After a hiatus last year, thanks to the lockout, the NBA Summer League returned to action the past few weeks in Orlando and Las Vegas. Summer League provides the first opportunity to see recent draftees face off against NBA competition, albeit the lowest tier of players. Regardless, it can give a glimpse of what players can one day become. Here’s are some observations from this year’s Summer League.
1. Damian Lillard is the real deal
Portland’s point guard, drafted 6th overall, got some heat for never going against elite competition, having played his college ball at Weber State. His performance in Vegas quelled any worries that this would be a problem. Lillard averaged 26.5 points, 4 rebounds, and 5.3 assists in four Summer League games, earning co-MVP honors with Memphis guard Josh Selby.
Lillard showed off his hops, did a great job of getting to the line, demonstrated the deep range of his shot, and showed that he’s not just a scorer and can also pass. For someone who didn’t play against elite competition in college and declined to participate in any group workouts prior to the draft, Lillard had a great showing, proving that his skills can translate to the next level.
2. Even if they couldn’t trade into the top 10, Houston may have had the best draft
The Rockets may have helped themselves in their quest for Dwight Howard this Summer League. Their roster was stacked with young talent, and they all met their expectations. Jeremy Lamb showed off his scoring ability by averaging 20 points a game. Terrence Jones put up 18 points on 50% shooting and added 8.6 rebounds per game. Royce White demonstrated his versatile skill set, averaging 8.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists including several highlight reel passes. Undrafted rookie Scott Machado, who led the NCAA in assists, also showed his passing ability averaging 5.6 assists. Finally, Donatas Montiejunas, a rookie drafted last year, was very impressive. He averaged 16 points on 62% shooting along with 8 rebounds.
All these players proved they can make an impact on the game and could be dangled as trade bait to Orlando in exchange for Dwight. But if that doesn’t work, Houston will have a team filled with young talent.
3. Big name struggles
A number of players from the past two drafts with high expectations had a rough Summer League. Dion Waiters, Andre Drummond, Thomas Robinson, Jared Sullinger, Austin Rivers, and Derrick Williams all had their struggles. Waiters shot just 30% from the field, which won’t quiet critics who thought the Cavs took him too high at fourth overall.
Drummond wasn’t awful, but he lived up to his reputation of a lackluster motor and horrendous free throw shooting (he air balled a free throw wide left). Drummond averaged just 7 points and 5 rebounds to go with his 25% free throw shooting and seemed to be hesitant to use his elite athleticism on offense, resorting instead to fade away midrange shots. Not exactly what you want to see from a player drafted solely for his hops and strength.
Robinson rebounded the ball excellently, pulling down nearly 10 a game, but he struggled mightily on offense, converting just 34% of his shots. He also blocked only 1 shot in five games. You have to expect more from the number 5 pick playing against the lowest level of NBA players.
Sullinger started off well in Orlando with a 20 point outing, but struggled in most of the other games, fueling the fire that critics lit when questioning his ability to score over the NBA’s lengthy and athletic players. In 9 games, Sullinger shot over 40% just three times. He rebounded well, but his offensive ceiling may be as more of a jump shooter, a la Glen Davis.
Austin Rivers only played two games, thanks to an injury, but was not impressive in either of them. He shot just 21% from the field, 1 of 8 from deep, and averaged 5.5 fouls per game. It’s a small sample size, but Rivers may not be a dominant scoring threat as quickly as previously thought.
Lastly, Derrick Williams, drafted second overall in 2011, did not perform well despite dropping nearly 15 pounds in the offseason. Williams had a tough time finding his shot, hitting just 35% of his field goals. After a less than impressive rookie season, a much improved year is not out of the question, but doesn’t appear too likely given his Summer League play.
4. Expect a step forward from Klay Thompson
In contrast to Williams, Thompson seems to be ready for a breakout season. After spending a week in Las Vegas practicing with Team USA, Thompson played two Summer League games and was fairly dominant. He hit 10 of 14 three point shots en route to averaging 20.5 points per game. Equally impressive were his
rebounding and assist numbers, as well as his defensive play. He grabbed 6 boards a game and dished out 4.5 assists, showing he’s more than just a catch and shoot player. With Monta Ellis’ departure, Klay will have more room to grow and show his complete game. His 1.5 blocks and steals each also points towards some defensive improvements. The Warriors could have found a gem with the 11th pick last year.
5. Don’t get too excited
The final and most important point is to take everything that happens in the Summer League not just with a grain of salt, but with the whole shaker. Too often in the past have players built up their hype by dominant Summer League performances only to disappoint in the regular season.
The most notable recent example is Anthony Randolph in 2009. Randolph was incredible in the Summer
League, averaging 27 points on 61% shooting to go with 9 rebounds, 2 steals, and 3 blocks. He followed that up with a fairly mediocre season, scoring 11.6 points on 44% shooting and getting 6.5 rebounds a game. Not terrible, but certainly a far cry from his summer stats. Since then Randolph has languished at the end of the bench due to his inconsistency and poor shot selection.
Josh Selby could be a prime example this year of why to temper Summer League excitement. 24 points per game on 56% shooting for a point guard are impressive numbers, but you have to put it in context of what it is. The style of Summer League games resemble street ball much more than a structured, slow paced NBA game. The competition is also at a whole different echelon, as most of the Summer League’s players are just scrapping for an invite to training camp. Of the few that earn that invite, even less will actually make an NBA roster. Furthermore, the role that players have on Summer League teams are generally far different than what it will be during the regular season. Selby will not be the star player on the Grizzlies next year. He won’t be given the green light to chuck up 8 threes a game as he did in Vegas. He won’t have the ball in his hands for 27 minutes a game.
It goes both ways. Even though Damian Lillard was great, he still may struggle in the regular season against faster, taller, stronger, more athletic players than he faced throughout the Summer League. And as a rookie, he won’t be the number one option on offense, particularly with LaMarcus Aldridge on his team.
Summer League is a whole different animal, so while it can offer hope that one day a player can bring a similar performance to an NBA game, they first must prove themselves during the actual NBA season to earn a role on their team that would put them in position to duplicate their summer numbers.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Summer League stats are no exception.