things he can do to help, but he didn’t dominate. Some guys don’t here, though.”
“Defensively, he looks next-level.”
MY TAKE: With Isaac Okoro, Mobley, and veterans Larry Nance and Ricky Rubio, the Cavaliers defense should be better next season. They’re young, but so was Memphis the last two seasons and they were surprisingly good defensively.
It may not be enough for Cleveland to actually make strides in wins, but Cleveland’s defense is on track to be hellacious in the next few seasons. Isaac Okoro, Mobley, Larry Nance (if they don’t trade him), and Jarrett Allen all are above-average defenders.
It’s interesting that two of the top three players in the draft, Mobley and Cunningham, are players that look to make their teammates better while also having individual scoring skills. Not that Green can’t make his teammates better, but he’s more of an individual scoring force in the traditional mold.
Mobley impressed with simple stuff like his screens which peeled defenders, his movement in space on defensive rotations, etc. The basketball nerd stuff really stood out with Mobley.
I don’t think, however, there’s any value on Mobley to win ROY. There’s no chance he puts up the kind of numbers that would necessitate it. Even if the Cavs made a leap, if Steven Adams couldn’t get it with OKC on a legit contender, Mobley’s got no shot.
SCOTTIE BARNES, TORONTO RAPTORS
SCOUT TAKES: “Congrats to the Raptors for drafting yet another versatile, athletic wing who can defend.”
“He’s going to absolutely bully guys defensively.”
“Everyone’s curious what Toronto’s going to do long-term. You don’t look at Barnes and think they’re realigning anything, but he looks good. We’re still kind of waiting to see what else Masai is going to do.”
MY TAKE: Barnes’s rebounding stood out; he’s just physically impactful. His array of moves was also really good. He showed a floater, spot-up shots, off the dribble, and a pump-fake finish underneath among other moves.
I don’t think Barnes will get the usage to be a serious ROY candidate, but he looks NBA ready now which will help the Raptors’ win total.
TREY MURPHY III
Murphy’s not going to win ROY, but he was legitimately the most impressive player I saw this week. Scouts raved about his poise and overall game. He was good in every facet of the game. His size was impressive, he shot the lights out, he looked athletic and a cut above.
I legitimately think Murphy’s going to be a rotation player for the Pelicans in short order. He looks ready skills and body-wise.
INTEL AND MORE
- “We thought the Magic would take either (Franz) Wagner or Alperen Sengun. No one rethinks a draft after summer league, but I’ve seen some guys look rough. Wagner looked rough. Sengun obviously has looked amazing, but I still want to see him vs. NBA physicality.” – Eastern Conference scout
Sengun jumped up two weeks before the draft as a potential top-ten selection but slid on draft night to 16th (OKC’s, traded to Houston). He showcased range from the outside, the ability to finish inside, and some rim protection.
I’m not trying to splash water on the excitement about Sengun. This is the time to get irrationally excited about young guys. I do think putting expectations for him to be a top-level rookie are premature, especially given Houston’s frontcourt rotation.
- “Everyone’s watching Portland to start this year to see if they can hold it together. If they can’t, other execs will be calling for trades like sharks in the water. But remember, they have a habit of bouncing back just when you think they’re done. I liked their offseason even if there weren’t major changes. No one expects Dame to go anywhere this year, at least.” – Longtime league insider.
Portland didn’t have a pick this year, and their summer league team was perplexing. Instead of mostly young guys to take shots on, Portland brought in Kenneth Faried, Michael Beasley, and Emmanuel Mudiay. New coach Chauncey Billups was at Summer League, however, making the rounds.
There’s going to be tension to start the season with the Damian Lillard situation. Sometimes tension can spark good things, but there was a lot of eyebrow-raising with the folks I spoke to about them.
- Obi Toppin earned praise for showing real improvement on the ball. He’s 23, no spring chicken, and should dominate in this kind of space, but in the way of positive trends, Toppin took steps forward.
- Memphis’s entire program was impressive. Rookie Ziaire Williams was shifty and glided at times while showing a good skillset. Desmond Bane was charged with working more on-ball at distributing. It’s an interesting example of what Summer League is used for.
Bane’s a spot-up shooter, and one of the best in the league already. But the more you can do on-ball, the harder it is to just run you off the three-point line. Being more of a playmaker and a shooter only helps the Grizzlies offense.
So coach Darko Rajakovic had Bane prominently involved in running sets and running point. It wasn’t always pretty at times, but it’s an example of how teams can use summer league to work on specific skills that don’t make sense with the full squad.
Xavier Tillman also looked very much next level, running point center. The big man had 7 assists in the Wednesday game. There’s skepticism around the league about Killian Tillie handling NBA physicality, but his shooting is legit. He hit six threes in Memphis’ first win over the Nets.
- The most impressive vet at summer league? Bulls sophomore forward Patrick Williams. Beyond the scoring he showed as the Bulls told him he needed to work on being more aggressive and looking for his own scoring opportunities, Williams has grown. He joked after the Bulls’ first game that the training staff told him he’s grown, but he hasn’t checked.
Williams looks legitimately like a power forward now, just one with a switchable frame who can run the floor and shoot from the outside. With Lonzo Ball now next to Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan likely to start at small forward, Williams beefing up is going to help compliment the new Bulls lineup.
Don’t be surprised if Williams earns himself some Most Improved buzz this season, even if his stats won’t carry enough with whom he’s sharing the floor with now.
- I’m going to betting Aaron Nesmith three-point props whenever I can this season, and he needs to be in the 3-point contest, already.
- A lot of jokes were made at Dennis Schröder’s expense after he turned down a massive extension midseason only to wind up on a one-year, partial-MLE deal with Boston.
But one source had an interesting perspective: “There were about five teams shopping for point guards. They knew only one of them would get Lowry (Miami). No one knew for sure that the Pelicans would let Lonzo go or hold onto him for the asset. If the musical chairs had worked out differently, Dennis might have gotten that big offer. ”
“He’s a handful, that’s not a secret, but he bet on himself. Betting means risk, you’re not always going to come out ahead. But instead of it being something in particular about Schröder, I think it was more a product of the market’s musical chairs.”