What We Learned About Top Rookies During 2014 NBA Summer League

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2014

What We Learned About Top Rookies During 2014 NBA Summer League

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    Although they were only a couple weeks long, the NBA Summer Leagues in Orlando and Las Vegas revealed a lot about the incoming rookies.

    We got to see who's ready to thrive, who's improved since college and who still has holes in their games.

    Many of the top draftees in the 2014 class were one-and-done college prospects, but summer league proved that not all freshmen studs are created equally. Some are more polished than others, and some are flat-out more gifted physically and athletically.

    What did we learn about each top prospect this summer? Find out as we break down the top dozen draftees who are embarking on their rookie campaigns.


    *Article includes top 12 2014 draft picks (minus Dario Saric and Joel Embiid, who did not participate). Rookie Nerlens Noel (drafted in 2013) also included.

Doug McDermott: Adjusting Nicely to NBA's Speed

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    Summer League Stats: 28.8 MPG, 18.0 PPG, 2.8 APG, 44% FG, 44% 3FG 

    We never questioned Doug McDermott's skill level or instincts during the draft process, but we did wonder exactly how his game would translate to the speed of the NBA.

    So far, so good.

    The Chicago Bulls rookie found plenty of offensive opportunities in Las Vegas, and he also attacked closeouts and scored in transition. What he lacks in elite explosiveness, he makes up for with exemplary footwork and precision.

    Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney explained that McDermott forces opponents to play perfect defense: "He is so efficient with his timing and his movements that every step must be followed closely, lest the ball swing his way and splash through the net in a single, fluid instant."

    The competition will be stiffer in the regular season, but Creighton's star looks well-prepared to counteract the quickness of NBA opponents. Not only does he know how to craftily use screens and pump fakes, he's also not a horrible athlete himself.

    Look for him to be one of the league's best young role players from day one.

Elfrid Payton: 2-Way Star in the Making

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    Summer League Stats: 25.8 MPG, 9.2 PPG, 7.0 APG, 5.2 RPG, 59% FG 

    He didn't even average double-figure scoring, yet Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton aced the first test of his NBA career. 

    The Louisiana-Lafayette product looked the part of a dynamic, multidimensional point guard as he picked apart opposing defenses at the Orlando Summer League. He averaged 9.8 assists per 36 minutes.

    Payton anticipated lobs, crisply executed pick-and-rolls and found teammates in transition. He suffered a couple rashes of turnovers, but those should be cleaned up as he connects with his teammates.

    As a shooter, he looked comfortable and confident, sinking several 15- to 20-foot jumpers. When he created off the dribble, he used his shiftiness and athleticism to get into the lane and finish strong. And he was also superb on defense, where he showed sharp instincts and put his physical tools to good use. Lastly, he mixed in some impressive rebounding.

    If his jump shooting continues to improve, he will be the type of floor general who can do it all.

    "His versatility, athleticism and length as a 6'4" point guard are characteristics that could help ease his transition from unheralded star at mid-major Louisiana-Lafayette to a potential impact player at the NBA's toughest position," said ESPN.com's Michael Wallace. In summer league Payton "showed the kind of all-around skills that allowed him to shoot to the top of many teams' boards at his position entering the draft."

    There will be a learning curve and plenty of growing pains once he hits the regular season. However, his ultimate ceiling is two-way stardom.

Noah Vonleh: Needs to Play Stronger, Smarter

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    Summer League Stats: 27.1 MPG, 9.1 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 28% FG 

    There are several areas of Noah Vonleh's game that need improvement, and that's to be expected of an 18-year-old neophyte. Playing stronger and being stronger are high on the list.

    The former Indiana Hoosier power forward weighed a sturdy 247 pounds at the NBA Draft Combine, and he checked in at 240 for the Las Vegas Summer League. His body is much more muscular than it was during his senior year of high school.

    But it's not enough.

    Vonleh's incredibly long frame (7'4" wingspan, 9'0" standing reach) is still somewhat lean, and it showed on both ends of the floor in Vegas. His length and instincts fueled excellent rebounding numbers, but he got pushed around as an interior operator and low-post defender. Against bulky opponents, he struggled to impose his will. The result was inconsistent scoring and 5.6 fouls per game (7.4 per 36 minutes).

    "This summer, I'm going to focus on getting a lot stronger, along with my post moves," Vonleh told Matt Moore of CBS Sports. "My whole body strength, just to be able to maintain guys."

    He also must learn many of the intangibles in order to be positionally effective and reach his potential. When he combines experience and smarts with added strength, he'll thrive.

Nik Stauskas: As-Advertised (For Better and Worse)

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    Summer League Stats: 28.9 MPG, 9.9 PPG, 2.0 APG, 43% FG, 48% 3FG 

    We didn't really learn anything major about Nik Stauskas in Las Vegas.

    Throughout Sacramento's summer league title run, the 6'6" Kings rookie showed us what we saw at Michigan: silky-smooth shooting, good awareness of his teammates and decent slashing.

    His shooting form and delivery are ready to torch NBA defenses, as he's lethal on catch-and-shoot triples and dribble pull-ups.

    When he put the ball on the deck in Vegas, it was a mixed bag. Sometimes he got to the rim or drew a foul, but other times he failed to create anything. Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix wasn't impressed with the top-10 pick:

    "Early on he played pretty well and was making some shots, but as the summer league progressed he started to taper off a little bit,” Mannix said. “You started to see some of the questions emerge a bit: Can he beat guys off the dribble? Can he be a factor defensively?"

    We'll get a much better idea of his rookie impact once he runs with the big dogs this fall.

Julius Randle: Improved Face-Up Skills

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    Summer League Stats: 23.5 MPG, 12.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.5 APG, 42% FG 

    Los Angeles Lakers newbie Julius Randle has some holes in his game, and he was underwhelming in certain areas during summer league. He coughed up turnovers and wasn't as impressive on the glass as some had hoped.

    However, if there's something we really learned from his Vegas outings, it's that he can really face up and generate offense.

    After watching a couple of Randle's summer league stints, B/R NBA Lead Writer D.J. Foster noted the big fella's ability to attack defenses off the bounce. Foster said he showed a "much better face-up game, handle and vision than I thought."

    The Kentucky product still heavily favors his left hand, but on a couple occasions this summer, he drove right and finished nicely with his right hand. Randle's ball-handling skills and unselfishness also yielded a few assists.

    He may not be ready to dominate games yet, but he possesses the foundation for productive inside-out offense. With the help of veterans like Kobe Bryant and Carlos Boozer, he could quickly develop into a potent weapon.

Marcus Smart: Once He Irons out the Shooting, He'll Be Dynamic

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    Summer League Stats: 29.2 MPG, 14.8 PPG, 4.2 APG, 2.0 SPG, 29% FG, 26% 3FG 

    For much of his Orlando Summer League schedule, Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart tossed up bricks.

    On both his mid-range and long-range jumpers, the Oklahoma State star failed to find a rhythm and achieve some consistency. Consequently, he was sub-30 percent from the field and beyond the arc.

    But he showed signs of improvement as the week unfolded, and he even hit four three-pointers in his summer league finale. He could certainly become a competent shooter in the NBA.

    And when he does, look out.

    Smart brought his intense style of play to Orlando, and he excelled as a playmaker and perimeter defender. He dished 4.2 assists while only committing 1.8 turnovers, which is solid for a rookie.

    And true to his college identity, he supplied high-energy, physical defense. Opposing guards had a tough time keeping up with him on both ends of the floor.

Dante Exum: Worth the Attention, but a Novice 2-Guard

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    Summer League Stats: 26.6 MPG, 7.2 PPG, 2.8 APG, 31% FG, 17% 3FG 

    Australian prodigy Dante Exum didn't do anything in Las Vegas to dispel the notion that he's an electrifying player with a bright future.

    In fact, the Utah Jazz newcomer gave us several dazzling glimpses of his speed, athleticism and playmaking prowess. Some of his drives to the rim and perfectly timed passes indicate he's brimming with talent.

    However, he didn't fare too well when operating on the wing away from the ball.

    New Jazz coach Quin Snyder utilized him alongside Trey Burke on several occasions, employing Burke as the primary ball-handler. Exum often looked a bit unsure of what to do, so he wound up standing in the corner or just waiting for the ball on the wing.

    He admitted to Jody Genessy of the Deseret News that he's struggling to adapt in off-ball situations:

    "I think I’m still comfortable at the point. I still want to get the ball in my hands as much as possible. I didn’t get it a lot in my hands these last couple of games...With Coach’s system, it’s open, but there’s been so many times I’ve just gone away from the ball and let Trey take it."

    Proficient shooting would have helped him enjoy his time on the wing more. He surely worked on his outside jumper over the past few months but didn't see the desired results in Vegas. Exum's delivery is still a bit forced and flat, and he shot 3-of-18 from beyond the arc.

Aaron Gordon: Still Struggling as a Shooter

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    Summer League Stats: 26.4 MPG, 7.8 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 35% FG, 0% 3FG, 48% FT 

    After Aaron Gordon shot 48 percent on free throws and posted a goose egg from three-land in summer league, we learned he's still got a long way to go in the shooting department.

    During the draft process, much was made of his shooting issues and how he was working on streamlining his free throws and outside jumpers. In predraft workouts, his shot definitely looked better than it did at Arizona.

    But in game situations during the Orlando Summer League, the Magic's top-five pick failed to consistently convert. His jumper still lacks fluidity and his charity tosses are unpredictable.

    Gordon only attempted two triples per game, so he didn't really have much of a chance to get in a groove. It would have been nice to see him make at least a couple, though.

    It's too early for Magic fans to get stressed out, especially because he's an excellent prospect in most other areas. He just has plenty of work to do before October rolls around.

Jabari Parker: Lack of Explosiveness May Hamper Efficiency

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    Summer League Stats: 28.6 MPG, 15.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 42% FG, 18% 3FG 

    Although he averaged 15-plus points per contest and capped his summer league performance with a 20-point effort, Jabari Parker left something to be desired in Las Vegas.

    That "something" is explosiveness.

    The Milwaukee Bucks' No. 2 overall pick is as skilled as we thought he would be, and you can tell he has the makings of elite offensive talent. But as B/R NBA Draft Lead Writer Jonathan Wasserman pointed out, there were several instances where his middle-tier athleticism resulted in less-than-favorable shots.

    He didn't consistently break down opponents on drives, so he had to settle for contested jumpers. And when he attacked the rim, he couldn't rise above traffic to score easily. Wasserman explains the dilemma:

    Though it was just five summer league games, you couldn't help but notice how hard Parker had to work on offense ... There's no questioning Parker's game, but rather his ability to execute with efficiency against NBA-caliber defenders. During summer league, it was the hurdles that Parker will face as a scorer that were exposed more than anything. It doesn't mean he won't be able to overcome them ... However, it reduces their margin for error.

    The good news is that he's a 19-year-old rookie, and he will probably develop a lot of the same footwork nuances and craftiness that Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony possess. Until then, he'll have to work extremely hard to put up big numbers.

Andrew Wiggins: Aggressiveness and Intensity Aren't Issues

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    Summer League Stats: 30.0 MPG, 15.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 41% FG, 15% 3FG 

    When the dust settled from Andrew Wiggins' freshman year at Kansas, we were left wondering whether he would be assertive or forceful enough to become an NBA star.

    If summer league was an accurate indicator, aggressiveness won't be an issue for him.

    The Cleveland Cavaliers youngster clearly has a few areas to polish, including three-point shooting and creating for teammates. The good sign, however, is that he's zealous both in playing style and body language. AJ Mitnick of Sheridan Hoops liked what he saw from Wiggins in Vegas:

    He competes hard at both ends of the floor...You can clearly see from his body language and facial expressions that he is engaged and passionate about the game, which bodes well for him moving forward. He does not shy away from contact, coming from the outside aggressively for rebounds, and did a great job of getting himself to the free throw line...

    At Kansas, Wiggins did a solid job of drawing fouls. During summer league, he looked even better. He slashed deep into enemy territory and challenged help defenders fearlessly.

    His ability to drive at defenders is only going to get better, so the rest of the league will soon have its hands full.

Nerlens Noel: May Be Biggest Steal of 2013 Draft

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    Summer League Stats: 25.3 MPG, 12.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.7 BPG, 50% FG 

    Early on in Orlando, we realized Nerlens Noel should have been one of the top couple picks in last year's draft.

    The Philadelphia 76ers are lucky he fell to No. 6. He wreaked havoc in the paint on both sides of the ball during summer league. Noel waited for more than a year to compete at a high level, and he showed loads of promise in both Orlando and Las Vegas.

    Even though he's coming off knee rehab, Noel is abundantly quick and athletic for a 6'11" center. He beat opponents on straight-line slashes, elevated for putbacks and converted hook shots with either hand.

    And on defense, he terrorized countless opponents. Noel forced a total of 27 turnovers in six games, as his swift feet and long arms altered shots and disrupted passing lanes. He may not be a finished product, but he's an ambidextrous rim protector who's ready to compete with big league frontcourts.

    In the near future, he's going to be one of those energy players who's so influential that he becomes a star.


    Dan O'Brien covers the NBA draft for Bleacher Report.