“It’s just summer league” is the common refrain.
Sure the competition doesn’t match the level that will be seen during the regular season. And there is no guarantee that summertime exploits, good or bad, will translate to the meaningful games to come. But with players from one of the most promising draft classes in years getting their feet wet in this year’s summer league, interest was high. And the incoming rookies provided plenty of intrigue.
A lot of the hype surrounding 2017 summer league centered around second overall pick Lonzo Ball. After a disastrous debut that had the haters swarming on twitter, Lonzo changed his shoes and started balling out. An ensuing triple-double sent the trolls back under their bridges, while Ball continued to score, pass and rebound his way to Vegas League MVP. He averaged 16.3 points, 9.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds and has Lakers fans dreaming of Showtime 2.0.
Ball’s unorthodox shooting mechanics may still prove to be problematic against taller, quicker NBA defenders, and he still needs to demonstrate an ability to create in the half-court. But his otherworldly passing ability was on full display, and he is a force in the open court. Despite the room for improvement, he looked every bit the part of a franchise cornerstone, and his summer league performance has only served to bolster the hype train as we head into the season.
As impressive as Ball was, he was far from the only rookie to make waves.
Top overall pick Markelle Fultz’s run in Vegas was cut short by an ankle injury that had Sixers fans running for the liquor cabinet. But the injury appears to be nothing more than a common ankle sprain, leaving the fans in Philadelphia to focus on Fultz’s impressive play in the Utah portion of the summer league while dreaming of a homegrown big three.
Fultz was the second leading scorer in Utah, with 20 points per game. He displayed an ability to score from all three levels and created his own offense with ease. Fultz appeared to be a perfect fit to play with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, demonstrating why the Sixers traded up to secure his services.
Meanwhile, the player who ended up on the other end of that Celtics-Sixers pick swap, Jayson Tatum, had Celtics fans rethinking their vitriol for Danny Ainge. After posting 18.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in Utah, Tatum continued his assault in Vegas, posting 17.7 points and eight rebounds.
Tatum showed the ability to score in multiple ways, but his biggest asset entering his rookie season is creating and exploiting mismatches. He can shoot over shorter defenders and take slower ones off the dribble. The duo of Tatum and teammate Jaylen Brown spent stretches terrorizing summer league competition. The Celtics look to be set up for sustained success.
Dennis Smith Jr. currently leads the pack for the “Most Likely To Have GM’s Kicking Themselves” award. Smith Jr. combined his explosive athleticism with a well-rounded game, contributing in a multitude of ways. His electric first step and dynamic jumping ability help him feast at the rim and put pressure on defenses. If his jump shot falls with any consistency, his offensive ceiling is sky-high. His freakish athleticism makes him a potential nightmare defensively as well. Smith Jr. is a highlight waiting to happen, and he could be a potential steal for the Mavs.
Speaking of steals, Donovan Mitchell comes out of the summer league looking like the steal of the draft. Mitchell demonstrated an ability to be a prolific scorer, leading the Vegas session with 28 points per game. As impressive as his proclivity for scoring was, perhaps even more impressive was Mitchell’s impact on the defensive end. He proved to be an excellent on-the-ball defender, with his length adding to his ability to be disruptive. Mitchell had both his offensive and defensive skills on display in a 37-point, eight-steal performance against the Grizzlies.
As good as Mitchell was on the court, his coachability and willingness to improve might be even greater predictors of his future success. Those traits, combined with his defensive ability, should allow him to get plenty of playing time and help him navigate the learning curve. If even a portion of Mitchell’s summer league showing translates in October, the Jazz will be thrilled with the value they got with the 13th overall pick.
It was “only” summer league, but the 2017 draft class lived up to its billing in its first taste of NBA action. The rookies showed plenty to get excited about. While the early returns should be taken with a grain of salt, the hype around this class has only been heightened by the summer league performances. October can’t get here soon enough.
Josh Naso aka The Silver Fox has a love for all things sports that borders on disorder. Here, he aims to share his thoughts on and passion for those sports with you.