Rookie Watch: a look-in from the Las Vegas Summer League

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Even the most seasoned veteran of it will concede that the NBA Draft is a crapshoot.

The weeks leading up to the NBA Draft are a multi-faceted process designed to truly determine a player's ability. The triumphant final act of actually selecting players on draft night and trading them from team to team is supposed to be the conclusion of an indefinite period of study, of information gathering, of forecasting. Having been through group workouts, individual workouts, measurement drills, combine interviews, discussions with their previous coaches and the parsing of their entire playing careers to date both analytically and with the eyes, the idea is that, come draft night, teams know who is best.

But no amount of data gathering makes that a particularly exact science. Indeed, as one executive wistfully put it; "even after all that work, we're still guessing".

In this era of greatly expanded data, as the analytics movement becomes too entrenched to ever detach and as the onset of technologies such as Second Spectrum create vast swathes of data points that no one has yet been able to fully optimise due to its sheer volume, teams have so much to use to determine the best players in a draft. And yet every year, some players go too high, and some go too low.

Human fealty is a part of it. Sometimes, teams become enamoured with certain players and succumb to confirmation bias, just as we are all vulnerable too. Simple variance is a part of it, too; sometimes, no matter how accurate the analysis of a player's path thus far was, things change about their projection, be it due to injury or other uncontrollable circumstance, that submarine a player's previous standing. And sometimes the methodologies behind the projection models are simply wrong.

Either way, the draft is long since past, and the new crop of NBA rookies have begun their playing careers via the various 2018 summer leagues. In particular, all 30 NBA teams are attending the Las Vegas Summer League, taking place right now - I am at it, and here is how the top six picks of the 2018 Draft have performed in their first tastes of NBA action thus far.

2018 NBA Summer League - Las Vegas - Orlando Magic v Phoenix Suns

#1 - DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

In the first three games of summer league thus far, Ayton has averaged 16.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game, shooting a very healthy 66.7% from the field. He has done so in only 25.7 minutes per game, and included in that was winning an individual duel against fellow rookie Mo Bamba (below), a player whose strengths as a post defender were supposed to nullify Ayton's strengths as a post scorer, but didn't. The early optics, then, are good.

That said, there are some clear-cut areas in which Ayton needs development that are also already on show. Not much of a player away from the basket save for a mid-range jumper, it is clear early that Ayton will be a post-up-heavy player on the offensive end, and thus an area in need of more urgent development is his ability to pass out of the post. Without an assist thus far, Ayton is turnover prone when helped on in the post, and with his Suns team not being a good outside shooting team overall, Ayton will be helped on a lot if he continues to receive such a heavy diet of post touches.

Ayton also has been making several positional errors defensively - very understandable at this extremely early stage, and something some assistance from Tyson Chandler will very much help with, but already something to highlight as a key area for development going forward.


#2 - Marvin Bagley, Sacramento Kings

In contrast to the above, Bagley had a poor summer league showing with the Kings, who ere eliminated today after a heavy loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Kings played in two summer leagues this season, and in his sole Vegas appearance, Bagley looked reasonably smooth with a 15 point, 7 rebounds, 2 assist, 1 block performance; however, on home turf previously in the Sacramento summer league, he averaged only 8.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 31.7 minutes per game, shooting 31% from the field.

Given the opportunity to create for himself in the half court, Bagley has struggled to do so. He has been inefficient in the post, and has paired that with taking quite a lot of mid-range jump shots out of the rhythm of the offence. It is clear that he has sought to impose his will as a scorer early on, and he showed moves at Duke that suggested his potential as an inside-outsice scorer, yet thus far in his short NBA career, he has been a ball-stopper who has combined a lack of flow with a lack of results. 

Compounding this was a minor injury that caused Bagley to be shut down after only one Vegas game with a bone bruise. All in all, not a good start.

2018 NBA Summer League - Las Vegas - Golden State Warriors v Dallas Mavericks

#3 - Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (via Atlanta Hawks)

As opposed to the rest of this list, Doncic has not played in summer league thus far. He is not hurt; rather, he is merely being rested after an incredibly heavy workload of a season featuring lengthy campaigns in both Spain's domestic ACB league and the EuroLeague with Real Madrid, themselves both coming after a big summer with Slovenia at EuroBasket 2017. Never let it be forgotten that Doncic, a key player for both club and country, won all three of those competitions. Ssummer league performances for him, then, would add nothing. 


#4 - Jaren Jackson Jr, Memphis Grizzlies

The son of an excellent NBA shooter, Jackson entered the NBA with a hugely intriguing physical profile and defensive potential, with more questionable offensive projections given his rawness on that end. What was perhaps not expected was the hot outside shooting start he got off to.

As with the Kings above, the Grizzlies have played in two summer leagues. And in the three games Jackson appeared in in the Salt Lake City summer league, he shot a sizzling 10-18 from three-point range, including 8-13 in the opener. The form on that shot does not inspire a great deal of confidence - slow to get into his motion, Jackson then rather snatches at the ball, which comes out without much rotation. And the obvious caveat about the perils of tiny sample sizes of course applies here. Yet percentages like that make questions about the form go away pretty quickly once the sample size continues to grow.

Polish, strength, consistency, poise and skills development are all needed. But that was known coming in, and to have flashed such a shooting stroke early is a good sign. As one executive watching on described it, "even his mistakes look talented".

#5 - Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks (via Dallas Mavericks)

Of anyone on this list so far, Young has had the most polarising summer league campaign thus far.

He started badly. An extremely confident and aggressive player, Young came out immediately in the Salt Lake City Summer League and attempted a large number of highly difficult shots. He missed most of them, too; in the three games of that tournament, Young averaged a hefty 17.3 shots per game, and yet hit a strikingly bad 23.1% of them only. Many of those shots came against the rhythm of the offence, or indeed were early-clock pull-ups that gave the offence no chance to establish any kind of rhythm elsewhere. In wanting to prove he could play a role similar to that of Steph Curry, Young was actively hurting his team.

What he has done, however, is improve throughout. Over the Hawks' last two games, Young has averaged 23.5 points and 6.5 assists per game, shooting a much healthier 42.4% from the field and 45.0% from three. Rather than just casting up early shots, he has used his excellent ball-handling skills to get to the basket as well, whereupon he is able to finish at the rim or kick to the corner. He has also hit the tough jumpers better over those two games - it is not a coincidence that these are the only two summer league games that the Hawks have won.

Young can really break down a defence. Now, he needs to show a more consistent commitment to playing some.


#6 - Mo Bamba, Orlando Magic

Overall, including his aforementioned duel with Ayton, Bamba has averaged 8.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in only 19.7 minutes per game.

This spread of production seems par for what was expected of Bamba, given his physical and skills profile to date. With a wingspan that never seems to end, Bamba is a true deterrent around the basket and a very good blocker of those who weren't deterred, and that same length makes him a factor on the glass on every trip even if he is not the fastest to rebound outside of his area much. Offensively, while Bamba is not one to create much in the post (and while the Magic lack the guard play to routinely get him open), he has shown a bit of an outside touch early on, something he was known to be working on heavily in the run-up to the draft.

The new style of NBA basketball has very much placed a value on being able to find "stretch fives", players who can defend the centre position and around the basket while also being able to open up the floor with their own outside shooting. And so although he needs to get stronger and develop offensively, Bamba, it seems, has that potential.


Although groupthink invariably concludes that they are, summer league performances are not meaningless.

The raw numbers perhaps are. On rosters of players trying extremely hard to prove their worth and in line-ups that are merely an amalgam of parts with no experience of playing together, the basketball can be sloppy and disjointed, and everyone's numbers are impacted accordingly.

Yet there are certain things we can glean from summer league performances beyond the stats. Athletic potential, for example. Physicality. Explosion. Commitment to defence. Playing style. Communication. Poise. Ability to create separation and shots. Et cetera.

These games therefore matter, and thus so do these performances. 

Sacramento Kings
Phoenix Suns
Orlando Magic
Memphis Grizzlies
Dallas Mavericks
Chicago Bulls
Atlanta Hawks

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