The depth and quality of the 2017 NBA draft had teams tanking at the end of the regular season in hopes of vaulting into the top three picks.
With the huge caveat being that it was only summer league action, those at the top of the draft made quite a first impression.
Summer league play was set to end on Monday night after Portland played the Lakers in the Las Vegas league championship game. Over leagues played in Orlando, Salt Lake City and Vegas, many of the top 10 picks gave their teams plenty to feel good about before heading into the league’s quiet period for the next two months.
No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball owned Vegas with a pair of triple-doubles to help the Los Angeles Lakers reach the title game. Top pick Markelle Fultz showed off his wide array of scoring tricks in Utah before sitting out much of Vegas with an ankle injury and No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum of Boston was drawing comparisons to Paul Pierce while dominating both in Utah and Nevada.
The competition these rookies will face will increase exponentially when training camps open in October. And there is a long list of summer league standouts – Nikoloz Tskitishvili, anyone? – who never amounted to anything in the NBA. But for struggling franchises like the Lakers, Sixers, Suns and Kings, seeing some real promise from their youngsters the first time they step on the court is encouraging.
“Every day, Magic and I say: `How are we pursuing excellence?”‘ Lakers GM Rob Pelinka told reporters in Vegas on Sunday, referring to new Lakers president Magic Johnson. “To win the Summer League (would be) a step in that direction.”
Whether the Lakers achieve that goal or not doesn’t mean the suffering of the last four years is over. Far from it.
The real test awaits in a couple of months. But for several franchises that are in the business of selling hope right now, business is good.
Here are some other takeaways from summer league action:
PACKED HOUSE: Buoyed by Ball and the Lakers, the Vegas Summer League enjoyed record attendance numbers, including multiple sell-outs of Thomas & Mack Center.
What started as a gathering of a few teams 13 years ago has turned into a full-fledged event under the guidance of coaching agent Warren LeGarie and Albert Hall. Sponsors are lining up to get in on the action, fans crowd the concourses looking for autographs of the next big things and established stars like LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas and John Wall sit courtside to watch the games.
ESPN and NBATV televise the games and over 500 media credentials were given out for the Las Vegas site alone.
The Vegas tournament has grown to include 24 teams and is also home to the league meetings, where owners gather to consider rules changes and other orders of business for the season ahead.
“I told Mayor Goodman that we should get a commission for the NFL and the NHL following in our footsteps,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last week. “We were here when some leagues weren’t even taking advertising in Las Vegas, and we’re proud to be here. I feel our Summer League has become a fixture in Las Vegas, part of the permanent summer calendar.”
OTHER STANDOUTS: Fultz, Tatum and Ball weren’t the only youngsters to have strong showings in summer league.
Dennis Smith Jr., the No. 9 pick by Dallas, may have been the best player in Las Vegas, averaging 17.3 points and 4.2 assists per game for the Mavericks and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell averaged 28 points per game in just two games for the Jazz.
Sacramento’s De'Aaron Fox, the fifth overall pick out of Kentucky, displayed his athleticism and defensive instincts for the Kings. Josh Jackson, the No. 4 overall pick by Phoenix, averaged 17.4 points and 9.2 rebounds in Vegas and played with a competitive fire that intrigued many scouts leading up to the draft.
Portland’s Caleb Swanigan was consistent throughout and San Antonio’s Bryn Forbes had a pair of 35-point games to give the Spurs another promising young talent in the pipeline as they wait to hear from Manu Ginobili on his future.
FLIP SIDE: Just as we shouldn’t read too much into the successes of summer league, so to should the struggles be taken with a grain of salt. But Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls’ No. 7 overall pick who came over in the draft-night trade that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, shot just 24 percent (6 for 25 on 3-pointers) in Las Vegas, not a great sign for a 7-footer billed as the best shooter in the draft.
Sacramento’s Buddy Hield, the centerpiece of the trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans in February, shot just 35 percent in three games in Las Vegas, a mark was aided by a binge of six 3s in his final game against the Lakers. Not what you want to see from a second-year player who will turn 24 in December.