NBA summer league 2022: Top 3 rookies show why they went at the top of the draft

The biggest conversation topic in Las Vegas this week — not including those about a certain disgruntled Brooklyn Nets superstar and where he might land — revolved around the top three players selected in the 2022 NBA draft.

The NBA opened the schedule at NBA 2K23 Summer League with a matchup featuring No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic going up against No. 3 pick Jabari Smith Jr. and the Houston Rockets. Two nights later, Smith went up against Oklahoma City Thunder big man Chet Holmgren, the No. 2 overall pick.

The round-robin was scheduled to conclude Monday night with a Banchero-Holmgren rematch (the two previously met in a much-hyped Duke win over Gonzaga in November), but the Magic shut down Banchero for the summer after two outstanding games.

First impressions at summer league are notoriously misleading, but that’s not stopping anyone from trying to forecast the futures of this star trio. Any of the three rookies could have been the top pick in June based on their play here in Nevada over the past week.

So let’s dive in and examine the key moments and stats that are shaping those first impressions of the three players who likely will compete for NBA Rookie of the Year honors in 2022-23.

Paolo Banchero

Banchero, the fourth No. 1 overall pick in Magic history, is the most hyped player in his draft class because his offensive skill set is ready for prime time and his size and physical abilities are clearly NBA-ready at age 19.

Banchero is 6-foot-10 and 249 pounds, but it’s his feel for the game and his skills that make him much more than just another massive NBA body.

Sure, it’s just a measly two-game sample, but Banchero is the first No. 1 overall pick to average at least 20 points at a Las Vegas Summer League since John Wall in 2010. That’s a nice fact on its own, but Banchero also passed the eye test with flying colors, dominating in Orlando’s wild win over the Sacramento Kings on Saturday with 23 points and six assists.

Three things jumped out while watching Banchero in Las Vegas:

Banchero has tremendous footwork and finishing ability near the rim. His ability to spin past interior defenders and finish at the cup was a huge source of his production in the victory against the Kings, with four of his six made baskets coming in the restricted area. This guy might spin more than Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam!

Second, Banchero is a willing and a talented passer. His rim attacks enable him to attract extra defensive attention, but it’s his ability to read the floor and make the right play that elevates his ceiling. After averaging just 3.2 assists per game in his lone season at Duke, he put up six assists per game in the desert. He found Emanuel Terry for a game-winning layup in double overtime against Sacramento; it was a small but encouraging sign that Banchero can make players around him better by creating clean looks for them in good spots.

Lastly, coming into summer league, the biggest questions about Banchero were almost all on the defensive end. While two games of summer league don’t definitively answer those queries, Banchero’s defensive playmaking was impressive. He had five steals in two games and a few highlight-reel blocks, including a swat of Smith in his debut game and a game-saving block (that was initially called a foul but overturned on a challenge) versus Kings.

Banchero is the only player at Las Vegas to average 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in at least two summer league games. It might be a small sample size, but it’s still impressive.

If there’s a red flag here, it’s the turnovers. Banchero coughed it up 10 times in his two games — eight of which came in the double-overtime win over the Kings (against whom he also managed 6-for-15 shooting from the field). While that’s not ideal, it’s also to be expected in this sloppy environment with a young playmaker trying to make plays for an unfamiliar set of teammates. Ultimately, the biggest legacy of Banchero’s summer league debut will likely be his club’s controversial decision to shut him down after just two contests.

Chet Holmgren

After a dazzling summer league debut in Utah, Holmgren has continued to impress in Las Vegas. The 7-foot-1 and 195-pound Holmgren remains the most polarizing top prospect in his draft class, in large part because his game and his frame are so unique. His skill and his length are tailor-made for the NBA, but his strength around the rim is the million-dollar question in OKC.

Almost all the coaches, scouts and executives I spoke with predict that Holmgren will thrive in the NBA, especially on offense. He has only confirmed those hunches with his play in the desert. In Monday night’s win over the Banchero-less Magic, Holmgren had 16 points and 10 rebounds — his second double-double this summer — while showcasing the exact blend of on-ball and off-ball contributions that made him a top pick in the first place. It’s hard to remember any 7-foot rookie as comfortable as both a roll man and as a perimeter scorer.

Some of Holmgren’s most alluring highlights in Las Vegas have come when he has teamed up with Josh Giddey as a pick-and-roll partner. Giddey, the No. 6 overall pick a year ago, has already proved to be a deft passer who can create good looks for his teammates. This pair of youngsters have developed a chemistry that should have Thunder fans excited for the regular season — at least on offense.

Holmgren’s play on the other end remains harder to forecast. A quick look at his summer league stats suggests he could emerge as a league leader in blocked shots immediately. Holmgren has recorded multiple blocks in all four games he has played this summer — the most multiblock games of any player at summer league this year. He is the first lottery pick with multiple blocks in his first four summer league games since Jaren Jackson Jr. for the Memphis Grizzlies in 2018.

But Holmgren — who weighs nearly 50 pounds less than Jackson — still has a long way to go to reach that level. Interior defense is about a lot more than just blocking a few shots per game, and Holmgren’s ability to truly protect the basket remains the biggest question mark for his future.

Yes, Holmgren is as tall as David Robinson, but he weighs less than many NBA guards. (Giddey, for example, is listed at 6-foot-8 and 205 pounds.) Holmgren’s worst moments in summer league have largely occurred as an interior defender in half-court situations. The most glaring example was when he got shoved around by Grizzlies rookie Kenneth Lofton Jr. last week in Utah.

Lofton, who went undrafted last month, blends size (he’s 6-foot-8 and 280 pounds), touch and interior skills better than most young bigs. As a hefty lefty, he evokes memories of Zach Randolph in the post, and the Memphis jersey only intensifies that vibe. Lofton used his first touch of the game against Holmgren to prove to the basketball world that the concerns about Holmgren’s stature and subsequent ability to defend the rim are both valid worries, at least for now.

Lofton caught a bounce pass at the right elbow with his back to the basket and with Holmgren on him. Without hesitation, Lofton spun around, faced up Holmgren and used a pair of left-handed dribbles and a few shoulder bumps to transform a ho-hum elbow touch into an easy layup at the rim.

It was old-school hoops, and it was eye-popping. By the end of the night, the undrafted big man had overpowered Holmgren repeatedly in the paint and, in the process, provided Holmgren’s skeptics with a key talking point heading into his rookie campaign.

Post play might no longer be in fashion in the NBA, but shots at the rim remain the best scoring options in the game, and Holmgren’s ability to prevent them on defense is the most important piece of his development going forward.

However, Holmgren is still just 20, and virtually every aspect of his game is ahead of schedule except for the physicality part. It might not happen overnight, but it’s fair to expect Holmgren and the Thunder to build his frame up over the next few seasons.

Jabari Smith Jr.

Like Banchero and Holmgren, Smith has incredible upside. Unlike the top two picks in the draft, Smith’s ceiling might be highest on the defensive end. Smith has the potential to be one of the most impactful defenders in the league, and draft analysts are quick to point out how strong his pick-and-roll and shot-defense markers from advanced video tracking were during his time at Auburn.

Those nerdy defensive stats not only helped fuel Smith’s rise to the top of the lottery, they also have been on display at summer league. Smith’s combination of length, will and skill on defense jump out and enable him to be a prototype defensive player capable of guarding multiple positions with relative ease, while stuffing the defensive side of the box score with seven steals and three blocks in three games.

The question marks with Smith are all going to be on offense and whether he can blend volume and efficiency as an NBA scorer. Summer league isn’t an ideal or trustworthy venue for Smith to answer those questions — and unlike for Holmgren, there is no Giddey creating bunnies for Smith in Las Vegas.

In an environment characterized by haphazard offensive sets and a lack of fluidity, Smith hasn’t had ample chances to show off his ability to knock down open looks from downtown. That says more about the quality of summer league play than it does about his NBA potential. Smith made 42% of his 3-pointers last season at Auburn, and he should be able to approach that number in the league if he can improve his shot selection in the regular season.

As a scorer, Smith has never made it easy for himself. At Auburn, he tended to take difficult jumpers that damaged his overall efficiency numbers — and through three games in Las Vegas, he has made just 36.6% of his attempts, in part because he’s still doing that.

Smith is a talented shot-maker who will knock down clean looks, but his penchant for taking contested 3s and self-created fadeaways in the 2-point area isn’t doing his numbers any favors.

If the biggest question with Holmgren is his physicality, the biggest question with Smith is shot selection. As he matures, Smith should learn to pick his spots and his shots better — and better efficiency marks are bound to follow.

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