Predicting Breakout Stars from 2014 NBA Summer League
Breakout performances at the NBA Summer League can either be a harbinger of things to come or fool's gold.
Take 2013, for example. Monster showings at the Las Vegas Summer League from two second-year big men, Toronto center Jonas Valanciunas and Milwaukee forward John Henson, seemed to suggest both players were primed to move the needle for their respective franchises. However, neither Valanciunas nor Henson could measure up to their summer league dominance once the regular season began.
Detroit center Andre Drummond, meanwhile, carried over his rebound-swallowing ways from the Orlando Summer League to the Pistons. He went from averaging 15.5 points, 14.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game in the summer league to 13.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game in the regular season, looking like the steal of the 2012 draft class the entire way.
It's important to keep the past in mind as this year's summer league commences on Saturday, July 5, in Orlando, before heading to Las Vegas from July 11-21. Because summer league tends to be limited largely to younger players, rookies and undrafted free agents, a stellar showing in Orlando or Las Vegas won't necessarily translate to the regular season.
Then again, as Drummond demonstrated last year, a breakout summer league performance could help further bolster's a player's confidence, leading to similar success in the regular season.
Let's look at 10 players who appear primed for such dominance over the next few weeks in Orlando and/or Las Vegas.
Note: Players are sorted alphabetically.
Andrew Wiggins, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers
Though the Cleveland Cavaliers haven't yet formally announced their Las Vegas Summer League roster, it's a foregone conclusion that No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins will headline the squad.
Concerns about his lack of killer instinct jeopardized Wiggins' place as the top prospect in this year's draft class, at least until his former Kansas teammate, Joel Embiid, suffered a foot injury that will leave him sidelined until 2015. As a result, Wiggins should hit the court in Las Vegas with a newfound furor.
During his introductory press conference, Wiggins made clear that he's planning on making his impact felt immediately:
I just want to come in, create an impact right off the bat, offensively and defensively, bring the team to the next level and just be a good teammate, be a good part of the organization. I want to be on the All-Defensive team, be rookie of the year, make the All-Star team, all that type of stuff.
He can begin that process by asserting his will in Las Vegas. The loosely structured, fast-paced style of play in summer league will fit Wiggins' transition-oriented game like a glove, and his defensive tenacity should help him rack up a bevy of steals against flustered wing players.
Ben McLemore, SG, Sacramento Kings
Ben McLemore will enter the Las Vegas Summer League feeling less secure about his future with the Sacramento Kings than ever before.
With the No. 8 pick in the 2014 draft, Sacramento selected Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas, who just so happens to play the same position as McLemore. Given McLemore's struggles as a rookie—he shot just 37.6 percent from the floor and 32.0 percent from three-point range—Stauskas' presence will only add more pressure onto the shoulders of the former Kansas sniper.
During a post-draft press conference, Kings head coach Mike Malone assured reporters that the addition of Stauskas doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on McLemore's future with the franchise:
I think people who think we automatically take Nik Stauskas that we don’t appreciate or love Ben. That’s not the case. Ben McLemore has had an incredible summer so far and I know he is anxious to show that in summer league in Las Vegas in a couple of weeks. But both of these guys can play together. People don’t know, but (Stauskas) can play a little point guard. He has that kind of command of the basketball.
Sacramento GM Pete D'Alessandro said McLemore had been "working his tail off" and echoed Malone's comments about he and Stauskas sharing the floor together at times. Vegas is the first chance for McLemore to prove to the franchise that he's capable of doing just that; otherwise, his name could start popping up in even more trade rumors.
Doug McDermott, SF, Chicago Bulls
On the night of the 2014 NBA draft, the Chicago Bulls packaged their No. 16 and 19 picks to trade up for Denver's No. 11 pick, allowing them to snag Creighton star Doug McDermott.
The four-year forward finished his college career as the fifth-leading scorer in NCAA history, behind only "Pistol" Peter Maravich, Freeman Williams, Lionel Simmons and Alphonso Ford. After racking up 3,150 total points at Creighton, there's little reason to believe he won't be up for the challenge of dropping buckets at the Las Vegas Summer League.
During his introductory press conference on June 30, McDermott expressed faith that his time spent in college will give him a leg up on his younger competition:
I feel like I'm ready right from the get-go. I played four years, unlike a lot of guys who maybe went higher than a lot of guys drafted before me. But I feel like that's helped me. I went thorough a lot of adversity and have seen just about everything on the college floor for four years.
As one of the purest shooters in the draft, McDermott should have little trouble lighting up opponents in Vegas. His oft-shoddy defense could be a concern in the open-court style of summer league play, but his offensive contributions should more than make up for his defensive shortcomings.
Jabari Parker, SF/PF, Milwaukee Bucks
Jabari Parker, the presumptive Rookie of the Year favorite, will kick off his highly anticipated NBA career by torching the Las Vegas Summer League.
He'll take on No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and the Cleveland Cavaliers in both squads' opening games on July 11, followed up with games against Phoenix (July 13) and Utah (July 14). It'll be absolutely shocking if he doesn't average 20 points and 10 rebounds over those three games.
Parker finished his only year at Duke with per-game averages of 19.1 points and 8.7 rebounds in just 30.7 minutes. The Bucks, having just spent the No. 2 overall pick on him, will assuredly be inclined to roll out their shiny new toy in Vegas and have him begin to develop chemistry with Giannis Antetokounmpo.
During Parker's introductory press conference, the Greek Freak expressed his excitement about playing alongside the second overall pick, telling reporters, "We can take our team to the next level." Parker echoed those sentiments, saying, "I'll give him a lot of respect and make sure we go and challenge each other in practice."
Though the 2013-14 Bucks weren't so good at that whole "winning" thing last year, expect the Parker-Antetokounmpo duo to take Vegas by storm and dominate. The Bucks' off-the-court mess won't affect their summer league product, thankfully.
Jeremy Lamb, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder
For at least one game during the 2013 Orlando Summer League, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Jeremy Lamb appeared poised for a breakout season. The second-year man out of Connecticut exploded for 32 points on 10-of-14 shooting against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, just one game after teammate Reggie Jackson set an Orlando Summer League record with 35 points.
Though Lamb struggled with his accuracy in his other three games—he shot a paltry 15-of-50 from the floor (30 percent)—the 32-point eruption was enough to earn him a first-team All-Summer League nod. Between Jackson and Lamb, the Thunder seemed to have two legitimate scoring threats off the bench that could help alleviate pressure from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Jackson carried over his monster summer league performances to the regular season, but Lamb didn't experience a similar transition. He boosted his per-game averages from 3.1 points and 0.8 rebounds to 8.5 points and 2.4 rebounds, but shot only 43.2 percent from the floor on 7.8 field-goal attempts per contest.
Lamb fell out of the rotation late in the season after Caron Butler came aboard, which left some OKC fans befuddled. "He has flashes of greatness, but he's just never been given the luxury of settling into a consistent role," Welcome To Loud City's Zebulun Benbrook wrote in Lamb's end-of-season player grades.
With Andre Roberson and rookie Josh Huestis poised to steal perimeter minutes, Lamb needs to assert his will in Las Vegas to lay claim to his spot in the rotation. Expect 20- and 30-point nights to become more of a norm and less of an aberration.
Marcus Smart, PG/SG, Boston Celtics
By using the sixth overall pick on Marcus Smart in the 2014 draft, the Boston Celtics seemingly obtained their heir apparent to Rajon Rondo. If the C's don't trade Rondo between now and next July, he'll become an unrestricted free agent, leaving Boston at risk of losing him for nothing.
If Smart acclimates to the NBA quickly, there's a strong chance the Celtics will seriously consider moving Rondo by the trade deadline (if not sooner). The Orlando Summer League will be the former Oklahoma State floor general's first chance to make a strong impression on his new franchise.
Based on the comments teammate Jared Sullinger made to reporters on Wednesday, Smart is seizing his opportunity accordingly:
I think the biggest thing that shocked me the most—everybody said how good of an offensive player he is—defensively he's just as good. I think that's a great attribute that he has, and the way he competes. He doesn't let loose balls get away from him. He's diving on loose balls, he's trying to take charges, he's doing it all.
Smart averaged 18.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.9 steals per game as a sophomore, so his all-around game shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Given the caliber of players he faced off against in the Big 12 over the past two seasons, he should have little trouble with the transition to summer league play.
Nerlens Noel, PF/C, Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia 76ers fans have waited a full year to see Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 overall pick from the 2013 NBA draft, take the court for a game. He sat out his entire rookie season to recover from a torn ACL he suffered in February 2013 with the Kentucky Wildcats, conjuring nightmares of Andrew Bynum all over again.
Following the squad's second pre-summer league practice on Wednesday, Pierce expressed optimism about Noel's readiness for what awaits him in Orlando.
"One of the biggest factors will be what his conditioning is like in a non-stop setting, and today he looked great," Pierce told reporters. "All the things we want to see—him being able to be fluid, be athletic and to carry it over on both sides of the floor—he did a great job."
Noel told reporters that his "defensive instincts are starting to blossom back," but warned that his offense is "still a work in progress." The simplified summer league offense should help the big man get his sea legs on that end of the court, while his defensive potential should have Sixers fans salivating by the end of the week.
Otto Porter, SF, Washington Wizards
Otto Porter, the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, had a rookie season to forget. A hip flexor injury sidelined him throughout most of the offseason, training camp and preseason, hindering his acclimation to the rigors of the NBA.
By the time he made his NBA debut on Dec. 6, 2013, Trevor Ariza was already well on his way to having a career season, limiting Porter's chances to crack the rotation. The former Georgetown forward played a grand total of 319 minutes as a rookie, averaging 2.1 points and 1.5 rebounds in the 37 contests in which he appeared.
With Ariza's future in Washington up in the air and backup Martell Webster sidelined with a herniated disc in his lower back for the next 3-5 months, the starting small forward gig could be Porter's for the taking. Umair Khan of Bullets Forever highlighted what Wizards fans should keep an eye out for during the Las Vegas Summer League:
Porter will have to do a bit of everything offensively. I won't look into what he does on defense, because you won't be seeing much of it in Vegas anyway, but he'll need to show a refined jump shot and improvement with his ball handling. He was a zone buster in college that excelled with his touch from mid-range and ability to pick out cutters from the high post. If his rookie season proved anything, it's that he can't get by just doing those same things.
Porter experienced a massive freshman-to-sophomore leap while with the Hoyas, and so long as he stays healthy, he could follow suit in Washington starting this summer. With the Wizards' summer league roster largely devoid of serious 3s, Porter "absolutely needs to take the bull by the horns in Las Vegas," as Khan wrote.
P.J. Hairston, SG, Charlotte Hornets
Instead of allowing an indefinite suspension from North Carolina to derail his NBA career, swingman P.J. Hairston took his talents to the D-League and dominated.
In 26 games, Hairston averaged 21.8 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting from the field and 35.8 percent from three-point range. That scoring acumen helped him become the first D-League player to be drafted in the first round in NBA history.
His time spent in the D-League should help him march into the Vegas Summer League and lay waste to his less experienced counterparts. During ESPN's telecast of the draft, analyst Jay Bilas sang Hairston's praises on offense (via Mark Thompson of the News & Record):
With his ability to shoot it, he’s a specialist. There’s a few things he has to improve upon. He has to improve his defense. His conditioning has to stay at a high level.
Those are things that are easily correctable. What you can’t teach is his ability to shoot it. The range on this kid is remarkable, and the ease with which he shoots it from that range is really impressive.
Defense and conditioning will be longer-term concerns for Hairston, but offense should come easily to the former Texas Legends guard. Using his D-League experience as fuel, expect him to light up the courts in Vegas.
Pierre Jackson, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
Speaking of electric D-League scorers, new Philadelphia 76ers point guard Pierre Jackson is poised to tear up the Orlando Summer League.
Philly originally drafted Jackson with the No. 42 overall pick in 2013, then immediately shipped him with All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to New Orleans for Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected 2014 first-round pick. One year later, Jackson found his way back to the City of Brotherly Love when the Sixers drafted Russ Smith 47th overall and moved him to the Pelicans for the diminutive floor general.
In 31 games with the Idaho Stampede last season, Jackson averaged 29.1 points per game (which ranked second in the D-League, behind only Manny Harris), along with 6.2 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals. He erupted for 40 or more points on seven different occasions, including a D-League-record 58 points against the Texas Legends on Feb. 4.
"I'm a real short, fast dude, so you know I want to get up the court,” Jackson told CSN Philly's Matt Haughton in reference to summer league. “Score when we can, score easy buckets, so we don’t have to work as hard on offense. I’m looking forward to playing this type of pace.”
Given Jackson's explosive scoring potential, it's not difficult to imagine him getting right back into the groove in Orlando this summer. He won't be unseating Michael Carter-Williams as the Sixers' starting point guard any time soon, but he could be in strong contention for a 20- to 25-minute backup role.