Names to Watch at Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues
I've got a feeling the 2014 summer leagues are going to be a lot more competitive than the leagues in 2013.
The Orlando Summer League will consist of 10 teams, and it kicks off on July 5. The Las Vegas league starts on July 11 and consists of 23 teams, some of which will have also played in Orlando.
While everyone is curious to see how some of these newly drafted rookies will perform, there are also a couple of returning players looking to take that next step in their development.
We focused in on guys who have the most to gain and a great platform in order to take advantage of the opportunity based on playing time available this summer.
Orlando League: Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
If we're making predictions, I've got my money on Marcus Smart just tearing up this summer league.
He should make an immediate impact based on his defense alone.
However, this will be a good time for Smart to work on his point guard skills. Decision-making has been a slight issue for him at the college level, both in terms of shot selection and simply choosing which route to take as a facilitator.
The jumper is going to take time, s don't fret if he struggles to convert from outside early on.
Smart is at his best when he's attacking the basket, where he blends strength with agility to plow or weave through traffic. Expect him to draw a ton of fouls this summer and ultimately put constant pressure on perimeter and interior defenses.
Orlando League: Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic made a somewhat surprise move when they drafted Aaron Gordon at No. 4 in front of Dante Exum, Julius Randle and Noah Vonleh.
Gordon is fairly limited skill-wise at this stage in his development. Rarely does he create offense off the dribble or in the post. And his jumper needs a few years of fine-tuning.
But he's an absolutely sensational athlete. At 6'9", he's got the size of a power forward, the explosiveness of a wing and the quickness of a guard.
He's also a high-IQ presence on the floor with terrific passing and defensive instincts.
Gordon is the type of kid who can change a game without shooting or dribbling. Keep an eye on him in summer league, as the box scores don't always accurately reflect the impact he makes.
Orlando League: Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic
With the Orlando Magic waiving Jameer Nelson, the starting-point-guard slot looks like Elfrid Payton's to lose, making him a must-watch prospect this summer in Orlando.
Payton's name soared up draft boards month by month following a monster season, having averaged 19.2 points, 6.0 boards, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals a game.
But he did it in the Sun Belt Conference, and he did it without a jumper. Payton hit just 30 three-pointers in three years, never finishing any of them above 65 percent from the charity stripe.
Payton went No. 10 overall anyway, thanks in part to his 6'4" size and standout athleticism that fuel his potential at the position.
He's also simply a dynamic playmaker off the dribble—a guy who can make things happen with the ball in his hands, mostly on his way to the basket.
Summer league will be our first look at Payton running a team consisting of Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon. And his leadership and command of the offense will ultimately be what coaches judge him on.
Orlando League: Nerlens Noel, Philadephia 76ers
After looking like the favorite to go No. 1 in the 2013 draft, Nerlens Noel tore his ACL, slipped to No. 6 and sat out his entire rookie season.
He hasn't played a game since February 2013. I'm just a little bit curious as to how he'll perform in Orlando Summer League. And by a little bit, I mean I'll be focusing on every step and leap he makes.
This is big for Noel, Philadelphia fans and everyone in the organization.
His game is predicated on bounce and explosiveness, whether he uses it to finish, rebound or protect the rim—which is one of the reasons why the knee injury was so devastating.
Don't worry about the skills at this stage. They're raw and unpolished. Look to see whether Noel has that pogo-stick athleticism back in his legs.
Orlando League: Mason Plumlee, Brooklyn Nets
Mason Plumlee quietly had a rock-solid rookie season in Brooklyn, where he averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 boards on 65.9-percent shooting in 18.2 minutes.
Now 24 years old with an NBA season under his belt, Plumlee's comfort level should be a lot higher. And given Brooklyn's lack of athleticism up front, his role is likely to dramatically increase this upcoming year.
He's a guy who gets you easy buckets off finishes, lobs and tips, and he does a nice job of manning the glass and protecting the rim.
Look for Plumlee to put up double-doubles in Orlando and then hopefully carry them into the regular season.
Las Vegas League: Andrew Wiggins, Cleveland Cavaliers
Andrew Wiggins is an obvious must-watch after the hype he'd received, the criticism he's taken and the upside he flashed at Kansas.
Now the No. 1 pick, Wiggins will once again enter a season with plenty of expectations, particularly in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers are looking to make an immediate run to the playoffs.
Plus, after drafting Anthony Bennett No. 1 a year ago, fans might be a little on edge.
Wiggins should really have a field day in summer league—a setting with little structure and plenty of open floor.
Expect the pretty finishes around the rim from Wiggins, but keep an eye on his perimeter-scoring game. We know he can slash and drive. Let's see how well he shoots from outside with an extended NBA arc.
Las Vegas League: Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers
There's no need to quote stats or analyze where he struggled. Anthony Bennett just didn't look like he belonged last season.
But some blame can go to the time he missed in the offseason following shoulder surgery. He started out behind the eight ball, having sat out last year's summer league.
He'll be playing in it this year. And it's the ideal setting for Bennett to build his confidence prior to the season.
Plus, it really wouldn't be a good look if Bennett came out flat as a sophomore in summer league. This is his chance to turn the tables in his favor.
Las Vegas League: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
I'm picking Jabari Parker as the Las Vegas Summer League MVP and 2015 NBA Rookie of the Year.
At 6'8", 235 pounds, Parker has the size, strength and feel for the game to score in the paint from Day 1 in the pros. And he's sharp enough on the perimeter to face the defense and beat it with the jumper.
There really isn't a spot on the floor from which he's not a threat to generate offense, while his athleticism and nose for the ball should translate to rebounds and offensive putbacks.
Sure, Parker might struggle with defense, but don't expect it to cloud his rookie production. Expect him to put up monster numbers in Las Vegas and ultimately duplicate them during the regular season.
Las Vegas League: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo had gone from playing in tiny gyms in Greece's second division to the NBA within a matter of months. And now that he's got a full season with the Milwaukee Bucks behind him, the expectations are a little bit higher.
But his confidence should be higher, too. Now a sophomore in summer league, look for Antetokounmpo to be more aggressive offensively as a scorer alongside Jabari Parker.
He's one of the most exciting young players in the game when you take into account his 6'9" size, smooth athleticism and impressive ball-handling ability.
Last year, Antetokounmpo flashed some eye-opening potential as a unique two-way mismatch on the wing. This year, expect a little more consistency and rhythm.
Las Vegas League: Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
We've been talking and writing about Dante Exum for the last 12 months without any recent game tape to analyze.
Exum rode a wave to the No. 5 pick overall—a wave that resulted from two strong appearances in the FIBA world championships and one in the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit.
He was essentially drafted based solely on potential. But at 6'6" with tremendous athleticism, ball-handling ability, passing instincts and a blazing-quick first step, his upside is through the roof.
However, this will mark the first time Exum has really had to share a backcourt. He's pretty used to dominating the ball, something he won't be able to do alongside 6'1" Trey Burke, who's unlikely to spend much time at the 2-guard position.
We'll see just how well Exum adapts to his new role, as well as the size and speed of the competition he'll be facing.
Las Vegas League: Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves
Zach LaVine didn't get many playmaking opportunities coming off UCLA's bench behind three older guards. But in flashes, he showcased some jaw-dropping athletic ability to match tight handle, a dangerous jumper and 6'5" size.
And that combination spells potential, which is what earned him a spot in the 2014 lottery.
Still, many have criticized LaVine's decision to leave early, given his limited role and experience. ESPN's Jeff Goodman joked in tweeting that LaVine would "look really good in a Maine Red Claws uniform next season," following LaVine's decision to turn pro after his freshman season.
Some have been scared off by his lack of identity (Is he a point guard, shooting guard, combo guard?), along with the uncertainty that's tied to his potential, given he doesn't have much production to show for it. Others, like myself, love LaVine as a prospect for what he could become down the road.
But the divide LaVine has created is what makes him a must-watch prospect in summer league.
Las Vegas League: Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers
It looks like Julius Randle will be good to go for summer league after doctors have cleared his foot, per Lakers.com's Mike Trudell, despite reports that surfaced last month suggesting he might require surgery.
Given his attributes as an athletic, physical, 250-pound big man, I'm willing to bet Randle makes a strong impression in Vegas.
With his nose for the ball, motor and willingness to initiate contact, Randle's rebounding presence should be felt right away. And he'll immediately serve as an option to feed on the low block or elbow.
The big question with Randle is whether he's got a jumper up his sleeve to complement his interior-oriented attack. But based on his activity level down low, he should still have no problem racking up double-doubles this summer.
Las Vegas League: Nik Stauskas, Sacramento Kings
With Rudy Gay at the 3, DeMarcus Cousins at the 5 and no real shooter to stretch the floor at the 4, the Sacramento Kings selected Nik Stauskas, who hit 44 percent of his three-pointers in back-to-back seasons at Michigan.
And though he's more than just a shooter, it's that jumper that's going to get him minutes early on as a rookie.
"Immediately, I think I can be a guy that comes in and helps stretch the floor and knock down shots for them," Stauskas told Brendan Quinn of MLive.com.
While Stauskas is lethal from outside, he's also an excellent passer and possesses a high basketball IQ, something the Kings could certainly use in the lineup.
He's got the size for his position, along with a refined offensive repertoire that he should be able to tap into right out of the gate. Look for him to catch fire in Vegas.
Las Vegas League: Noah Vonleh, Charlotte Hornets
Thanks to his polished post moves, promising jumper and monstrous basketball frame, Noah Vonleh turned heads in a one-and-done year at Indiana despite receiving limited touches in the offense.
Considering he went No. 9 overall, it's seems safe to assume those touches will increase during summer league.
At 6'10", 240 pounds with a 7'4" wingspan, oven mitts for hands and an inside-outside skill set, Vonleh has can't-miss potential.
Summer league will give us a chance to see how he currently stacks up and whether we're talking about a two-to-three-year project or a guy who can help right away.
Las Vegas League: Doug McDermott, Chicago Bulls
Having averaged at least 22 points a game in three straight seasons, we've essentially been waiting since 2011 to see how well Doug McDermott's game will translate.
Summer league isn't exactly the real deal, but we'll still get to watch him go head-to-head with other lottery picks and second-year NBA players.
We know he can shoot the lights out—McDermott shot over 45 percent from downtown throughout his four-year career at Creighton. It remains to be seen whether he'll be able to score using the same moves in the pros as he did in college. Step-backs, pull-ups, one-legged fadeaways, post-ups—McDermott has a deep bag of tricks with the savvy and footwork to execute them.
But will he be able to separate as a scorer?
Tune in to summer league, where the small forwards he'll be facing will be quicker, bigger and stronger.
Las Vegas League: Kyle Anderson, San Antonio Spurs
He's one of the most polarizing prospects in the class. Some view Kyle Anderson as a mismatch—a 6'9" point guard who can handle the ball and pass. Others view Anderson as a tweener—too slow to play on the perimeter without the strength or demeanor of a big.
Despite averaging 14.6 points, 8.8 boards and 6.5 assists, Anderson got passed over 29 times in the draft. He even shot 48.3 percent from downtown as a sophomore.
It just goes to show how skeptical general managers are of Anderson's strengths translating to the pro game.
I wouldn't normally call the No. 30 pick a must-watch prospect in summer league, but given the wide range of projections for Anderson, an exception had to be made.
Las Vegas League: Otto Porter, Washington Wizards
The third pick in the 2013 NBA draft, Otto Porter had a relatively quiet rookie season. Injuries held him back to start, but even when healthy, Porter never really got into the groove.
He made just 4-of-21 three-pointers last season, and as an NBA small forward, you have to be able to shoot from long range.
The Washington Wizards are starting to look like a legitimate competitor in the Eastern Conference, and if Porter doesn't show something this summer, he could struggle to find minutes once again.
Summer league is a chance for him to spark his career and get it going in the right direction.