The NBA’s Summer League has never been easier to follow and as such, has never been more picked apart either.
While the exhibitions in Orlando, Utah and Las Vegas provide the first chance to watch the incoming batch of rookies, it’s important to keep perspective of how much these games mean – which is to say, not much.
Success or failure in the Summer League doesn’t guarantee anything when the real competition starts against NBA veterans, but it can certainly be useful to learn more about players.
As far as the top five overall picks in last month’s draft, we’ve now seen each one play at least one game. Here are the first impressions from how they’ve fared:
Unfortunately, a high ankle sprain suffered last night could keep the number one overall draft pick on the shelf for the rest of Summer League and potentially longer.
Before exiting, Fultz logged 15 minutes in the Philadelphia 76ers’ 95-93 win over the Golden State Warriors and has averaged 16.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 21 minutes per game through three appearances.
His ability to score efficiently in his freshman season at Washington was the most appealing facet of his game and he’s put that on display for stretches this summer. More than anything, his smooth and controlled style has translated as he’s proved capable of getting to his spots on the floor.
Fultz’s shooting has been a concern as he’s knocked down 6-of-16 from long range, but his reliance on two-foot jumping – while far from a major deterrent – is something to keep an eye on as he tries to score on better, more athletic defenders when the real games start.
After a disastrous debut, the most scrutinised prospect from this year’s draft class bounced back in his second showing.
Ball frankly couldn’t hit the ocean in his first appearance, shooting a paltry 2-of-15 from the field and 1-of-11 on 3-pointers. But many of those shots were either rushed due to the shot clock winding down, or just flat out difficult.
Playing with more control in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 86-81 loss to the Boston Celtics last night, Ball looked more like himself as he finished with a triple-double line of 11 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.
The points were again hard to come by as he converted 1-of-5 triples and 5-of-13 overall, but his passing helped make up for it.
The ball is rarely in the point guard’s hands for too long and his unselfishness results in opportunities most ball-handlers wouldn’t try to take advantage of. Maybe it’s giving Ball too much credit, but it feels like his passing is contagious, with his teammates getting in on the act of sharing, often without even taking a dribble.
With Ball, passing is never in question. His scoring, or lack of, on the other hand, is a little concerning.
He’s yet to show much in the way of slashing and finishing at the rim, choosing instead to pass out of drives to the basket. His shot, which has so far eluded him, hasn’t kept defences honest either.
Ball will have an impact in the league with his passing and feel for the game alone, but to be the kind of player the Lakers are hoping he can be, he’ll need to improve in other areas – and that’s not even getting into his defence.
Undoubtedly, of all the rookies who’ve played, Tatum has been the most impressive early on.
Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge turned heads when he chose to trade down from the number one overall pick to number three, opting for the Duke wing over Fultz – the consensus top choice – but through four games, it’s easy to understand why.
Tatum has looked like a polished, All-Star scorer, showcasing a varied offensive arsenal that simply gets buckets.
The mid-range shot is a dying art in the NBA, but Tatum seems comfortable operating in that area, utilising impressive footwork and turnaround shots to nail tough jumpers with a hand in his face.
He’s also scored in isolations and by coming off curls, with his length helping him finish in traffic at the rim. That same length has allowed him to average 10.0 rebounds to go with his 20.7 points per game.
For a 19-year-old, Tatum already looks like he knows what he’s doing and understands what spots to attack from. It’s very early, but Ainge’s sentiment that he grabbed the best player in the draft could very well end up proving true.
Josh Jackson and De’Aaron Fox
The fourth and fifth overall selections went head-to-head in their first and so far only showing in the Summer League, impressing in their own ways.
Jackson and Fox are known for their defence and athleticism, but both poured in 18 points in the Phoenix Suns’ 89-85 win against the Sacramento Kings in the first day of Las Vegas competition.
While they combined to go 0-of-5 on 3-pointers, Jackson and Fox displayed an ability to attack inside the arc on mid-range shots, slashes and getting to the free throw line. Specifically, Fox wielded a step-back, while Jackson was aggressive in attack the rim.
It was an encouraging start to their Summer League campaigns as any consistent offence in their rookie year will be found money, considering the impact they can have on their respective teams with everything else they do.
Landing Gordon Hayward was always going to come with a sacrifice for the Boston Celtics and that consequence manifested in trading away Avery Bradley.
The 26-year-old guard was dealt along with a second-round pick to the Detroit Pistons for forward Marcus Morris yesterday.
In order to fit Hayward’s 2017-18 salary of $29,727,900 – as part of a four-year, $128 million maximum contract – under the salary cap, Boston were forced to shed money owed to either Bradley, Jae Crowder or Marcus Smart.
While Crowder appeared to be the odd man out following the addition of forwards Hayward and third overall draft pick Jayson Tatum, his team-friendly contract, which has three years at less than $21 million in total, makes him a valuable, cost-controlled asset.
The decision on who to trade for Celtics general manager Danny Ainge was likely coming down to Smart and Bradley, who are both set to hit free agency next summer along with fellow guard and face of the franchise Isaiah Thomas.
Keeping all three backcourt players at their expected prices was going to be nearly impossible, especially with Thomas likely to receive a massive payday.
Though Bradley has developed into one of the best two-way guards in the league, he’s also in-line for earn a big contract in a year’s time.
Smart, meanwhile, will be a restricted free agent, meaning Boston can match any offer sheet from other teams, potentially curbing his value. At 23, he’s also three years younger than Bradley and similarly imposing on defence, while being a better ball-handler and playmaker, though a much worse shooter.
By trading Bradley, Boston were also able to bring back more salary than they could have by moving Crowder or Smart, with Morris offering more depth in the frontcourt at minimal cost – two years and just over $10m left on his contract.
The twin brother of Washington forward Markieff Morris, Marcus fits the Celtics ethos as a versatile wing capable of defending multiple positions.
Conference imbalance has been a point of contention in the NBA for years and the schism has only widened this offseason to the point the East has never been more inviting.
The poles in both conferences remain entrenched as Golden State’s ‘superteam’ rules the West and LeBron James continues to have a tight grasp on the East. It’s the pecking order and shifting star power behind the top dogs, however, that has thrown the league’s balance further out of whack.
Already this offseason, which is just three weeks old, the West has added three 2017 East All-Stars with Chicago trading Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, Indiana dealing Paul George to Oklahoma City and former Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap signing with Denver.
Depending on Gordon Hayward’s imminent decision on whether to stay in Utah or migrate East to Boston or Miami, the West could potentially retain all their stars as well. That’s not even mentioning Carmelo Anthony’s interest in Houston, which would require him to either waive his no-trade clause or negotiate a buyout.
Of the top 15 players in win shares, only 3 now reside in the East.https://t.co/W4xv6VCMJS— ESPN (@espn) July 2, 2017
More moves are to come, but when the dust settles this summer, the West will be a gauntlet rich with talent and star power, resulting in even more of a slog for teams trying to climb the ladder just to ultimately get ousted by the Warriors.
That begs the question: isn’t the East the ideal conference to be? Logic suggests stars should be clamouring to head East to appease both personal and competitive desires, and yet that hasn’t been the case so far.
Granted, Butler and George didn’t have a say in where they went, but the latter already had plans to return home to the West Coast and join the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency next summer.
Millsap, meanwhile, chose to leave a team that was the fifth seed in the East, for one that didn’t even make the playoffs in the West.
Though that decision was influenced by foresight and teams’ interest in the 32-year-old, it was Millsap’s call nonetheless.
Chris Paul, similarly, could have had his pick of cities to make his new home, yet stayed in the West by facilitating a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Rockets.
After seeing how the weight scales have significantly tilted as of late, the prospect of joining the Celtics or the Heat should look even better to Hayward.
From a winning standpoint, the only true threat in the East is LeBron, and both Boston and Miami could be the second-best team in the conference with the swingman.
Utah, on the other hand, with or without Hayward, aren’t likely to vault Golden State, Houston and San Antonio. And who knows how much-improved squads like Minnesota and Denver will fare.
The odds of a deep playoff run and a Finals appearances are heavily skewed in favour of sides in the East, and the conference could be blown wide open if LeBron heads West next summer, as rumours have suggested is a possibility.
Plus, it’s exponentially easier to be named an All-Star in the shallow East and in turn, receive more personal recognition.
It’s a combination of factors that should be hard to turn down for stars and eventually, it will become too tempting to resist.