Summer League Studs Becoming Dark-Horse ROY Candidates
Consider Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic as the early favorites to win 2019 NBA Rookie of the Year. But who will emerge from summer league as dark-horse candidates the way Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum did last season?
Six rookies have stood out in either Sacramento, Utah or Las Vegas. And based on projected roles during the regular season, there are reasons to believe their production can carry over.
Summer-league success isn't always an accurate indicator. But in these cases, the numbers and eye-test results point to both long-term potential and immediate impact.
Kevin Knox (New York Knicks, SF/PF)
Kevin Knox's play for the New York Knicks is one of the biggest storylines to emerge from Las Vegas Summer League.
It hasn't just been the production, which includes a 22-point game against the Atlanta Hawks, a 19-point effort against the Utah Jazz and a 29-point outburst against the Los Angeles Lakers. The eye test loves Knox, a 6'9" exciting athlete who's making threes every game and beating defenders to the hoop from the arc.
It's still all about long-term upside with the 18-year-old combo forward. But Kristaps Porzingis could miss the season and the Knicks will be playing for the lottery, meaning Knox, the team's newest priority, should be looking at extensive rookie minutes and a green light to play through mistakes.
He's suddenly an intriguing bet to challenge for leading scorer in his class during the 2018-19 season, though Knox won't be able to match Ayton's efficiency.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Los Angeles Clippers, PG)
Even with Milos Teodosic and Patrick Beverley back, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has made a case for early minutes.
Averaging 19.0 points, 4.0 assists and 2.2 steals through four games, Gilgeous-Alexander has looked quick and sharp at both ends. The athletic concerns on the scouting report may have been overstated based on his effectiveness in Las Vegas.
Gilgeous-Alexander is highly skilled and crafty off the dribble with his tight handle and timely hesitation moves. And though his three-point shooting isn't there yet, he's flashed the ability to stop on the dime and knock down pull-ups with fluidity and confidence.
At 6'6" with long arms, he'd add a unique dimension of two-way play from the Clippers' point guard position relative to their other options. Gilgeous-Alexander has at least put himself in the conversation as a Rookie of the Year candidate following his terrific summer-league showing.
Trae Young (Atlanta Hawks, PG)
Nerves may have gotten to Trae Young early, but he's learned to control them and make adjustments since. Suddenly, we've started to see flashes of the player who led the nation in scoring and assists at Oklahoma.
Wednesday night, Young helped carry the Atlanta Hawks with 23 points and seven assists, putting on a clinic against the Pacers with his signature floater and passing. He buried seven of 13 threes en route to 24 points and five assists during the Hawks' previous game against the Chicago Bulls.
His confidence is back, and Young's shot-making and facilitating have consequently returned.
Even after the addition of Jeremy Lin to the Hawks roster, there should still be enough scoring and playmaking chances for Young to produce his rookie year. He may even benefit from having other ball-handlers alongside him to take pressure off.
However, there is also the possibility that the rebuilding Hawks could trade Dennis Schroder. In that case, Young would have more of an opportunity to dominate the ball through mistakes. And though it may lead to inefficiency and streakiness, it could also result in big rookie numbers.
Wendell Carter Jr. (Chicago Bulls, C)
Averaging 16.8 points and 7.8 rebounds on 63.4 percent shooting, Wendell Carter Jr. has outplayed at least three of the four bigs taken in the top six.
He appears slimmer and more nimble since the college basketball season.
We knew about Carter's low-post footwork and overall polish as an over-the-shoulder shot-creator. The Chicago Bulls have also featured him in pick-and-rolls and pops, and he's shown both touch and agility facing the basket.
He's also hit three of his first six threes and 12 of 15 free throws, more encouraging signs that point to an eventual shooter who can space the floor.
Defensively, Carter's ability to slide his feet around the perimeter has been the most promising development. Initial questions about his lateral mobility have already started to fade. And he's blocking 2.8 shots per game compared to Ayton's 1.0.
Robin Lopez is penciled in as Chicago's starter, but Carter will be the Bulls' priority and potentially a more effective option right away.
Collin Sexton (Cleveland Cavaliers, PG/SG)
From high school and AAU to college and now summer league, Collin Sexton's scoring prowess has carried over to every setting.
He's averaging 18.8 points through four July games, having gone for 21 points against Aaron Holiday and the Indiana Pacers, and 25 against the Sacramento Kings.
Defenses haven't been able to stop Sexton from getting downhill and scoring in the lane.
LeBron James in Los Angeles means the Cleveland Cavaliers will be more focused on developing their new rookie than wasting too many minutes on veterans Jordan Clarkson and George Hill.
An exciting athlete and high-energy guard at both ends, Sexton should be poised for a big role right away, whether his jumper and decision-making are ready for it or not.
Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies, PF/C)
Jaren Jackson Jr.'s long-term potential was always acknowledged. The question was when the 18-year-old big man would be ready to contribute.
It may be sooner than anticipated, based on what he's shown in summer league. Jackson immediately put the rookie class and entire NBA on notice by making eight three-pointers and scoring 29 points during his debut.
Since then, he's had more trouble inside the arc than behind it. But alongside stronger veteran teammates with a simplified role that asks him to catch-and-shoot and finish at the rim, Jackson should still be good for double-digit scoring outputs while bringing arguably the most defensive versatility any rookie can offer.
He's blocking 2.5 shots in 25.7 minutes during summer league, also looking competent when forced to switch and guard the perimeter.
The Memphis Grizzlies should feel inclined to give Jackson all that he can handle as a rookie, which could mean minutes next to Marc Gasol at the 4, as well as behind him as the backup center.