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While it’s not wise to read heavily into 5 game samples of play vs. sub-NBA competition, summer league is an interesting scouting experience. All of the rookies who dominated NCAA opposition are now thrown onto rosters full of big, long athletes, and we get to see who can still do things on the court against more physically fit competition. It becomes harder to get to the rim in the half-court, easy transition buckets start to wane, and there aren’t any 6’8″ centers to be bullied. Consequently, most rookies look like rookies as their flaws are on full display.

The clearest trend I have noticed is that many rookies become jump shot taking machines. It naturally follows that summer league most heavily favors shooters, especially when they get hot. Josh Selby won summer league MVP by hitting 27/42 from 3, and then went on to post a 2.7 PER in 296 NBA minutes before washing out. Thus far among rookies, the biggest single game point totals have all come from shooters who heated up from distance: Gary Harris (33 pts), Doug McDermott (31), and Rodney Hood (29). While it’s nice when these guys get off and make a bunch of shots rather than not doing anything, they were also posted against horrible perimeter defense (at least McDermott and Hood were, I missed the Harris game).

This perception is reinforced by the list of all time worst PER’s tweeted out by Jonathan Givony. The players who performed poorly during summer that became something in the NBA: Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, Eric Bledsoe, Larry Sanders, George Hill, Greivis Vasquez, Josh McRoberts. Vasquez is the only player who thrives on neither defense nor athleticism that became something, and he only became a quality bench player. This is likely in part due to the fact that athletic types tend to enter the draft sooner than non-athletes, and rawer athletes have a longer window to improve their skill level. Players who are some combination of old, unathletic, and poor defensively all face extra pressure to produce in summer league.

Note that I believe rookies and only rookies are worth scouting in summer league. The 2nd and 3rd year players with NBA experience no longer suffer from the shock factor of the upgraded physicality compared to NCAA, so their performances can safely be ignored.

Since Las Vegas games are not yet complete, I will start by sharing my thoughts from the Orlando games. I’m not writing about Nerlens Noel or Nick Johnson since I didn’t watch enough to generate any unique perspective, but from what I have seen I agree with the consensus that they both look good and Noel should have gone #1 in 2013.

Marcus Smart
Smart started off summer league playing off the ball with Phil Pressey running the offense, and he spent most of his time bricking jump shots. When he did get the ball, it was a work in progress trying to get off shots at the rim as his first few attempts off the dribble were blocked. Eventually he was able to find daylight and have a few nice drive and finishes, but it’s clear that he’s going to struggle as a scorer early in his career. His handle, quicks, and athleticism are all solid but not great, and it’s going to be a work in progress for him to get to the rim with any sort of frequency. Until he solves that, he will likely be relying on his not so great jump shot so don’t expect a good rookie year eFG%. His summer league eFG% was a paltry 36.0%. The silver lining is that he correctly favors 3 pointers over long 2’s, which limits the damage that will be caused by his bricklaying ways.

But his summer league wasn’t all bad. As expected he provided good defense and solid rebounding. And the good news is that his TS% shouldn’t be as bad as his eFG% since he has the strength to draw FT’s and is able to knock them down at a solid rate. Most importantly Smart showed surprisingly good ability to both distribute and protect the ball. Whenever he did get the chance to run the offense, he did a good job of making the simple pass to set his teammates up for quality shots. Occasionally he showed off impressive vision and made a great pass. He is so good at reading the opposition on defense to play the passing lanes, it’s worth wondering if that translates to the offensive end for his ability to see the floor and find open teammates. One of the knocks on him was that he isn’t a true PG, but he didn’t play PG in high school and is still developing his floor general skills. Based on his summer league performance, his upside as a distributor seems better than advertised.

Also encouraging was his ability to protect the ball. Smart’s strength is a major advantage for his ability to operate in traffic. Even though he couldn’t quite get where he wanted on offense, he wasn’t at much risk of having the ball ripped away in the process since he’s so strong. He finished summer league with 21 assists and 9 turnovers, which is especially impressive considering his high volume of shot attempts.

Overall Smart played roughly as well as I expected. The development of his shot and ability to get to the rim should determine whether he becomes an all-star or plateaus as a PG version of Tony Allen. But that’s still the range of outcomes I expect from him, and I deem it to be a happy range for a #6 overall pick.

Aaron Gordon
Gordon’s summer league was a slight disappointment, but not a meaningful one. Given the importance of shooting, it stands to reason that the player with the most broken shot in the class would struggle the most. And while he has a good handle for an 18 year old SF, he can’t yet create much off the dribble to shine in spite of this.

I was a bit disappointed to see him not accrue a single steal in Orlando, but that could easily be a sample size fluke. Steals have a much lower correlation (.29) with regular season success than assists (.77), blocks (.80),  and rebounds (.63 off, .70 def). Given how good he was defensively in college and FIBA, it’s probably not worth fretting over.

I didn’t watch a ton of Orlando, so I didn’t generate any new observations on Gordon. He just isn’t ready to do much offensively and probably won’t have a great rookie year statistically. He is a strong candidate to eventually join the list of players who became great in spite of poor summer leagues, as he has youth, athleticism, and defense all on his side as well as the excuse of poor shooting. It would have been nice if he surprised with more polish than expected, but I’m not significantly docking Gordon for his performance.

Elfrid Payton
Payton is a player for whom summer league counts a bit extra since much of his college production entailed dominating weak competition in transition. I don’t think he could have looked much better. After a shaky initial outing, Payton turned on the good stuff and started aggressively flirting with triple doubles. He was able to penetrate through the defense, finish at the rim, create for his teammates, and rack up rebounds. He didn’t score a ton since he didn’t settle for many jumpers, but he is also a rare rookie with a high 2p% as he shot 15/25 (60%) inside the arc. This is indicative of the fact that he’s also a rare rookie with the ability to create high quality shots at the rim.

He also posted fantastic rebound and assist rates, which are two of the categories that correlate best with rookie regular season statistics. It’s possible that he has much more passing ability than he was able to show at Louisiana Lafayette with Shawn Long as his only teammate that could score at a competent level.

I regret ranking him behind Tyler Ennis, as I probably over-thought that one. The bottom line is that Payton can defend, he can pass, he can rebound, and he can get to the rim, and that adds up to pretty nice upside. I was concerned how much being a skinny, non-elite athlete would hurt him but it if nothing else it doesn’t seem like it will impede his ability to get where he wants to go on the floor since he has a good blend of quicks and handles. It may make it difficult to finish at the rim and protect the ball in traffic in the NBA, but I don’t believe that these are fatal flaws. The bottom line is that he has a good combination of strengths (quickness, length, ball handling, passing, rebounding, defense) and his weaknesses are all improvable (poor shooting, turnover prone, lacks strength).

My current perception is that this draft has a clear top 5 (the top 6 picks minus Jabari) and then Elfrid has as good of an argument as anybody for 6th best prospect in the draft. Hennigan overpaid to move up 2 slots, but it may not look all that bad through the results oriented lens once we get to see what Elfrid can do at the next level.

Mitch McGary
McGary was hurt early in the season before Michigan played their tougher competition, so he was somebody who I didn’t scout as much as I would have hoped. Now that I actually was able to watch him in summer league, he looks awesome. He is a center with poor height (6’10.5″) and length (7’0″) for the position, but he atones with strength, quickness, and athleticism. The athleticism is what surprised me, I was expecting a below the rim player but he showed a bit of explosiveness. This contributed to his 7 blocks in 4 games averaged 26 minutes. He’s not exactly an above the rim athlete, but he can get up enough to sometimes make athletic plays at the rim.

The other quality that I wasn’t expecting is that McGary has a fantastic handle for a big man. He looks completely comfortably pulling down a defensive rebound and then taking it all the way to the rim on the other end in transition. He is also impressed with his handling ability as he overdribbled a bit at times, but he didn’t get himself into too much trouble and finished with a solid 5 assists vs 8 turnovers while scoring with good volume and efficiency.

He is a health risk as he has back problems and ankle problems on his record, but he looked 100% healthy in Orlando. If he can stay that way, he should combine with Steven Adams to form a significant upgrade over Kendrick Perkins. He looks like great value at 21st overall. I am not sure precisely how much to weigh injuries, but if I could re-rank but I would place McGary in the back end of the lottery.

Jordan Adams and Jarnell Stokes
From my Grizzlies watching experience, I still have no idea what to think of Jordan Adams. He doesn’t look natural when attacking off the dribble, and occasionally his defense is lazy and bad. But he still has quick hands to be disruptive in the passing lanes, he doesn’t make a ton of mistakes, and when you add up all of the garbage buckets he gets the bottom line doesn’t look too bad. I feel like he will be an OK but not great role player, but I need to see him at the NBA level to feel comfortable with any assessment. He is a slippery one.

Stokes looks like a solid NBA role player with some sneaky upside to be a bit more than that. He beasted the glass and showed enough skill level and smarts to fit in offensively. He roughly performed as well as I expected and is probably going to be a good 2nd round value.

My perception of both prospects is largely unchanged by summer league.

Shabazz Napier
Napier was the sole first round draft pick in Orlando who looks like a complete bust. His physical tools have been as bad as expected, and he just doesn’t fit in athletically. He is not be quite as bad as his stats indicate, as he seems to be suffering from poor variance on his outside shot. But his shooting struggles may be in part due to his poor size and length combined with his low release. He is struggling to get to the rim, he is struggling to finish, and he struggles protecting the ball with more turnovers than assists. The one positive is that he has shown quick hands and good anticipation skills to rack up steals, but his poor tools will likely cause him to be a liability defensively anyway. For a point guard who also isn’t a great passer and is already 23, I’m not sure what his calling card is in the NBA. Given that he fits the intersection of old, unathletic, and suspect defensively his summer league is highly worrisome. He may still have an NBA career, but I doubt it will be a particularly good one. In spite of being one of the most intelligent players in the NBA, LeBron James is not a good GM.

Tyler Johnson
The Heat might have atoned for their former star’s poor scouting ability by uncovering this gem of an undrafted free agent. At a glance, it’s obvious why he didn’t get drafted: he’s 6’4″ with a 6’6″ wingspan and weighs 177 pounds. That’s really poor size for a SG, as he’s Gary Harris sized minus half an inch of length and 28 pounds in spite of being 2 years and change older. So maybe he’s just a summer league hero who can’t do anything in the NBA because he’s too small. And as a 22 year old player, he should look better than most of the younger guys.

But I can’t stress enough how awesome he has looked. He makes the plays you’d hope that 1st round picks would make, and he makes them over and over again. He has been getting to the rim, finishing, making plays on defense, and avoiding mistakes. Thus far he has played 172 minutes in 8 games, and here are his per 30 stats: 16.7 pts, 4.4 rebs, 1.7 asts, 1.4 steals, 0.9 blocks, 0.7 TOV’s. The turnover number is astounding considering is shooting 30/42 (71.4%) inside the arc and has 31 FTA to boot– he’s doing almost all of his damage by getting to the rim and finishing athletically. The only thing he’s not doing well is making 3’s, as he is only shooting 4/15 behind the arc. But as a college senior he shot 43.2% from 3 and as a junior he shot 40.2%. While he may still be adjusting to NBA range, it’s not like outside shooting is a weakness.

If Johnson was a 2nd or 3rd year player, it would be easy to shrug off his performance. But he’s a rookie who spent this past season playing mid-major NCAA basketball. When the Heat played the Wizards, it felt like he never went longer than a minute without making an athletic, NBA caliber play. It seemed that he could get to the rim and get his shot off whenever he wanted whereas Napier had no prayer of slashing through the defense. Against the Clippers, he cut off a Delonte West drive attempt and then blocked West’s mid-range jumper. Johnson fits in athletically and knows how to use his athleticism for his team’s benefit.

I’m not sure what to expect from Johnson in the NBA, but I’m on the bandwagon. He is the one undrafted free agent I have seen who clearly deserves a roster spot, and I am rooting for him to succeed.

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