- Top Knicks pick R.J. Barrett improved as the week wore on and the early returns of the Anthony Davis trade look positive, but the leading story from Vegas is the rookies who didn't play.
LAS VEGAS — While NBA Summer League is usually a time to exercise caution when it comes to sweeping takeaways, the annual slate of exhibition games typically stands as a useful barometer to assess where incoming rookies stand. Summer League is only truly make-or-break for those on the fringes fighting for jobs, but it’s a good place to take the temperature on individual hype, and to get a feel for players outside the context of their college teams. There’s no value in labeling anyone a bust, or conversely, crowning any players prematurely—this is a lower, far less structured level of basketball than the actual NBA—but with those things in mind, here are 10 takeaways from Las Vegas:
1. Admittedly, the overall buzz this year was somewhat muted by the fact that not many of the top rookies actually played. For varying reasons, just half the 14 lottery picks and 19 of 30 first-rounders actually participated in game action; Zion Williamson, De’Andre Hunter and Sekou Doumbouya played in just one game apiece. Top-five picks Ja Morant and Darius Garland sat out while recovering from injuries, and No. 6 pick Jarrett Culver didn’t play for reasons unclear. There was still plenty to watch, but in the context of the 2019 draft, there just wasn’t as much talent on display this year.
There’s an ongoing debate within the league about how much top rookies should be playing at Summer League, if at all, but league executives I spoke with felt that generally speaking, there’s a balance that can be struck. A team’s prized prospect sitting out a few games whose results have no direct bearing on the team’s future doesn’t create the same issues as superstars resting over the course of the season. We’d all love to see more Zion at all times, but for basketball junkies, there were still plenty of players worth watching.
2. One of the hot-button topics in Vegas were the intermittent struggles of Knicks forward and No. 3 pick R.J. Barrett, whose individual play improved as the week went on, but who drew a decent amount of scrutiny from rival scouts evaluating from the stands. His first two games were essentially duds, in which he forced up shots and hurt the team as a byproduct, and in his third game, the majority of his gaudy counting stats came after the Knicks were already down big. New York lost those three games, then won their last two (albeit against an iffy Lakers team and then the Wizards, who chose to rest their best players in a consolation game. The Knicks did get some strong individual play from Mitchell Robinson, but for a team that fielded several returning roster players, the results were uneven at best. As far as Barrett is concerned, it’s hard to wring your hands too hard, but over the course of various conversations with scouts, a few recurring concerns cropped up that he’ll eventually have to address.
First of all, it was hard to argue the fact that Barrett looked somewhat slow playing downhill off the dribble. He has always relied far more on strength and power than changing directions, and that aspect of his game is more pronounced at this level, where true athletic advantages tend to be much more noticeable. Some speculated that he might be playing at a heavier weight than at Duke, with some noticeable extra heft in his upper body. Creating separation doesn’t come as naturally to him, as Barrett prefers to try and get his defender on his shoulder and draw contact as he plows into the paint. There were some positive flashes where he finished with his off-hand, but the long-held concerns about his efficiency have some basis (he shot just 34% from the field on whole). Barrett’s three-point shot is still inconsistent, and still comes out of his hand hard and flat more often than you’d like. These are all things that can improve in time, as he develops a better sense for what he can and can’t get away with, but those issues, if not corrected, are going to make it hard for him to be supremely effective as a scorer. The fear is that his stats could come with volume but lack some substance.
The other thing that’s been nitpicked and has frequently resurfaced is the question of Barrett’s decision-making ability. “Everything feels pre-ordained,” as one executive put it. Barrett is more than capable of making reads and delivering assists, but the issue might be that his game lacks a degree of reactivity and improvisation. When he makes up his mind that he’s going to try and score, he rarely strays from it, and possessions where he takes that route often stall. His final game against Washington was the most encouraging, and when Barrett actively looks to pass, unsurprisingly, he’s much more difficult to defend. The issue is that he has to learn to flip that switch on, then flip it on every game if he wants to be a viable high-usage option in the NBA.
If there’s a big takeaway here, it’s just affirming that Barrett’s NBA learning curve might be steep, which is fine, but his rookie season is going to be about making smaller gains, improving his approach to playmaking, getting teammates involved, and learning to pick his spots rather than operating at an overly aggressive level, as he sometimes does. The best thing to do from an eval standpoint is try and throw out the hype that followed him to Duke, and hope he’ll address some of these larger questions as he matures. The Knicks are going to need to let him take some lumps this season, and see how he responds.
3. As for Barrett’s comrade Zion Williamson, his nine minutes of play for the Pelicans were nothing but a brief cameo, dimming some of the tangible excitement that brought fans out in droves for his debut. There were some initial nerves, then some dunks, and then he left and never game back after knocking knees with a Knicks opponent. New Orleans is being understandably cautious, particularly given Williamson isn’t in peak shape after a low-key predraft process, and that preserving his longevity is a key organizational item going forward. The only real Zion take is that he’s still extremely fun to watch (duh) and that the energy following him from arena to arena this season will be substantial.
4. The more interesting Pelicans storyline ended up being auspicious play from Williamson’s fellow rookies Jaxson Hayes (No. 8), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (No. 17), and Didi Louzada (No. 35), all acquired with picks netted from Atlanta by trading down from No. 4, which was a primary element of the Anthony Davis return from the Lakers. Safe to say, the return from that trade looks to be even more promising based on what we saw at Summer League, where Alexander-Walker may have been arguably the top performer at the entire event, Hayes’ freakish coordination at his size was often jaw-dropping, and Louzada, who will spend next season stashed in Australia, showed strong role-player capabilities.
Had the Pelicans snuck past Memphis on Sunday and made it to the title game, it’s reasonable to posit that Alexander-Walker would likely have been named the event’s MVP—he averaged 24.3 points, six assists, 4.8 rebounds and 2.7 steals while shooting 40% from three. We detailed some of this yesterday with our All-Summer League team picks, but arguably no rookie left as strong an impression, or generated as surprising a shift in perception. Alexander-Walker is naturally left-handed, but shoots jumpers with his right, making him something of an ambidextrous finisher and augmenting his ability to use angles as a precise passer of the ball. He looked more aggressive and more athletic than expected, and it won’t be a shock to see him earn some bench minutes this season, even though the Pelicans’ rotation looks rather crowded.
The other show-stopping rookie on the roster was Hayes, who, admittedly, had I seen him play in person this season, I probably would have been higher on coming into the draft. He’s the type of athlete you kind of have to process in person to properly understand, and despite the fact he’s played very little high-level basketball and has minimal bearing as far as how to really play at the moment, Hayes can get away with a lot just by dint of his instincts, vertical explosiveness and soft hands. A former football player, Hayes has no issue playing against contact and boasts a pretty unreal catch radius around the basket—he may well become one of the league’s top lob threats in a short span of time—but he’ll have to get stronger and can take this season to get up to speed with minimal pressure. He’s even showing a bit of touch shooting jumpers.
Also factoring in how well Louzada played, knocking down threes cleanly and playing active defense, New Orleans is clearly well-stocked with young talent as the post-Anthony Davis era begins, Zion notwithstanding. They’ll be a fascinating team to monitor come fall, and with nice players and future draft assets in hand via the Davis deal, they have the luxury of being able to compete with this group out of the gate.
5. Memphis’s Brandon Clarke, the No. 21 pick, was named Summer League MVP and helped the Grizzlies to the vaunted Vegas championship. His play was solid on whole, and Clarke was a highly divisive player among teams, as evidenced by his fall into the 20s. Still, Memphis seems likely to be a nice fit for his skill set, and they should be able to use him immediately in some capacity to try and figure out exactly what they have. Much of his offense is predicated on gameflow, and Ja Morant will be more than capable of finding him with lobs and on cuts. Jaren Jackson’s ability to space the floor should allow Clarke to roam the baseline and hunt rebounds. The fact Clarke’s three-point shot looks much-improved is hopefully a positive indicator, and he’s clearly a high-end athlete. But keep in mind that he’s still got a big test ahead against players who are just as physical and boast a size advantage on him at the NBA level. He’s got pronounced strengths and weaknesses, but should be able to contribute to a rotation in some capacity.
6. After using four draft picks amid a greater roster overhaul, the Celtics had one of the more interesting drafts, and while No. 14 pick Romeo Langford sat out while recovering from a wrist injury, Boston gave us a look at Grant Williams (No. 22) Carsen Edwards (No. 33) and Tremont Waters (No. 51), all of whom performed well. Edwards in particular shone with his ability to use ball screens, shoot from deep on the move, and attack the paint. His point guard skills are a work in progress, but he’s going to be an NBA-caliber scorer, and it might be enough to help overcome his size and defensive deficiencies.
Williams looked like he’d made legitimate strides shooting from outside with confidence, and if he adds that to his game, he looks like a pretty nice glue guy for the Celtics. You can always count on him playing hard and being in the right spot, and while his upside isn’t immense, if his shot is falling, it’s much easier to envision a clear role for him. And Waters, who Boston signed to a two-way contract, was his usual self, and should be an interesting play for where they got him.
7. The other Boston storyline was the ongoing Tacko Fall saga, which continued at Summer League despite limited playing time (averaging 12.6 minutes over five games). The 7’6” Fall is a fan favorite wherever he goes—there were literally fans wearing taco costumes in the crowd at one of his games—and he turned in productive spot minutes while continuing to warp the court in unusual fashion. It’s still tough to say whether he’ll stick in the NBA (the Celtics reportedly have him on an Exhibit 10 deal, meaning he’ll likely go to training camp with them), but watching Boston use him situationally on a micro level to defend late-clock inbound plays was pretty interesting. In any case, we probably haven’t seen the last of Tacko.
8. Golden State certainly had one of the more immediately relevant drafts, given they’re going to hope their rookies can augment their rotation this season as they try and get their ship back in order. Jordan Poole was impressive at times, and while he’s still inconsistent, his potentially high-end shot-making skills certainly help justify his spot where they took him at No. 28. He could be a bench option at some point. Eric Paschall (No. 41) is physically ready to contribute if his shooting also translates, and Alen Smailagic (No. 39) is a pretty intriguing project, although he’s by far the furthest from helping them this second. I’m honestly not sure if any of these guys are close to ready, but that situation could change come fall. Perhaps the more important timeline is two years from now, where the Warriors will be healthier and presumably ready to contend in full again.
9. Players I retroactively wish I’d ranked higher, for what it’s worth: Hayes (who I had at 11), Tyler Herro (15), Edwards (28), Matisse Thybulle (30), Poole (53) and Didi Louzada (55).
10. Guys I’m admittedly lower on at the moment than I was a month ago: Sekou Doumbouya (who came in at No. 9), Nassir Little (14), Bruno Fernando (21), and Luguentz Dort (32, but went undrafted).