Does NBA Summer League Success Translate to the Regular Season?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 18, 2013

Josh Selby got it done in the Summer League in 2012, but does that mean anything?
Josh Selby got it done in the Summer League in 2012, but does that mean anything?Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA Summer League matters—to an extent.

Far too often, we attempt to use summer goings as tell-alls, as all-revealing performances.

This player is going to be good because he tore up the Summer League. Player X is a draft-day steal because he just averaged 20-plus points per game for a few days. Can you believe so-and-so wasn't drafted? Look how good he's playing.

That's only a taste of what's said, of the observations that we make. 

All of us are guilty of reading too much into offseason events one way or another. Every single one of us.

Many fancy the Brooklyn Nets title contenders, even though they've yet to take the court with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. People are already counting the Los Angeles Lakers out of the playoff picture, accusing them of tanking, because they lost Dwight Howard.

Those are different versions of premature forecasts. Summer League play is another.

Success over a few days, or even weeks, doesn't guarantee anything over the life of a career. For some, it doesn't even guarantee they'll have a career at all.

The sooner we understand this, the sooner we accept that meeting or exceeding expectations over the summer doesn't mean everything, or in some cases anything, the better.

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Summer League Stars

During the regular season, we watch the Association's biggest names duke it out for the highest of honors.

Just last season, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant engaged in an almost-down-to-the-wire battle for the scoring title. Some of us even drifted off to sleep believing players not named LeBron James actually had a shot at the league MVP award. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe sure did.

Summer League exhibitions present exactly the opposite.

Essential no-names contend with one another, looking to secure any positive form of recognition and, in turn, an NBA roster spot.

Rookies, perennial journeymen and general hopefuls with a dream use the Las Vegas (and Orlando) stage to showcase their talents, much like Damian Lillard did last summer. The eventual Rookie of the Year was named the Summer League's co-MVP in 2012. He went on to have a fantastic season with the Portland Trail Blazers, emerging as a self-assured floor general who they could build around.

Lillard's podium-partner can't say the same.

Josh Selby was the other MVP. He was third in scoring last summer with 24.2 points per game, then went on to appear in a mere 10 games for the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2012-13 campaign.

Virtual aberrations, like Selby, are a staple during offseason combat. Since its inception, the Summer League has been fraught with standouts who didn't quite make it in the NBA.

As if to say statistical crowns and summer MVPs mean nothing, the results ultimately yielded in Vegas often present more questions than answers.

But don't take my word for it. Simply take a look at the players who have led the Summer League in various numerical categories and those who were deemed most valuable over the years (remember, there was no Summer League in 2011, courtesy of the lockout):

2004Nikoloz Tskitishvili (25.7)Lonnie Jones (12.7)Steve Blake/Jameer Nelson (6.2)
2005J.R. Smith (20.6)Josh Powell (9.8)Sebastian Telfair (6.0)
2006Randy Foye (24.8)James Singleton (13.2)John Lucas (7.6)
2007 Louis Williams (25.2)Amir Johnson (12.0)D.J. Strawberry (6.4)
2008 Jerryd Bayless (29.8)Kevin Love (13.5) Ramon Sessions (7.3)
2009 Anthony Randolph (26.8)Joey Dorsey (14.8)Brandon Jennings/Marcus Williams (6.8)
2010 John Wall (23.5)DeMarcus Cousins (9.8) John Wall (7.8)
2012Damian Lillard (26.5) Malcolm Thomas (12.4) Kendall Marshall (6.5)

Names like Lillard, DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall tend to catch our attention. Others, like Sebastian Telfair and Anthony Randolph, invoke a "What happened?" kind of feeling. Then there are the Nikoloz Tskitishvilis and Lonnies Jones', or as some of you will come to call them: who?

Plenty of the top performers in the Summer League have made it. When he's not injured, Kevin Love can still rebound. Should he decide not to clang shot after shot off the rim, J.R. Smith can still score. And max extension or not, Wall is still doing things.

Not every Summer League success story, however, has translated into an illustrious career, or even a career at all.

Below are the career stats of each of our categorical leaders, in the respective department they led the Summer League in (players who never made it to the NBA are in italics):

YearCareer PPGCareer RPGCareer APG
2004Nikoloz Tskitishvili (9.4)Lonnie JonesSteve Blake (3.9)/Jameer Nelson (5.2)
2005J.R. Smith (13.2)Josh Powell (2.9)Sebastian Telfair (3.5)
2006Randy Foye (11.5)James Singleton (3.7)John Lucas (1.5)
2007Louis Williams (11.6)Amir Johnson (5.5)D.J. Strawberry (0.9)
2008Jerryd Bayless (8.3)Kevin Love (12.2)Ramon Sessions (4.8)
2009Anthony Randolph (7.6)Joey Dorsey (3.8)Brandon Jennings (5.7)/Marcus Williams (2.8)
2010John Wall (16.9)DeMarcus Cousins (9.8)John Wall (8.0)
2012Damian Lillard (19.0)Malcolm Thomas (1.3)Kendall Marshall (3.0)

In most cases, Summer League savants are able to carve out an actual career at the NBA level. And we've also got to acknowledge that the small sample size is but a preview of what could, quite possibly, maybe happen moving forward.

Jerryd Bayless was never going to average almost 30 points per game for his career. He's a point guard; his first job is to pass. Even if he came to be a shoot-first floor general (he did), eclipsing the 30-point, or even 25-point plateau was going to be difficult, if not impossible.

But that's the problem, the entire problem.

What takes place in Vegas (and Orlando), is an extension of college. Players are judged on their performance, then gambles are taken and assumptions made on their potential. Sometimes it pans out; sometimes it doesn't.

You can't tell me that the 2009 Summer League was a great barometer for the careers of Brandon Jennings and Marcus Williams. Jennings is struggling to find a home, sure, but Williams entered the league in 2006, and he's played just as many seasons (four) as Jennings, who made his debut in 2009, has.

And yet they both led the Summer League in assists per game, in the same year. What does that tell us? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

If you'll notice, only a handful of the players in our current scope have amounted to what you would consider integral pieces to their team's puzzle. Of the 24 players, all of whom led the Summer League in one of those statistical categories, only two have been selected to an All-Star team (Jameer Nelson and Love).

Few players become superstars, but if the Summer League was an unequivocal measuring stick, Randolph would be the No. 1 scoring option for the Nuggets and D.J. Strawberry would have spent more than one season in the NBA.

Patience can be preached for some of these guys, the younger ones who aren't yet set in their ways, years removed from the Summer League or seasoned veterans. Most of the other players (Steve Blake, John Lucas, Lonnie Jones, Strawberry, etc.) are who they are—backups, bench warmers or out of the NBA entirely.

What Does the Summer League Mean?

Far more infrequent than the Summer League standout that amounted to very little, is the Summer League disappointment that became a superstar. But it happens.

Back in 2005, Deron Williams averaged fewer than 10 points and five assists over the summer. He's now a three-time All-Star.

In 2006, already weighed down by tapered expectations, Rajon Rondo dished out under four assists in the Summer League. Injuries aside, he's seen the light of four All-Star games and is considered one of the most crafty playmakers in the game.

Five years ago, Durant proved he could still score, but there were concerns about his rebounding numbers. The Durantula has now averaged at least 7.9 rebounds in each of the last two seasons.

There's then no secret formula that determines how well or poorly one's career will go based on a Summer League excursion.

Games being played in the offseason give us a glimpse into what players are capable of, and what they need to work on. They don't etch anything in stone.

Perhaps the most accurate talent gauge is the MVP award. The last three Summer League MVPs consist of Blake Griffin (2009), Wall (2010) and Lillard (2012). Those three are stars and turned some heads as they made their first impressions.

But first impressions aren't always everything, just as those awards don't always mean we're in the presence of greatness.

Randy Foye was actually named an MVP (2006). He's carved out a nice career, but he's not a star by any means. Al Thornton was considered for the honor in 2007. Where is he now? Out of the NBA. 

When Griffin himself won it, he wasn't even in the top 10 in scoring. He was also out-rebounded (10.8) by Andray Blatche, who went on to become a victim of the amnesty clause with the Washington Wizards (now with the Brooklyn Nets), and Dorsey, who was last seen in the NBA two years ago.

If Summer League tenures were truly indicative of what's to come, Dorsey would still be in the Association and rebounding at a higher rate than Griffin. Adam Morrison, who averaged 20.8 points in 2009 and 20 points in 2012, wouldn't have been unemployed since 2010.

Selby would have led the Grizzlies in scoring last season.

Statistical anomalies are all over the place. In college, in the summer league and the NBA itself (is Jeremy Lin still averaging 20 and eight these days?). They're everywhere.

Bursts of excellence are going to surface within a culture that reacts to the moment, and puts every iota into a grander context. Not all cases are as extreme as the Morrisons and the Selbys, but for every Lillard, there's a Randolph. Or Bayless. Or Foye.

There are players who dominate over the summer, then regress to their mean during the fall, winter and spring months. 

Ask Andrew Goudelock. It's great that he's leading the 2013 Vegas League in scoring (22.7 points), but he's been in this position before. What he does in the Summer League (and D-League) doesn't mean he's going to become an NBA fixture. Ever. Same goes for Josh Akognon (20.5 points) and Malcolm Thomas (16 rebounds).

Just like we can't predict which careers will be derailed by injuries, we can't draw inalterable conclusions because Player X played well in July.

Player X could be the next Damian Lillard. He could be the next Randy Foye. Or he could be the second coming of Adam Morrison.

We just don't know.