8 NBA Summer League Stars Who Will Prove They're the Real Deal Next Season

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistJuly 15, 2015

8 NBA Summer League Stars Who Will Prove They're the Real Deal Next Season

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    Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

    While the 2015 NBA Summer League has showcased a bunch of electrifying performers, only a select few will translate into legitimate weapons in 2015-16.

    Just because a player thrives in July doesn't mean he'll flourish or hold a key role during the regular season. Many midsummer outbursts can be misleading. Some ballers who explode during summer league end up fizzling in the ensuing years (for example, Josh Selby, Nolan Smith and Alando Tucker), and a few uninspiring summer leaguers have turned into diamonds in the rough (Hassan Whiteside and Serge Ibaka come to mind).

    Which stars from Orlando, Utah and Las Vegas will actually produce when it counts?

    We looked at the best stat-stuffers and most talented competitors from summer league and identified which ones will be the real deal come autumn. These players have shown convincing skill developments, confidence in their team's system or signs of mastering an important role moving forward.

    Don't expect the same kind of stats once the regular season commences, but you can bet these summer standouts will deliver on the big stage.

    Note: Players are sorted alphabetically.

Jordan Clarkson, Los Angeles Lakers G

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    Summer League Stats: 33.3 MPG, 18.3 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.3 APG, .404 FG%

    2015-16 Role: Starting combo guard

    Jordan Clarkson picked up right where he left off at the end of the 2015 regular season. He's averaging 18-plus points per game in Las Vegas and continues to ace the eye test.

    There's no reason to doubt his surprising rookie season and stat-stuffing summer league won't translate to a dynamic 2015-16 campaign. Clarkson has all the basic offensive gifts necessary, including athleticism, vision, shifty handles and a smooth jump shot.

    The 6'5" combo guard seems to glide swiftly across the floor no matter what he's doing.

    Clarkson can go coast-to-coast under control, shake his man in isolation or play off the ball and catch and shoot fluidly. His positional flexibility will be the key to coach Byron Scott maximizing the efforts of an aging Kobe Bryant and teenage rookie D'Angelo Russell.

    Once Clarkson's shot selection and efficiency catch up with the physical wares, he'll make opponents regret passing on him in the 2014 draft.

    Clarkson's per-game production may not spike in 2015-16 because he'll share touches with Bryant and Russell. However, he can thrive as a devastating secondary attacker when defenses are geared up against those two stars. The key is for Clarkson to play within the flow of the game rather than being a one-man crew like he was last year. Now he'll have a respectable rotation to collaborate with.

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic F

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    Willie J. Allen Jr./Associated Press

    Summer League Stats: 32.7 MPG, 21.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 2.7 APG, .500 FG%, .500 3FG%

    2015-16 Role: Explosive sixth man, part-time starter

    When he entered the NBA in 2014, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon already had the athleticism, basketball IQ and two-way instincts to compete.

    Now it looks like his ball skills have arrived; that's a scary development for the rest of the league, considering Gordon is still just 19 years old.

    During the Orlando Summer League, he showcased a much-improved shot and the ability to create off the bounce. He drilled six of 12 triples and netted 20-plus points per contest with a smoother delivery.

    Sam Vecenie of CBSSports.com explained how Gordon's rigid shooting tendencies are in the past. His improved lower-body mechanics and fluid release have yielded superb results:

    The hitch (in his motion) is gone, as he's moved his release point slightly to the right and smoothed out his shooting motion...he's exploding off the floor to shoot by actually bending his legs as he gathers for his shot. It's much more fluid and dynamic, and will lead to better shooting off the dribble.

    Last year, Gordon proved he's an ultra-versatile defender and cagey above-the-rim weapon. Adding a reliable jumper to the arsenal would make him a key cog for Orlando.

    New coach Scott Skiles will love Gordon's ability to execute on both ends of the floor. In 2015-16, the rising star will do a better job of spacing the floor for slashers (and do some slashing himself) while taking on a host of different defensive assignments. Given the youngster's skill progression and all-around dominant summer league, it's hard to imagine he'll see fewer than 25 minutes per game as a sophomore.

Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz SG/SF

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Summer League Stats: 27.5 MPG, 20.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2.5 APG, .548 FG%

    2015-16 Role: Starting wing/sixth man

    Rodney Hood's summer-league mastery is no fluke.

    In a small sample size (two games in the Utah league), the 6'8" forward offered a glimpse of the wing versatility he'll unleash for the Utah Jazz in 2015-16.

    Hood enjoyed a solid rookie campaign, finishing strong and earning a few starts. His scoring repertoire and instincts have only gotten sharper since then, so he's poised for an increased role moving forward. He's become quite comfortable initiating plays, working craftily away from the ball and picking the perfect times to attack.

    In addition to the offensive growth, Hood has improved as a defensive playmaker and rebounder. In Utah's July 6 win over the Boston Celtics, he tallied 10 rebounds, including four offensive boards, along with a couple of steals and zero fouls.

    All That Amar of SLC Dunk noted Hood's emergence:

    We've seen him ignite from outside before, so I'm not really worried about that. But seeing him move, drive, get offensive rebounds, and steal the ball...he's an all-around talent that will be recognized as yet another Dennis Lindsey draft steal.

    Expect Hood's sophomore numbers and impact to dwarf those of his rookie year. Not only will the swingman be used a bit more, but he'll capitalize better on those opportunities.

Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets PG

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Summer League Stats: 31.3 MPG, 13.3 PPG, 7.3 APG, 3.7 RPG, .372 FG%

    2015-16 Role: Starting point guard, primary playmaker

    Emmanuel Mudiay hasn't been as statistically impressive as some of the other prospects in this article, but he qualifies as a "summer-league star" thanks to some dazzling playmaking performances.

    The young floor general also deserves the "real deal" label entering 2015-16 because he can flat-out separate off the dribble. Things won't come quite as easily during the regular season, but he has the chops to run the Denver Nuggets' attack.

    The No. 7 overall pick was handed the keys to Denver's summer car, and if the team finds a trade partner for Ty Lawson, he'll have the reins of its big league operation.

    With a year of pro ball in China under his belt, Mudiay has asserted himself confidently in Las Vegas. The explosive quarterback has given us plenty of reason to believe he'll play admirably next year and even crash the Rookie of the Year race.

    Mudiay is supremely gifted when it comes to shaking his man and accelerating toward the rim. Whether he's coming off a ball screen or working in isolation, he's always a threat to drive and dish, besiege the rim or pull up for a jumper.

    He'll endure some growing pains, and there will be some unsightly turnover rashes next season. But that's to be expected from almost any young point guard, and his development as a decision-maker alongside the Nuggets' young core is worth the trade-off.

Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers C

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    Summer League Stats: 30.6 MPG, 15.8 PPG, 8.4 RPG, .440 FG%

    2015-16 Role: Starting center, primary scorer

    This certainly isn't the most shocking inclusion on our list, as most prognosticators view Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor as a strong contender for 2016 Rookie of the Year.

    The Duke champion who is now a rebuilding piece has some warts. He's going to get burned on defense numerous times, struggle with the pace of the game and inevitably clank a pile of free throws. Those weaknesses are clear from his brief college career and summer-league appearances.

    However, Philly will entrust him with its offense from Day 1. The team needs an anchor in the paint, and he is equipped to serve as that focal point.

    The massive physique and diverse scoring repertoire that we've seen in Utah and Las Vegas will continue into the regular season. In addition to Okafor's array of back-to-the-basket moves, he's shown an encouraging penchant for driving successfully from 15 feet with either hand.

    "Okafor showed how ready he is to have a pro offense run through him," Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding said. "He repeatedly had counters and showed creativity...As heralded as his post game is, Okafor is also capable of creating shots when he faces up."

    Nerlens Noel's offense is still raw, and Joel Embiid will miss the 2015-16 campaign, so Philly will lean on Okafor as a featured piece right away. Fortunately, he's up to the task.

Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics G

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Summer League Stats: 29.0 MPG, 18.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 5.3 APG, 2.5 SPG, .339 FG%, .286 3FG%

    2015-16 Role: Starting point guard, primary playmaker

    Boston Celtics 2014 lottery pick Marcus Smart showed promise as a lead guard last season.

    In July, his hard work has started to come to fruition, and all signs point toward a breakout sophomore campaign.

    Smart's offensive game has expanded magnificently over the past year. After ironing out his jumper during 2014-15, he's exhibited more effective slashing skills during summer league.

    "I'm trying to get to the basket a little bit more," he told Marc D'Amico of Celtics.com during the Utah session. "It's real big for me and this team getting to the rim, not only to score the ball, but also to make plays for my teammates."

    Celtics skipper Brad Stevens talked to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald about Smart's increased command as a true floor general.

    "He's always seen the floor well, but he's technically a little bit better passer," Stevens said. "He gets rid of the ball quicker. He's got more creative, crafty passes than he probably had...He's got a chance to make a good jump, there's no question about it..."

    While Smart's scoring and passing abilities rapidly expanded, his defense is also on an express train to stardom.

    His talent and smarts on that end of the floor are miles ahead of most young players. Smart has become adept at making foes uncomfortable, and he's swiped eight steals during his first three summer league games.

    The sophomore standout is mastering the art of pressuring opponents on both offense and defense. After notching just 7.8 points and 3.1 assists per game last year, Smart should take a colossal step forward in 2015-16.

T.J. Warren, Phoenix Suns SF

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    Ronda Churchill/Associated Press

    Summer League Stats: 29.7 MPG, 19.3 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.7 SPG, .558 FG%

    2015-16 Role: Key rotational wing

    If coach Jeff Hornacek finds minutes for T.J. Warren during the regular season, the cagey forward will prove he's the real deal.

    Warren appeared in less than half of the Phoenix Suns' games during 2014-15 and averaged 15.4 minutes per contest. In those brief stints, and especially during his extended stretches in the NBA Development League and summer league, he has flashed some brilliant footwork and skills.

    The 6'8" North Carolina State product isn't a top-shelf athlete or a prolific three-point shooter, yet he can burn foes in a variety of ways.

    Warren is at his best when cutting or driving in the open floor. He knows exactly when to slice to the cup or drift to an open spot for a catch-and-shoot bucket. Opponents try to crowd or corral Warren, but he coolly weaves through traffic for floaters, mid-range jumpers and dunks.

    Even though Warren will never be the star scorer he was in college, it looks like he could give the Suns a boost off the bench in Year 2.

    During back-to-back 20-plus point performances in Las Vegas, it was readily apparent that he is too polished to ride the bench or star in the D-League next year. Hornacek needs to get him the rock coming off curl screens, cutting from the weak side and leaking out in transition. 

    Warren's ticket to more playing time is to emerge as a unique offensive creator among the Suns' small forward corps. He's a more diverse scorer than P.J. Tucker and Mirza Teletovic on and off the ball, so there's a chance he could push them for minutes.

Joe Young, Indiana Pacers G

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Summer League Stats: 29.8 MPG, 22.5 PPG, 3.3 APG, 2.7 APG, .500 FG%, .500 3FG%

    2015-16 Role: Reserve combo-guard igniter

    Although he was a second-round selection in June's draft, Oregon product Joe Young is on track to be a legitimate factor for the Indiana Pacers in 2015-16 and beyond.

    The 6'2" scoring guard won't assume a major role or even sixth-man duties next season, but he'll deliver elusive speed and shot-making talent during modest minutes off the bench.

    After getting his feet wet in the Orlando Summer League opener, Young reeled off three straight 25-plus point outings to put himself on the map. The agile gunner torched adversaries from all over the perimeter and mid-range, showing an ability to fill up the hoop in isolation, off screens and in catch-and-shoot sequences.

    Young is so speedy that it's difficult for defenders to keep tabs on him. He's a tough cover with or without the ball, and his combination of quickness and shot-creating handles is something Indy needs off the bench.

    "Summer-league success doesn't always translate into regular-season playing time," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale notes. "But the Pacers, as the Roy Hibbert salary dump proves, are looking to get faster and space the floor. (Young) is emerging as someone who can help move that process along."

    Just as Monta Ellis gives the Pacers' starting backcourt some juice, Young could do the same for the reserves. With a knack for swiftly darting into hard-to-access areas, he brings shifty offense that will enhance the Pacers depth.

    Unless otherwise noted, all stats are gathered from NBA.com and are accurate entering Wednesday, July 15.

    Dan O'Brien covers the NBA and NBA draft for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR


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