My Favorite Encouraging Flashes from Summer League
Looking at rookies who displayed new tools or showed improvement
Summer League has come to a close, and once again, it was an EXPERIENCE. By now, most of us know not to put too much stock into Summer League. Trae Young famously struggled on the circuit prior to his rookie season, and he just led the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals. On the contrary, 2012 Summer League Co-MVP Josh Selby is still yet to have his breakout season (though this could be the year). In my view, you shouldn’t buy or sell a player’s stock in totality because of how they play in these games. Instead, I think it’s best to look at possible additions to their repertoire or areas improvement. It’s all about the flashes! These small moments give a sense for how seriously a player is taking the flaws in their game, and provides an insight into how they could potentially raise their ceiling. Many players are not able to show off their full range of skills prior to the NBA, due to either scheme, spacing, or roster construction. Here are some of the flashes that I saw from rookies in Summer League that stood out to me.
Jalen Johnson- Shooting Improvement
Jalen Johnson had a tremendous Summer League. As I wrote in my Big Board column, I see Johnson’s defensive tools to be his meal ticket. He is outstanding on that end of the floor, and he was wildly disruptive in his four games with the Hawks. I loved his defense going in to these games, and it was really exciting to see him thoroughly bought in on that side of the floor. Where Johnson surpassed my expectations was with his shooting stroke. At Duke, Johnson looked stiff and mechanical on his jumpers.
On the miss above in particular, his feet aren’t squared toward the basket as he begins his shooting motion. He then brings the ball across his body in a slow, clunky release.
In this second clip, Johnson has his feet pointed toward the rim. The release is faster, smoother, and the ball moves in a straight line up his body. It’s a significant improvement for him, and the results showed up on the stat sheet as well. Johnson made 41.7% of his threes on 3 attempts per game. He’s clearly more confident, and the increase in volume from where he was in college is great to see. Johnson also hit 81% of his free throws, up from 63% last season. We are working with small sample sizes all around, but the mechanical improvements on film at game speed seem to be indicative of real improvement.
Trey Murphy- Rebounding and Attacking Closeouts
I was high on Trey Murphy going into the draft, ranking him 13th on my Big Board. He has great length at 6’9”, shoots exceptionally well off the catch from deep, and does a great job of moving his feet on the defensive end. One of my concerns, however, was his physicality. Murphy is slender, so despite his height, he’s likely going to be limited to the 2 and 3 spots to start his career. He also posted pedestrian rebounding numbers during his college career. To play the 4, Murphy needs to fill out and get better at handling contact on the glass. In Summer League, he did that! Murphy posted 7 rebounds per game and seemed content to mix it up on the boards. Obviously, in Summer League, we are dealing with (in general) smaller players with less filled out bodies than most NBA veterans, but it was still encouraging. Additionally, Murphy showed promise with regard to another swing skill area for him, attacking closeouts.
Here, he knows he isn’t getting a good look off the catch, and he confidently puts the ball on the floor. Though he doesn’t blow past the defender, he goes between the legs to keep the defender slightly off balance while using his frame to push toward the elbow. Murphy then counters back in the other direction, eating up space and getting closer to the basket. He also stays aware of the help defender and doesn’t allow himself to get stripped as he goes into the finish. It isn’t the prettiest or smoothest play, but there is a lot to like that goes on in that ten seconds. Murphy had a sense for his body as well as the body of the defender, and the court as a whole. Knowing where he was with regard to the basket, and knowing where the help was coming from, are good indicators of his ability to read the game in real time.
Josh Christopher- Distribution
Josh Christopher has earned a reputation as a bucket getter, so for many people, including myself, it seemed like the one thing he would need to iron out would be his three point shooting. Christopher struggled from deep in his Summer League games, but he showed off a nifty new tool- the ability to read the floor and find open teammates. Christopher didn’t look to distribute much at Arizona State, and I’m now left wondering how much of that had to do with the circumstances at hand. He was stuck on a team with a lot of guys who don’t look to create for others, so as a player who wanted to be one-and-done, Christopher may have felt the need to use his on-ball opportunities to get his own. In his 15 college games, Christopher totaled 21 assists. Christopher would match that total in his 5 Summer League games. It may not be that he can’t do it, just that he didn’t do it, because he needed to put himself in a position to succeed.
We got to see glimpses of genuine creativity from Christopher when it came to finding teammates, like with this sneaky interior find to Sengun. Christopher already has an NBA body, and he can play tough defense. Offensively, if he polishes his distribution skills, his ability to hit threes will matter significantly less. He’ll have to do far better than the 18% from three he shot in Summer League, no doubt. But with his brute strength to punish weaker defenders and burst to drive by slower ones, developing a good passing game could make him a positive advantage creator on offense.
Alperen Sengun- Defense and Athleticism
I have long believed that some of the concerns around Sengun’s athleticism were slightly overblown, and largely exaggerated by people who had not actually seen much of his film. He’s certainly not Kai Jones, but he’s not Luka Garza, either. In fact, Sengun torched Garza in the post for a nice bucket during the Rockets/Pistons game. But where Sengun impressed me the most athletically was with how well he slid his feet in pick and roll coverage and on the perimeter.
Here, he did an excellent job of trapping Saddiq Bey in the corner for a turnover. Sengun stays handsy and gets into Bey’s handle, and the incoming double team becomes insurmountable.
On this play, Sengun does a wonderful job of staying vertical. He knows that Saben Lee loves to drive, so he anticipates, stays with him, contests, and doesn’t commit a foul.
On the play above, Sengun forces a pass out of a shot by making himself big, recovers, and then blocks the next attempt. There are still some valid concerns around what he’ll be able to do defensively in the playoffs, but I was encouraged by the fact that he knew where to be, and he knew how to coax offensive players into making mistakes. He’s savvy, and that may allow him to overcome his lack of length/speed.
Jonathan Kuminga- Defensive Buy-In
Jonathan Kuminga’s G League stint was highlighted by big moments; ridiculous passes, breathtaking dunks, and flashy defensive stops. However, as their shortened season progressed, his inattentiveness on the defensive end became an issue. Often times, he wasn’t in a defensive stance, and he could be lackadaisical on rotations. Though Kuminga still had offensive struggles, his time in Summer League featured an impressive improvement in terms of his defensive engagement.
Kuminga can be a smart player. On offense, he’ll occasionally make great reads to find open teammates. There is no reason he can’t bring that level of intellect to the defensive side of the ball, and we got to see it more consistently with the Warriors. Given his frame and tools, being a high-effort defender will be a path to buy himself playing time early in his career.
James Bouknight, Cam Thomas, and Sharife Cooper- Three Point Percentage
The three players noted above all took threes at a high clip in college, but shot below average percentages from deep. Each of them also took a big step forward in terms of percentage during Summer League. For Bouknight, it had to do with less defensive focus being placed on him. For Cam Thomas, it was being slightly more conservative with which threes he takes, and which he doesn’t. With Cooper, it appears to be a mechanical tweak.
Sharife Cooper had a nasty habit of shooting a lean-back set shot during his time at Auburn. He’d shown an improvement during the pre-draft process, but I prefer to take empty gym workouts with a grain of salt. In Summer League, we got to see Sharife clean up his shot at game speed. He was still only 33% from deep, but given how easily he got into the paint, and how absurd his passing repertoire is, near-average is all he will have to be to carve out a role as a reliable offensive weapon.
Moses Moody- Finishing Craft
Moses Moody is a favorite of mine, and I slotted him 5th on my Big Board because I love his shot-making ability, length, and defensive acumen. A swing skill for Moody will be both getting to, and converting at, the basket. Though Moody has great length, he is still young and thin. In college, he didn’t always do the best job of handling contact, and he because of his frame, he couldn’t punish smaller defenders. I thought the most obvious path for Moody would be to gain size and better absorb physicality. Instead, it may be more simple: taking advantage of his length around the cup.
Moody has shown an ability to convert from long range with a hand in his face. In Summer League, he showed the ability to do it at the rim. It was exciting to see this new wrinkle in his game.
Bones Hyland- Floor Vision
I’ve never doubted Bones’ ability to score the basketball. I did have serious concerns about his tendency to develop tunnel vision, however. There would be possessions at VCU where Bones would be so locked in to getting to his spot, that he would miss the help defender and get stripped. Other times, he would force a bad shot because he had seemingly made up his mind before the possession started that it was going to end with him shooting.
On this play, Bones could have easily launched into a transition three or tried to take the defender off the bounce. Instead, he took a moment, surveyed the defense, and realized that he had Bol Bol trailing with a ton of momentum behind him. Hyland averaged 4.8 assists to 3.3 turnovers, a sizable improvement over his 2.1-to-3.1 assist to turnover ratio last season in college.
Josh Giddey- Screen Navigation
Josh Giddey played less than two minutes of basketball in a Thunder uniform, but I still liked what I saw! Those who are lower on Giddey will point to his athleticism, particularly with regard to his first step. Giddey’s handle can get away from him at times, and he doesn’t have high-end burst or shake off the dribble. He doesn’t profile as an isolation creator. As a result, he will need to use screens well in order to create at the NBA level.
Here, Cade Cunningham catches a hard screen, and Giddey pounces. He notices that the screener’s defender was out of position, so he drives in a straight line toward the rim. Giddey then avoids the swipe from the help defender, goes up, and finishes the dunk with the screen defender firmly behind him. Giddey may not be the fastest, but his ability to instantly recognize and process opportunities is top notch, and does an excellent job of making up for that issue.
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