NBA Summer League: Catching Tomorrow’s Stars Today

In his NBA Summer League debut on the 4th of July, No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons looked like a star in the making while playing point-forward. He snagged boards, pushed the rock with confidence and fed his teammates with some nice transition dimes.

Simmons attacked the rim without fear in the 102-94 loss to the Boston Celtics in Salt lake City to the tune of 10 points, eight rebounds and five assists in a little over 20 minutes, before severe leg cramps ended his night.  

On the opening day of the Orlando Summer League on July 2nd, we also got a glimpse of some talented second-year players. Miami’s Justise Winslow rang up 21 points, four assists, four rebounds and two steals to lead Miami to a 91-71 smackdown of the Clippers. 

And while all the talk around this year’s rookie crop orbits around the one-and-done’s like Simmons, the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown and the Lakers’ Brandon Ingram, don’t be surprised to see some late picks like Indiana’s Georges Niang, who had 17 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, make some noise this summer. 

The Utah and Orlando portions of the summer season will be wrapped by tomorrow, setting the stage for the main event, the Samsung NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, where the top 10 selections in the 2016 Draft are scheduled to compete. 

The league runs from Friday, July 8 through Monday, July 18 at the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion on UNLV’s campus. Two-time league MVP Stephen Curry made his first bones in the Vegas summer league, as did the last two most celebrated rookies: the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Other than Brown, Ingram and Simmons, the list of players that will be the most scrutinized over the next two weeks includes the Suns’ Dragan Bender, Sacramento’s Marquese Chriss, the Timberwolves’ Kris Dunn and the Pelicans’ Buddy Hield.

And keep your eyes on players that might not be household names right now. But don’t rush to label anyone a bust quite yet, as very good players like DeAndre Jordan, Wes Matthews, Patrick Beverly, Serge Ibaka and Danny Green looked like hot garbage in their initial summer league action.

Conversely, ya’ll remember when Josh Selby tore the summer league out the frame along with Damian Lillard and ya’ll were calling him a future NBA All Star? Yeah, you can admit that you were hyped on Josh Selby once upon a time. It’s okay.

The moral of the story here is to have some patience, because fools rush in.

With that said, here’s a quick look back at what some of the biggest stars of today did in their initial summer league action.

STEPH CURRY, 2009: If people thought what he did at Davidson was a byproduct of playing against lesser college competition, they began to realize that he was a certified baby-faced assassin after he scored 27 points in the second half of a summer league game. Chef Curry got our mouths watery while averaging 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists in his first pro action.

RUSSELL WESTBROOK, 2008: Russ being drafted with the 5th overall pick in the ’08 NBA Draft shocked many who weren’t yet privy to his alien athleticism and tenacious competitiveness. At UCLA, their top point guard was Darren Collison, who was a magnificent college quarterback.

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And the undisputed Bruin stud on that squad was Kevin Love. But Westbrook made people take notice of his huge pro ceiling when he averaged 16.5 points while connecting on 50% of his shots during his initial pro foray in the summer league.

DWYANE WADE, 2003: Wade was coming off of a great run in college, taking Marquette to the Final Four. But with LeBron and Carmelo carrying the weight of expectations of the 2003 NBA Draft class, Wade was free to make his mistakes without much judgment.

It became clear that D Wade was not an NBA point guard, which is where the Heat experimented with playing him at during the summer league, paving the way for him to slide over to his natural two-guard position. In his first summer league action, he averaged 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists, and had more turnovers than Betty Crocker.

CARMELO ANTHONY, 2003: Fresh off of delivering a national championship to Syracuse as a freshman, Melo showed that he was ready to make an immediate NBA impact while averaging 20.0 points and 4.7 rebounds in summer league play. 

LEBRON JAMES, 2003: The 19-year-old soon-to-be King averaged 15.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists. The thing I remember was how he impacted the overall game against grown men, even when his offense wasn’t clicking. He seemed to care about one thing only – winning. 

BLAKE GRIFFIN, 2009: Griffin was the MVP of the summer league after averaging 19.2 points and 10.8 rebounds. His hops and strength made it seem like he was playing on a nerf hoop. 

KEVIN DURANT, 2007: Most people forget that Durant’s rookie year was spent wearing the uniform of the Seattle Supersonics. While most were intrigued by his size, handle and sniper-like ability from deep, he was seen as a lesser talent than Greg Oden at the time. My, how things change. KD scored 18 in his debut and averaged 24 points per game in the summer league. 

KOBE BRYANT, 1996: The Bean averaged 24.5 points and 5.3 rebounds. In his debut in front of a standing room only crowd, he dropped 25. In his finale, he scored 36. Then-Pistons assistant coach Alvin Gentry said he’d never seen a better player at that age at the shooting guard position.

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TIM DUNCAN, 1997: Today, The Big Fundamental is universally recognized as the greatest power forward to ever play the game. But in the summer of ’97, Greg Ostertag was giving him that work!

This is one of the greatest things to walk into the summer league viewing experience with. If you make silly judgments of a players career trajectory based on what you see in the next two weeks, you’re pretty dumb. 

It’s time to see who’s calling next as the NBA closes out its 2015-2016 season before baseball, the Olympics, College Football and the NFL reclaim the newspaper’s back page.

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