The NBA Summer League continues this weekend, but at this point most of the players who will be on NBA rosters next season — not to mention the media (myself included) — have pulled out of Las Vegas.
Who stood out? Who should we keep an eye on when the season starts? Here are 10 players to watch, from the obvious big names to a few under the radar guys.
(This is not a complete list and only includes players I’ve personally seen, not Keegan Murray of the Kings, who dominated the California Classic. These are just guys who impressed me.)
SECOND YEAR PLAYERS TOO GOOD FOR THE SUMMER LEAGUE
1). Jabari Smith Jr. (Houston Rockets)
Jabari Smith Jr. was the best player in Las Vegas. No doubt.
He played in eight quarters at Summer League and we’re going to throw out the first two – after that he was a dominant force, scoring 71 points in two games. His shot was efficient, he defended well, was strong on the glass and found open teammates. Perhaps most impressive were its improved grips and ability to take pictures.
“I think it’s just confidence, you know,” Smith said of his improved grips. “I feel like I spent a lot of time just trying to take bumps and be decisive with your moves. Not just having a range of moves per se, but just being able to handle the ball, take bumps and having a few moves go-to moves.
“I loved his competitiveness. I loved his maturity,” said Rockets Summer League coach Ben Sulivan. “I like the dynamic skills he’s brought to the attack – he’s posted, he handles pick-and-rolls, he sets screens, he picks and pops. We moved them all to different areas of the floor and he has shown that he can handle it all.
Smith also had the best shot of Summer League.
2) Max Christie (Los Angeles Lakers)
The Lakers are deep this season with solid role players around their stars, but Darvin Ham will have to give Christie some minutes. The Michigan State sophomore got a limited streak as a rookie, but looks poised to average more 19 points per game, half of his threes and 6.3 rebounds per game in Vegas. He was the Lakers best player in Summer League and has earned some points.
Christie played three games and then was sidelined for a “minor hip injury”. He didn’t have to play in the Summer League anyway, he didn’t learn anything from this level of play.
ROOKIES SHOWING PROMISE
3) Scoot Henderson (Portland Trailblazers)
This was an obvious shot, even though he played just over half of Summer League basketball before Portland pulled him for a shoulder injury (sources told NBC Sports that his sitting out is more precautionary than an actual injury).
Not only did Henderson look good “Should Charlotte have taken him at No. 2”, he was “Could he be better than…no…probably not” good. Yes, the otherworldly athleticism and NBA build are there, but mostly Henderson just knew how to lead a team – he wasn’t rushed, he used his handles and creativity to make room, and then he made the right decision about shooting or finding the open man. He just reads everything right.
He finished with 15 points (not bad for half the basketball, really), and while the jumper needs to get more stable, Henderson was as good as it gets for a Las Vegas rookie.
4) Victor Wembanyama (San Antonio Spurs)
Of course he had to be on the list.
The ups and downs we saw during Wembanyama’s attack in Las Vegas could be a preview of what we’ll see in San Antonio throughout the season. Along the same lines, the impressive defensive impact we saw in both Vegas games will follow him into the NBA season.
What personally impressed me most about Wembanyama was his maturity and poise. He treated the weird Britney Spears incident as a 10 year old vet and wasn’t fazed by a rough first outing. He can handle the roller coaster that is the NBA.
5) Keynote George (Utah Jazz)
Going into the NBA Draft, the question was, “Can he score consistently at the NBA level?” George’s 59 points in his first two games in Vegas suggest he can. Doing in the Summer League where the style of play suits him is different than during the NBA season, but George impressed. He’s worth seeing.
6) Anthony Black (Orlando Magic)
Teams loved Black going into the draft for his size for a lead guard – 6’6″ – and his defense, and both were on display in Las Vegas. However, what impressed me more were his game management skills and decision making in what can be a chaotic Summer League environment.
“Really calm and poised,” Orlando Summer League coach Dylan Murphy said of Black. “I think he doesn’t get upset very easily, very easy to play with, the guys like to play with him. Just a great way from him. I think that will serve him well in this competition for a long time .”
Black needs to develop a consistent shot to maximize those skills at the NBA level, but he showed enough in Las Vegas to impress with the potential of what he could become.
7) Jarace Walker (Indiana Pacers)
To say that Walker has an NBA-ready body does him short – he has an NFL-ready body of 6’8″ and 240. In addition to being strong, he is also mobile, making disruptive defensive plays and running to the brink in the What stood out was how he could do a little playmaking – he brought the ball up a few times for the Pacers.
“The guy is very versatile,” said Pacers coach Jannero Pargo. “He can handle the ball and play offensively. So sometimes we put the ball in his hands and he makes great moves.”
Like most rookies in Summer League (and on this list), he needs to develop a more consistent shot. But it’s easy to imagine Walker trailing a little behind Obi Toppin (one of the quietly great picks of the off-season) ahead of Rick Carlisle.
8) Cam Whitmore (Houston Missiles)
Whatever the red flags—medical or concerns about his drive—that caused him to fall off draft boards, watching him in Las Vegas, it was hard to believe a team hadn’t attacked him before. He pairs well with the talented sophomore players in Houston — Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason — and looks like a player.
“He has a really, really unique game, plays really hard,” Smith said of his teammate. “He’s young, he’s just very explosive. So I just tried to tell him to keep it simple and let the game come to him.”
GUYS UNDER THE RADAR
9) Orlando Robinson (Miami Heat)
Robinson played 31 games for the Heat last season, but on a roster that included Bam Adebayo at center backed by Cody Zeller (and then Kevin Love came in and recorded minutes in five), the Fresno State rookie was an afterthought.
He shouldn’t be anymore – his game in Las Vegas demanded attention. In two games at Sin City, he averaged 25.5 points on 59.4% shooting with 10 rebounds per night – and was 4-of-7 of 3 in those games. The average of the two games played at the California Classic and Robinson is at 17.8 points a game at 51% shooting and still well above 50% from beyond the arc.
There aren’t many front court minutes to be had in Miami, with Adebayo, Love and now Thomas Bryant in the mix, but if Robinson plays like this – and hits like this from 3 – Erik Spoelstra will have to get him on the court.
10) Dominick Barlow (San Antonio Spurs)
Everyone came to the Spurs games to watch Wembanyama, but many people were also impressed by Barlow.
Barlow had a two-way contract with the Spurs last season after being cut from the Overtime Elite, but he looks like someone the Spurs don’t need to get a roster contract (minimum or close, but still) before another team steps in hold him. Barlow had 17 points and six rebounds against the Trail Blazers, comes with an NBA body and could be another success story for the Spurs’ development program.