Which rookies and veterans have surprised the most after one week of summer league basketball? Who have been the biggest disappointments?
Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs have had stellar performances in their summer league debuts, but are they worthy of being named the MVP of Vegas? Players like Payton Pritchard and Immanuel Quickley have impressed as “veterans” thus far, but are they ready to break out and have a standout regular season? And with non-lottery picks like Alperen Sengun and Josh Christopher showing real promise, do the Houston Rockets have the best collection of rookies in the 2021 class?
Our experts answer the big questions and pick their 2021 MGM Resorts NBA Summer League MVP after the first week of action in Las Vegas.
1. What has been the biggest surprise so far?
Tim Bontemps: While Jalen Johnson slipped to No. 20 in last month’s NBA draft, it wasn’t long ago that he was one of the most highly touted recruits in the country. And through the first few days in Las Vegas, it appears the Atlanta Hawks might’ve landed themselves a steal. Johnson was averaging 17.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks through his first three games, and shot over 56% from the field, flashing some impressive skills in the open court. He also has landed in a great situation, where he will play for a coach in Nate McMillan who will make him earn minutes, and on a team where he can be brought along slowly.
Andrew Lopez: When it was announced that LiAngelo Ball was going to be on the Charlotte Hornets‘ summer league roster, some might have scoffed at the idea that he was taking an opportunity away from someone else. So far in three games, he has proved that he’s making the most of his chances. Ball has averaged 11.3 points while shooting 44.4% from 3-point range as he looks to assert himself as someone who could earn a training camp invitation, rather than someone who received it on his last name alone.
Kevin Pelton: The biggest surprise is that Kenneth Faried is here playing for the Portland Trail Blazers after two full seasons out of the league. He last played an NBA game in April 2019 and is averaging 8.3 rebounds in summer league thus far.
Mike Schmitz: While it won’t come as a surprise to those who watched him at West Virginia, the New York Knicks have something in No. 36 pick Miles McBride, averaging 15.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists on 63.6% from 2 and 61.5% from 3 through three summer league games. McBride could quickly become a Tom Thibodeau favorite with his relentless on-ball defense, possibly earning himself a spot in the rotation. With a 6-foot-9 wingspan, McBride can check either backcourt spot and has turned himself into a reliable floor spacer who doesn’t need the ball to make an impact. That versatility should work alongside core players Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker.
Royce Young: The buzz around Alperen Sengun on draft night was that he is a lottery-level talent, and thus far he has looked the part. He has shown a high offensive skill level, quality rebounding and even a knack for weakside shot-blocking. Perhaps he fell to the Rockets at No. 16 — after they moved up in a deal with Oklahoma City to get him — because of concerns about his fit in the modern NBA as a more traditional big, but Sengun has a polished game and could be a solid rotation player this season for Houston.
2. What has been the biggest disappointment so far?
Lopez: No Elam Ending. Two double-overtime games on Wednesday (Miami-Memphis and Utah-Dallas) and another on Thursday (Brooklyn-Washington) were decided in a sudden-death situation. Miami won when Max Strus drained a 3-pointer on the first play of double OT, Utah won after Trent Forrest drew a foul on the first possession. Forrest missed the first free throw, adding a little suspense, before knocking down the next one and waving goodbye to the Mavericks’ bench, in summer league! Cameron Thomas got Brooklyn the victory with a one-legged, shot-clock-beating runner for 3. Let’s add excitement to these games with the Elam Ending and get game-winning shots every time.
Bontemps: This has nothing to do with him as a player, but it was disappointing that Thunder guard Josh Giddey played only a couple of minutes before being shut down with an ankle injury. Giddey was one of the most interesting players during the pre-draft process, with a bunch of the teams in the mid-to-late lottery interested in him — only to wind up going No. 6 to Oklahoma City. It will be fun to watch Giddey play alongside newly extended Shai Gilgeous-Alexander next season. It’s just too bad we couldn’t see him play here.
Pelton: It has been a rough couple of games for Cole Anthony, who has shot 5-of-25 from the field and handed out just six assists playing alongside No. 5 pick Jalen Suggs in the Orlando Magic backcourt. With the addition of Suggs and return of Markelle Fultz, Anthony could find his playing time squeezed after he started in 34 games and averaged 27.1 minutes as a rookie.
Schmitz: Watching Cade Cunningham stand in the corner while either Killian Hayes or Saben Lee consistently started and ended possessions was maddening. Using Cunningham as only a part-time ball handler is stripping him of one of his best skills (passing) while making him look ordinary. The situation reminds me of when the Dallas Mavericks tried their best to make the Luka Doncic–Dennis Smith Jr. pairing work before ultimately giving Doncic the keys. With the ball-dominant Hayes clearly not the level of player the Pistons were hoping for when they surprisingly selected him seventh overall, Detroit would be wise to shift Hayes to a bench playmaker role, using Cunningham as the lead initiator with the starting unit.
Young: Josh Giddey. Not because of anything he has done, but because we haven’t had the opportunity to see what he can do. He played only five minutes in his summer league debut, throwing down a nice two-handed dunk off a slick crossover move, but then tweaked his ankle and hasn’t played since. I’m just disappointed we haven’t been able to see more.
3. Who has been the summer league MVP thus far?
Young: Jalen Suggs. There is a belief that Suggs is a culture changer, a player who can lift up a franchise with his polished professionalism and hard-charging competitive motor. So far in Orlando, that has been the case. He looks like the kind of player who wants to do it all, from rebounding and defending to scoring, passing and leading. There are some Russell Westbrook vibes to Suggs’ makeup, and the Magic have to be thrilled that he fell to them at No. 5.
Lopez: The No. 2 pick in the 2021 NBA draft is going to put up some big numbers for the Rockets this season, and he’s showing why in summer league. Jalen Green averaged 24 points on .514/.526/.929 splits in his first three games, and the Rockets went 2-1. Green’s scoring ability has been on full display, and it’s why he’ll be in the mix for Rookie of the Year, no matter how Houston’s season plays out.
Pelton: There’s nothing more valuable in summer league than a competent point guard, and Payton Pritchard has given the Celtics exactly that during their 3-0 start, with 26 assists against just four turnovers. Pritchard also has shot 15-of-26 (57.7%) from 3-point range and has even contributed 17 rebounds in two games.
Schmitz: Max Strus edges out other standouts because of the chutzpah it took to pull up from 30 feet in the first possession of a sudden-death overtime game. If you count the California Classic, Strus has now scored 72 points in 95 summer league minutes, shooting 15-of-37 (40.5%) from distance. Strus is looking like a clear rotational player who can distort defenses with the threat of his on-the-move shooting at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds. Strus has earned himself an uptick in minutes this season with his play thus far.
Bontemps: Though he left his third game with a hand injury, Suggs showed the Magic, and their fans, everything they could have hoped for. Suggs, who dominated last year as a freshman at Gonzaga, has the potential to finally galvanize a Magic team that has been in desperate need of a true tentpole star to build around. He plays with a rugged, aggressive style at both ends of the court that’s easy to fall for, and he can do it all on the court, as he showed by averaging 20 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals through those first two games.
4. Who has been the best ‘veteran’ at summer league?
Schmitz: Though he’s far from a “veteran,” Tyrese Maxey has really caught my eye thus far. After shooting just 30.1% from 3 as a rookie and often turning down open looks in favor of downhill attacks, Maxey has been hunting pull-up 3s from well beyond the arc. If Maxey’s improved shooting is a sign of things to come, I’d expect him to make a huge jump this upcoming season when you consider his already impressive rim attacks and defensive activity.
Young: Patrick Williams. Williams was an underrated rookie last season, quietly playing solid, efficient basketball in a more limited role for the Bulls. But after averaging 21.0 points and 9.7 rebounds in his first three games in Vegas, he looks like a prime breakout candidate for this upcoming season.
Bontemps: Payton Pritchard has looked terrific for the Boston Celtics — who have also looked terrific, though that should come to the surprise of no one, given that half their roster is composed of players on NBA contracts. But Pritchard, who has a chance to carve out an even bigger role than the one he immediately filled as a rookie last year in the wake of Kemba Walker’s departure, has looked like someone who is too good to be playing in summer league — a good first step to carving out that kind of role.
Lopez: Because there wasn’t a summer league last season, a lot of second-year NBA players are making their Vegas debuts. Memphis’ Desmond Bane — who played in 68 games last season and averaged 9.2 points while shooting 43.2% from 3 — is making the most of his time. In his first game, Bane dropped 32 points while shooting 6-of-8 from 3. He followed that up by hitting 3-of-5 from 3 in Game 2.
Pelton: Besides Pritchard, Immanuel Quickley. Quickley hasn’t shot the ball well thus far (7-of-29 on 3s), but has shown greater mastery of the game than he did as a surprise rookie for the Knicks. Quickley has handed out 23 assists against seven turnovers in three games and is getting to the free throw line repeatedly, where he’s 19-of-19. Quickley is too good for this competition.
5. What has been your biggest takeaway from the first week?
Young: The five players everyone thought would be pretty good do, indeed, look pretty good. Drawing major conclusions from summer league is one of the seven deadly sins of the NBA, but there is an old adage that you can determine who can’t play with a few looks in Vegas. And so far, there have been no red flags with the top five picks. The belief was this draft was unique in that it had five players qualified to be a No. 1 overall-caliber player, and so far, that appears to be holding true.
Bontemps: The idea that summer league was going to become a devalued part of the NBA calendar has died a quick death. Usman Garuba’s arrival means that all 30 of this year’s first-round picks are playing, silencing concerns that arose in 2019 when many top prospects didn’t play.
Lopez: The Pelicans are going to get major minutes from rookie Trey Murphy III this season. Drafted at No. 17, Murphy had 26 points and nine rebounds in his debut, showing off his touch from deep and his willingness to fight around the rim. He also had a nice poster for his efforts. But on a team that wanted to add shooting and defense this summer, Murphy checks both boxes. He told reporters one of the main reasons he wanted to transfer to Virginia before last season was to work on his defense. Mission accomplished.
Schmitz: Even if Cade Cunningham hasn’t had a true signature game quite yet, the depth of the 2021 class has lived up to the hype. Jalen Green is scoring from all over the floor. Evan Mobley is making pull-up 3s and passing like a guard. Jalen Suggs is making winning plays. Scottie Barnes and Jonathan Kuminga have flashed moments of brilliance. Davion Mitchell looks like a future DPOY candidate. Chris Duarte is raining 3s from deep range. Non-lottery picks like Alperen Sengun, Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper are shining. This draft will go down as one of the all-time greats.
Pelton: The league’s future is in good hands. Nobody can say exactly how this year’s rookie class will develop, but as Mike Schmitz noted earlier this week, there seems to be an unusually high number of players who bring strong defensive effort and look like great teammates. That bodes well for their development.
Fact or Fiction: The Rockets have the best rookies from this class.
Bontemps: Fact. The combination of Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun has been impressive so far, while Josh Christopher has had some moments and Usman Garuba is now back. Then again, Houston ought to have the most talent here with four first-round picks, including two of the top 16 selections in the draft. But there has been an impressive amount of talent on display this week across the board, as many members of this year’s rookie class — plus the second-year guys in attendance — have had their moments.
Lopez: Fiction. Houston’s depth stands out — Green, Sengun, Garuba and Christopher — but I like the high-end potential of both Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody in Golden State. The Warriors legitimately could have picked either player at No. 7, and they wound up with both players. They are also going into a win-now situation with the Warriors with the right setup around both of them, surrounded by veterans who are going to push them to make the most of their contributions.
Pelton: Fact. Houston’s rookie corps got even stronger Thursday when No. 23 pick Garuba made his debut after completing a buyout with Spanish power Real Madrid. That depth is unmatched by any other team.
Schmitz: Fact. Green is torching defenses with the scoring instincts of a longtime All-Star, Sengun looks like the steal of the draft, and Christopher is more than backing up his first-round selection. With that said, I think Atlanta has also been one of the big winners with Jalen Johnson looking like a top-10 pick and Cooper showing his incredible natural ability.
Young: Fiction. The Magic’s Suggs and Franz Wagner are the best group so far. Suggs has been off to a roaring start as expected, while Wagner showcased some versatility with his shooting and ballhandling, and even stood tall defensively against No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley.
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