Summer League is all about finding the next big stars, right? Well, sort of.
For most rookies, it’s about making a great first impression and seeing how quickly they will acclimate to the new level. Top picks and “sure-thing” guys go through the motions to reinforce what we already know. For everyone else trying to carve out a role—which is the vast majority of players at the event—there is a lot to overreact to, but also a lot to gain from examining Summer League performances.
Doing so requires a HUGE grain of salt, however. Those doing the analysis must to translate what they are seeing to NBA games. If a player can do something in Las Vegas but will not be asked to do so on an NBA team, what is the point of praising such a performance? Likewise, if a player’s role is to be a defender or finisher, raw stats may never tell the story of how quickly they will transition.
Thus, rookie heads are spinning as they try to digest new terminology, enormous pressures and a renewed physicality and athleticism they face. The guys that are most primed to succeed in Summer League are veterans that have gone through the experience once (or even a few times) before and are ready to prove they can take the next step when the games matter most.
That’s who we’re looking at because that’s who are oftentimes one step closer to tangible roles.
Lonnie Walker IV, San Antonio Spurs
No singular star broke out more than Lonnie Walker IV this summer. He’s been a scoring machine both in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, proving that he’s both worth the San Antonio Spurs’ investment and has improved vastly since being drafted thirteen months ago.
For all the trumpeting that goes on about the three-point shot versus phasing out mid-range jumpers, being able to score off the pull-up is still an important weapon for elite, top-level scorers. Walker showcased that both in summer leagues: He was second in the Salt Lake City league in scoring and was by far the best guard at the event:
Summer League is all about finding evidence that a player’s skills are developing and will translate to NBA game action. Walker flashed these consistently enough to warrant such consideration, and it’s not difficult to imagine how he’ll show them in San Antonio.
The Spurs’ long-term backcourt consists of Walker, Derrick White and Dejounte Murray in some combination, with Bryn Forbes not too far behind. As slashers known first for their defensive aptitude, Murray and White need to be flanked by a go-to scorer. Seeing Walker gun in Summer League and score in isolation or with mid-range pull-ups will be akin to his role with the big league club.
Walker’s a talented shooter with some reworked mechanics. He drilled a couple of treys off the dribble and from spot-up situations as well. I came away most impressed with both his mid-range scoring and the ability to his extended floaters and layups.
Standing 6’5″ with an outrageous 6’10” wingspan, Walker can hit some layups that others simply cannot. He twists and contorts his upper body in mid-air, and his huge hands help him control the ball while making such moves.
He takes off from just inside the free throw line before exploding up and extending to finish:
If met with size, Walker doesn’t rely on his length or athleticism to go around the defender. That’s an important takeaway for playoff games when the margin for error is razor thin. When facing off with a great rim protector that can match his length, can Walker control his body and score with craftiness and not just athleticism?
Based on a couple of nice floaters, the answer is yes (so far):
I’ve always been high on Walker and had the privilege of knowing his story back to his high school days. He’s a hard worker, loyal, highly educated and of the utmost character. The Spurs got a steal when they took him, and it seems that their investment will pay dividends sooner rather than later.
Walker appears primed and ready to make an offensive impact early in his career.
Zhaire Smith, Philadelphia 76ers
Let this serve as a gentle reminder that scoring is not everything, however.
Expecting a well-rounded or defensive-minded player to make a massive offensive impact just because the competition in Summer League is inferior to the regular season would be foolish. The talent disparity is not that great, so this is not even akin to playing in college.
Zhaire Smith has proved well-rounded and primed for a strong defensive impact when he hits the Philadelphia 76ers rotation this year. After a lost rookie season due to injury and infection, his impact has been largely forgotten in the chaos of this summer’s transactions. Nonetheless, he’s a large addition to a Sixers team hoping to vie for a title.
The Sixers have so many primary weapons on their team to choose from: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson and Al Horford will do the lion’s share of facilitating, so players like Smith are bound to be spot-up options and guys coming off screens.
When examining the Summer League impact of guys like him, the stuff with the ball is all long-term development. If you want to see what kind of mark he can leave right away, watch for his defense and off-ball movement.
Defensively, Smith is a highly instinctual player with an awesome feel for the game. Despite his tumultuous and rocky health situation of the past year, that understanding and IQ did not disappear. He made a beautiful read from the weak side to anticipate a skip pass, tracking the ball and turning his intelligence into two points on a breakaway:
Zhaire has bunnies and is one of the better leapers of all young guys in the league. However, his question mark has often been the consistency of that shooting stroke. Teams will go underneath him on screens, or at least view him as a minimal threat to score off them.
Still, he’s recently showed some ability to shoot the three off the bounce when teams go under, so watch for that development in coming months and years.
For Smith to make an impact as a “forgotten” fifth option, he must understand how teams will play him, especially with his backdoor cutting when he’s in the corner. A timeline cut along the baseline when his defender turns head will get Smith a layup. These cuts have to be timed correctly: If he doesn’t succeed, he’ll screw up spacing and leave a corner completely unoccupied.
His timing was impeccable and successful when he tried such a move against the Boston Celtics summer squad:
Smith has a long way to go to improve with the ball in his hands. He’s a bit unclean as a ball handler and doesn’t make high-level reads necessary to deserve a facilitating role.
But his defense will get him spot minutes immediately, and if he continues to show the ability to shoot and attack the rim off screening actions or spot-up situations, his role will expand.
Bruce Brown, Detroit Pistons
Sometimes a guy needs to come to Las Vegas and show what he’s gained since the end of the last season.
Bruce Brown has indicated he can make a positive offensive impact, and that the training regimen he’s undergone with the Detroit Pistons will prepare him to step up in his sophomore campaign.
We’ve known for a long time what he can do as a defender, and that NBA-ready ability should continue propelling him to minutes on a wing-short Pistons team. It did as a rookie, and he proved he can guard multiple spots on the perimeter.
As Pistons writer Mike Snyder hinted at in Brown’s defensive highlight video, he’s only a few pounds away from being a versatile perimeter piece that can guard 1 thru 4:
Bruce Brown can already slide with way too many ones, twos and threes. If he adds the standard 15 pounds of pure muscle this offseason, a few fours might be next. His switchability is something the Pistons desperately need: pic.twitter.com/D43xUDL4vv
— Mike Snyder (@M_James_Snyder) July 2, 2019
In order to justify playing him more than a few minutes, however, Brown has to improve as a jump shooter and offensive piece. And while the defensive improvement areas may be focused around adding size and checking up forwards, his offensive goals seem to have revolved around playing as a de facto point guard.
It’s a brilliant adjustment to flip the script, as Dwane Casey and his staff are looking at both the long-term holes the Pistons have at the position and a way to let Brown’s natural athleticism take over. (Don’t forget, Reggie Jackson doesn’t seem like the long-term answer there, and newly arrived Derrick Rose played more at shooting guard during his mostly successful Minnesota Timberwolves stint.)
Brown only averaged 2.3 assists per 36 minutes as a rookie, but that number figures to skyrocket if he gets this role back in the Motor City. That’s because his high-level passes give great optimism. Check out this wonderful kickout perfectly delivered across his body to a spot-up shooter:
Brown also utilized snaking the pick-and-roll, an advanced concept that sucks the screener’s defender with him. He so easily manipulated the defense and made a great read to hit the rolling big for a lob:
For someone that did not play with the ball in their hands a lot as a rookie, Brown has some really savvy tricks. On more than one occasion, he was able to use his eyes to manipulate the defense. He looked off help defenders to get his teammate an open three-pointer. He also was able to read the help defense and anticipate their rotation to find the open teammate.
Plays like this are far more nuanced than a first-time point guard should be able to make:
After only shooting 25.8 percent as a rookie, the Pistons have apparently decided to not just rework the jumper but to adjust Brown’s game so he can thrive if it doesn’t develop. That’s an indication they want him on the floor. Right away.
Keep your eyes on Brown heading into next year.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, basketball-reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of July 9, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.