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 ended on Monday night after the Los Angeles Lakers beat Portland 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 and was named Vegas MVP. 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 said in Vegas on Sunday, referring to new Lakers president Magic Johnson. “To win the Summer League (would be) a step in that direction.” Achieving that goal certainly doesn’t mean the suffering of the last four years is over. Far from it. The real test comes in a couple of months. But for several franchises that are in the business of selling hope right now, business is good.
VEGAS TITLE GAME: Kyle Kuzma had 30 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Lakers to a 110-98 victory over the Trail Blazers.
Kuzma hit 6 of 10 3-pointers and Matt Thomas scored 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting and 5 for 5 on 3s to help the Lakers overcome the loss of Ball, who sat out with a calf injury.
Caleb Swanigan had 25 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists and Jake Layman had 21 points and seven boards for Portland.
PACKED HOUSE: Buoyed by Ball and the Lakers, the Vegas Summer League enjoyed record attendance numbers, including multiple sellouts 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.
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.
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.