2015 Orlando Summer League: Ranking the Top 10 Most Surprising Studs
While the 2015 Orlando Summer League might only be a taste test for the bigger Las Vegas league, it offered a bevy of surprising fireworks from overlooked players.
We expected strong production from NBA-ready prospects like Charlotte Hornets big man Frank Kaminsky and Orlando Magic returnee Aaron Gordon. Their star-like midsummer feats aren't astonishing.
Who are the lesser-known competitors who are turning heads and exceeding their modest expectations entering the event?
We looked for players whose production, efficiency and overall impact surpassed what most scouts and prognosticators anticipated. They could come in the form of undrafted standouts, late-lottery selections who are obliterating projections or journeymen who are trying to work their way into the Association.
Our rankings are based how much each prospect surprised or exceeded expectations.
10. Semaj Christon, Oklahoma City Thunder PG
Drafted: No. 55 in 2014 by Miami Heat
2015 Summer Stats: 29.8 MPG, 13.8 PPG, 6.8 APG, 3.0 RPG, 32.3 FG%
While he hasn't been statistically consistent throughout the Orlando Summer League, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Semaj Christon has impressed onlookers as a playmaker and defender.
His scoring efficiency has been up-and-down all week, but Christon turned heads with his passing prowess.
After a year spent in the NBA Development League with the Oklahoma City Blue, the 6'3" slasher from Xavier demonstrated sharpened floor generalship in Orlando. Christon entered Friday leading the event in assists per game, using his agility to attack via high ball screens and put teammates in position to score.
Even after an adventurous nine-assist, nine-turnover game against the Orlando Magic Blue, OKC summer league coach Darko Rajakovic praised Christon's knack for making good reads:
"The reason for those nine turnovers is just we are still not on the same page,” Rajakovic told Darnell Mayberry of NewsOK.com. “This group was just (together) for a couple of days. But all the decisions that he was trying to make were the right decisions."
Couple the playmaking with rangy, aggressive defense at the point, and you have a promising two-way guard.
Don't assume Christon's summer-league exploits will give way to 2015-16 prosperity at the NBA level. He still must exhibit greater jump-shooting consistency. Nevertheless, he's enjoyed a surprisingly dynamic week and is showing terrific progress.
9. Devyn Marble, Orlando Magic Blue SG
Drafted: No. 56 in 2014 by Orlando Magic
2015 Summer Stats: 28.3 MPG, 12.0 PPG, 2.3 APG, 3.0 SPG, 40.5 FG%
Much of Devyn Marble's rookie year with the Orlando Magic was spent on the bench or recovering from eye surgery, so we didn't know what to expect as summer league commenced.
He packed a punch on both ends of the court, supplying smooth perimeter shooting and phenomenal defensive instincts.
After several games of stifling defense and a modest offensive role, Marble delivered a stat-stuffing outburst Thursday against the Indiana Pacers while many of Orlando's top performers rested. He scored 22 points, including five three-pointers, and also posted seven rebounds, three assists and four steals.
The smooth, methodical offense has been a pleasure to watch, but Marble's defense is even more impressive.
His talent as a backcourt stopper goes far beyond the truckload of thefts, which included a six-steal game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Marble does great work preventing passes from even occurring, as Brett David Roberts of Orlando Magic Daily noted: "Devyn Marble really likes to close off passing lanes. That'll never be a stat, but he makes such a difference doing it."
Marble barely saw the floor in his rookie campaign, but a significant improvement from last year's summer league to this one suggests he'll see more minutes in 2015-16.
8. Joe Young, Indiana Pacers PG/SG
Drafted: No. 43 in 2015 by Indiana Pacers
2015 Summer Stats: 28.3 MPG, 20.7 PPG, 4.0 APG, 3.0 RPG, 52.4 FG%
Joe Young's summer-league success didn't come out of nowhere, but the second-round pick still cracks our list because his production has vastly outpaced his draft status.
The Oregon product and 2015 Pac-12 Player of the Year has proved he can thrive in the NBA's uptempo pace and score in bunches from beyond the NBA arc. Despite Young's underwhelming 6'2" stature, he unloaded back-to-back 25-plus point games for the Indiana Pacers.
Young's ability to create off the dribble has transferred immediately from college to summer league. He's difficult to guard because he can change direction and stop on a dime to shoot whenever he wants.
A 25-point, five-assist outing against the Detroit Pistons highlighted his ability to create in isolation or off the pick-and-roll. When defenses swarm to cut off his drives, Young has done a great job of finding open comrades.
The following day, he unleashed an even more impressive scoring performance, notching 28 points on 9-of-17 shooting against the Orlando Magic Blue. Young torched the Magic for five triples, propelling Indy to a 91-85 victory.
Offensive barrages like these have officially put him on the radar. Entering training camp, the Pacers should take a hard look at employing Young as an explosive scoring guard off the bench.
7. Nate Wolters, Los Angeles Clippers PG
Drafted: No. 38 in 2013 by Washington Wizards
2015 Summer Stats: 31.0 MPG, 14.0 PPG, 3.3 APG, 2.3 SPG, 47.2 FG%
It's a shame that a finger fracture prematurely ended Nate Wolters' summer league. He was delivering some quality all-around production for the Los Angeles Clippers.
After two seasons of bouncing between the Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans and D-League, Wolters made a compelling argument to bolster L.A.'s depth or land on another big-league squad.
Very few summer-league guards possess his ball-handling polish and footwork.
Wolters smoothly navigated the chaos in Orlando, churning out 14 points and 3.3 assists per game on 47 percent shooting. He hit timely triples, found open teammates (whose poor field-goal shooting likely cost him a handful of additional assists) and racked up 2.3 steals per contest.
His dynamic impact this past week won't translate to a huge role on the Clippers or another suitor moving forward. However, it displayed his tremendous feel for the game and command of the point guard position. Don't be surprised if he latches on as a reserve guard in the Association during 2015-16.
"[The] Clippers would be smart to sign him before another [team] scoops him up," said Steve Kyler of BasketballInsiders.com.
6. Russ Smith, Memphis Grizzlies PG
Drafted: No. 47 in 2014 by Philadelphia 76ers
2015 Summer Stats: 28.5 MPG, 14.8 PPG, 5.5 APG, 3.3 SPG, 3.0 RPG, 55.3 FG%
Russ Smith's scoring production and speedy playing style aren't surprising to anyone. Last year, he earned All-Vegas League Second Team honors after racking up 16 points and 6.4 assists per game for the New Orleans Pelicans.
What's startling about this year's exploits is his heightened efficiency.
Smith has orchestrated the Memphis Grizzlies' summer-league attack with 55 percent field-goal shooting, 5.5 assists and 3.0 turnovers per game, a pleasant upgrade from the 43 percent shooting and 4.2 giveaways he posted last year.
Smith's knack for scoring in the lane or stopping and popping for jumpers has been magnificent. And when help defenders rotate to clog the lane, he's exhibited an improved arsenal of quarterbacking accuracy.
He hasn't tallied gargantuan assist numbers, but Smith's teammates have frequently struggled to convert his dimes. For example, although he dished just three assists Tuesday against the Orlando Magic Blue, Sam Vecenie of CBSSports.com noted that Smith created at least 14 assist opportunities for teammates.
Smith's increased dual-threat savvy could give him a decent chance to stick with the Griz next season.
5. Stanley Johnson, Detroit Pistons SF
Drafted: No. 8 in 2015 by Detroit Pistons
2015 Summer Stats: 27.8 MPG, 17.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2.0 APG, 2.3 SPG, 64.3 FG%
Detroit Pistons forward Stanley Johnson was a top-10 pick in this year's draft, so he was expected to be one of the more naturally talented players in the summer league setting.
But we didn't expect this kind of across-the-board mastery so soon.
Johnson has initiated offense, hit triples at an efficient rate and run the pick-and-roll. He's also posted up, rebounded like a big man and forced a bushel of turnovers. You name it, he's done it this past week in Orlando.
With the strength and agility to guard three positions and the offensive fluidity to play inside and out, he looks the part of a future multipositional star.
Johnson's scoring touch has been impressive from all angles, and his three-point stroke has quieted the doubters so far. Austin Peters of Upside & Motor explains that Johnson's quick release passes the eye test:
Johnson’s ability to hit the NBA threes was up for question before the draft because the majority of his college three-point looks came from the corners. He has been lights out in Orlando, shooting higher than 60 percent from the field. His shot is smooth, and while the release point is low, it is quick enough to get it off before the defender closes out on him.
We haven't seen Johnson play on the NBA's biggest stage yet, but this summer-league bonanza illustrates his potential to be wildly versatile.
4. Willie Reed, Brooklyn Nets C (Played with Miami Heat Summer League Team)
Drafted: Undrafted in 2011
2015 Summer Stats (with MIA): 25.8 MPG, 13.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 60.0 FG%
Those who keep close tabs on the NBA D-League aren't shocked by Willie Reed's robust summer league, but he's quickly emerging on everyone's radar after some monster games in Orlando.
More importantly, his strong play for the Miami Heat summer squad earned him a contract with the Brooklyn Nets, per Shams Charania of RealGm.com.
Although he's only been a pro for four years, Reed is already a journeyman. The 6'11" center has made four different stops in the D-League along with stints in Spain and the Dominican Republic.
So how exactly did he outclass many NBA hopefuls this summer and earn a contract? By working hard and growing into his role as a paint protector.
Reed's hustle on the boards and off the ball has afforded him copious opportunities on offense, and his shot-blocking skills are also intriguing. These end-to-end efforts yielded 17 points and four blocks in just 29 minutes Wednesday against the Los Angeles Clippers.
We're not looking at a starting NBA center here—at least not in the near future. But Reed's outburst in Orlando could be the start of his earning a reserve role for the Nets.
3. Branden Dawson, Los Angeles Clippers F
Drafted: No. 56 in 2015 by New Orleans Pelicans
2015 Summer Stats: 25.5 MPG, 12.8 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 1.3 BPG, 52.2 FG%
Former Michigan State forward Branden Dawson slipped to No. 56 in the 2015 NBA draft primarily because he has wing player size (6'7") but lacks a jump shot.
The Los Angeles Clippers took a flier on him for his athleticism and two-way energy. Thus far, he's delivered in both areas in Orlando.
Dawson has imposed his will on the boards throughout the week, particularly on the offensive glass. He snared six-plus offensive rebounds in back-to-back games, using relentless explosiveness and a 6'11" wingspan to keep possessions alive.
L.A. must love his defensive effort and instincts as well; Dawson has made a strong pitch that he's an NBA-caliber stopper. He's shown the quickness and aggressiveness to disrupt foes horizontally as well as the bounce to challenge them vertically.
Sam Vecenie of CBSSports.com broke down Dawson's outlook given his July exploits:
For the future, Dawson is going to be a fascinating case study in what the NBA values right now due to his unique skill set. His defensive value has potential to be very high, given his motor, length, and versatility to defend both wings and also smaller post players. However, his complete lack of perimeter skill and jump shot might make him a really tough fit in the current NBA. If he can find a way to get easy buckets in transition and with off-ball movements while he continues to figure out a perimeter shot, maybe he can become a good role player. If he can't, he might just end up becoming a summer league warrior that never makes good on his July promise.
There's no guarantee Dawson can translate his summer success into a long career, but his defensive versatility will be hard to resist.
2. Keith Appling, Orlando Magic White PG
Drafted: Undrafted in 2014
2015 Summer Stats: 23.5 MPG, 15.8 PPG, 2.3 APG, 3.3 SPG, 50.0 FG%
After a solid 2015 campaign in the D-League, former Michigan State point guard Keith Appling is enjoying a brilliant Orlando Summer League.
In just 23.5 minutes per contest, he has uncorked 15.8 points and 2.3 assists for the Orlando Magic White squad. Appling has aggressively weaved through defenses and cagily created a ton of opportunities.
Back-to-back 17-point performances against the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers were fueled by a steady diet of free throws. Appling reached double figures in free-throw attempts during both games, shooting a combined 20-of-21 from the charity stripe.
He then upped the ante with a 19-point, six-steal effort against the Brooklyn Nets Friday.
Orlando Magic White head coach Bill Peterson (who also coached Appling with the D-League's Erie Bayhawks last season) noted his point guard's intelligent approach.
"His development is out the roof, real real high,” Peterson told Josh Cohen of NBA.com. “His ability to run our team, he’s starting to think the game better. His mental makeup has improved a great deal."
Injuries and uninspiring play have hurt Appling's chances of cracking the NBA in the past. This summer-league upswing could be the springboard to a training camp invite and a potential reserve role.
1. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers C
Drafted: No. 11 in 2015 by Indiana Pacers
2015 Summer Stats: 29.0 MPG, 18.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 4.3 BPG, 60.5 FG%
Myles Turner arrived in Orlando with a chance to make an impact with his length and shooting touch. He ended up exceeding everyone's expectations with colossal production on both ends of the court.
We thought 4.7 blocks per 40 minutes at Texas was impressive.
Turner has shattered that mark during summer league, swatting 4.3 shots in just 29 minutes (translates to 5.9 blocks per 40 minutes). He covers a lot of ground with long strides and exhibits elite timing when contesting shots. Even though he'll have to learn when to pick his battles and avoid fouling, it looks like Turner's shot-altering defense will translate quickly to the Association.
His shooting prowess has been equally striking; he's scoring over opponents from all angles. In addition to a nice mid-range turnaround over either shoulder, Turner has sharp pick-and-pop skills and the ability to step out to three-land.
One important trait that separates him from most young bigs who can shoot is confidence. Unlike most 4s or 5s who hesitate briefly before launching a long jumper, Turner doesn't think twice. That's an excellent sign for his rookie year and beyond.
Today's NBA coaches are implementing more creative pick-and-roll sets for their top weapons. Frank Vogel would be wise to mix in a bunch of options for Turner next year, as the 7'0" tower can roll toward the rim and score above traffic or pop out for silky-smooth jumpers.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats are gathered from NBA.com and are accurate entering Friday, July 10.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA and NBA draft for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR