The Casual Fan’s Guide to Watching and Understanding the NBA Summer League

by S.A. Prince

Hi! I am an intern at the Vegas Summer League. I got that opportunity because last year I was a part of an intensive basketball program. If you’re interested in knowing what that program is, CLICK HERE>>>>Sports Business Classroom.

I’ve been watching Summer League basketball since Syracuse won their national championship. We’re crazy about Melo in Central New York, and there was a ton of hype around LeBron, so when my friends and I heard there was going to be a Summer League, we had to tune in. Last year I got to sit with esteemed scouts and study games in person, but even before that I wrote up evaluations on players over the years. I’m kind of obsessed this time of the year, my house littered with pizza boxes and stacked note cards, eyes glued to NBATV. As a result, I’ve learned a few things about Summer League basketball.

Casual fans have a tough time understanding the art that is Summer League basketball. Some players don’t look that great and fans write them off, but during the season those players deliver. Other players play exceptionally well, but come the regular season they aren’t able to reach fans’ high expectations. Don’t be fooled again. Here’s where I help you out my dear casual NBA fans. Welcome to Summer League 101.

BIGS:

Big men, meaning power forwards and centers, their skills translate the best from Summer League to the NBA regular season. If they’re good in the Summer League, they’ll likely be good during the regular season. There’s less of a gap in the quality of low-post defense. Think of your good low post defenders in the NBA. Not a ton. Sure, there are good shot blockers, but being a good shot blocker doesn’t mean you’re a good defender. Therefore, skilled BIGS will have an easier time offensively adjusting to the NBA game.

Last year we were blessed with three skilled BIGS, those three being Okafor (76ers), Towns (Timberwolves), and Porzingis (Knicks). They were the top three rookies last year (in my opinion), and that had everything to do with their offensive skill as a BIG.

Specialist:

Specialist translate the best. In the Summer League they overachieve, often having a one or two outstanding games. Those outstanding games put pressure on these players to continuously perform at that level, but they aren’t built to do that. They’re specialist. Excellent rebounders. Excellent shooters. Excellent scorers. Excellent defenders. I’m talking about Kaminski (Hornets), Curry (Kings), Warren (Suns). Kaminski and Curry are good shooters. Warren is a gifted scorer, but not a great shooter. We knew that before they came into the league, and those are the roles they fill on NBA benches. Stretch four, undersized shooter off the bench, decent scorer off the bench. They’ll probably never be more than that.

Point Guards:

Point guards are a lot harder to evaluate than BIGS and Specialists. That’s because playing the point in the NBA versus in college is so drastically different. Summer League point guards are still trying to figure out how to play the position.

Last year we got to watch Mudiay (Den) and Russell (LAL). They were both OKAY during the Summer League. They had an OKAY year, not GOOD, but OKAY. A point guard will either get better or plateau as they play more. As last season progressed both Mudiay and Russell improved. It’s important to remember that point guards have quite the learning curve.

Contrast those two with Payton (ORL) and Clarkson (LAL). Last year was their second season. Both played during last year’s Summer League. They went on to have productive regular seasons. Both are developing well. It looks like they’re both ready to take the next step as they enter their third year. The same can be said of Zach Levine (Timberwolves). Point guards need playing experience to improve. They need to learn the game. I expect to see Mudiay and Russell make the same leaps that Payton and Clarkson made last year.

Other point guards played great during the Summer League, Russ Smith and Jerian Grant to name a couple. The problem is that they’re either too slow or undersized, or too one-dimensional to actually see significant NBA playing time. You’ll see that a lot in the Summer League..

Shooting Guards and Small Forwards:

These players have the hardest transition to the NBA. We get so excited because the good ones are dominant in the Summer League. Last year was chock-full of them. Portis (Bulls), Winslow (Heat), Johnson (Pistons), Gordon (ORL), Hollis-Jefferson (Nets), Harriston (Hornets), Dawson (LAC). All of these players looked dominant in the Summer League. They were faster, stronger, and likely to go off for 20 in any game. I’d say this group of players has the most potential. We’ll see how they develop down the road.

The difference is defense. The defenders at the NBA level, specifically at these positions are so athletic and so good that these players aren’t even getting a good “look” in the Summer League. The NBA Summer League cannot simulate the defense of a LeBron James, a Tony Allen, a K. Leonard, a Iguodala, a Jimmy Butler, or other twos and threes that the above players will face during the regular season.

Take their performances with a grain of salt. Unless you see them dropping 30 of 40 on a nightly basis in the Summer League, then you can expect this group to have the most arduous transition to the NBA. Let’s take Towns and Wiggins (both play for Timberwolves) as an example. Wiggins is going into his third season, Towns his second. I expect both those players to be perennial all-stars someday. If I had to pick one that would be an all-star next year I’d pick Towns instead of Wiggins, even though Wiggins has an extra year under his belt. That’s because as a BIG, Towns’ game translates better immediately. Wiggins will get there, but that’ll likely be in year four or five, whereas Towns could be an all-star next season. For that very reason alone you should use caution when setting expectations for shooting guards and small forwards.

Hopefully that helps your eye when watching this year’s Summer League games. The Orlando Summer League starts today. Don’t miss a game. Head over to NBA.com and start watching now! If you’re in Vegas over the next couple weeks, buy a ticket. It’ll be worth it.

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