With a week of NBA summer league action in the books, we check in with our writers on the scene to see who and what has stood out the most in Las Vegas.
Has the Chet Holmgren Experience lived up to the hype?
Tyler Parker: It seems like everyone always wants to start with the body, so let’s just get it out of the way. Re: Chet’s bod—it’s banging. Has people talking. There’s a lot going on. Battle ropes for arms. Some blocks he whips them around like chopper blades. Physically, Holmgren is like that thing where a storm cloud follows someone around, only in this case it’s the stretchy part of a funhouse mirror that follows. His legs are optical illusions. King-sized two-by-fours. The kneecaps on this guy. They protrude from his legs like bumpers. The kid’s far-reaching. A never-before-seen collection of appendages and it’s something to watch him move.
The Thunder participated in the Salt Lake City Summer League before arriving in Vegas. Holmgren played two of their three games in Utah and has played two here in Vegas. [Insert requisite “it’s just summer league and this could all mean nothing” caveat here.] He’s made half his 2s and over 40 percent of his 3s. Fans are at their most delirious when he stuffs would-be dunkers at the rim or puts together something off the dribble they didn’t know he had in him. Through four games he’s blocked 14 shots and altered dozens more. Opposing teams become more wary as the game progresses and they understand better what they’re dealing with. A defensive fixer. Winston Wolf if he wore the off-white Mona Lisa tee and drove something with more leg room. He makes things go away.
Holmgren does not throw block parties, he throws block raves. Block bashes. Block bacchanals. He has sent invitations to every corner of the kingdom and invited all to the Block Ball. Come and behave badly. Do your worst. I will too. Conducts erasures with hate. Not afraid to really get in there, use both hands. Denials that make P.J. Carlesimo scream. Spikes like Karch Kiraly.
Chet cares about defense. Says things like, “That’s my house down there.” and “I’ve put a lot of time into my body.” Says other things like, “A lot of people have tried and very few have completed the mission. It’s always going to be a highlight. … Whether they dunk on me or not, it’s going to be a highlight.” Holmgren will get tested with reckless abandon. At first, at least. Guys will come for his head, try to intimidate him. Embarrass him. Whether they do so in perpetuity will be up to him. It’s already started in summer league. Early on in games there’s a flurry of attempts at the rim, and then Chet makes himself known. He’s 7 feet with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, and happy to let the other guy jump first. He’s not Gerald Green in the bunnies department but he can go get it if he has to.
He is not immune to getting yammed on. Ask Aric Holman. It will happen again. Occupational hazard. When you’re one of the most conspicuous rookies in the history of the NBA, your jersey arrives with the target already painted. Guys in the market for highlights see a potential blockbuster in Holmgren, and will want to make posters for the world to see. But Holmgren will foil his fair share, too. Houston Rockets rookie forward Tari Eason tried to put Holmgren in the rim during the first half of the Thunder’s opening game in Vegas. Chet met him at the summit. Eason was left in a heap on the ground, confused and abandoned, left alone to watch Chet strut and Jalen Williams dunk.
There’s plenty for Holmgren to improve on and two-way dominance is in no way guaranteed. Not trying to be a hot take artist here or anything, but I think he has to get stronger. Stronger on the catch, on rebounds, off the dribble, in the post. Some drives it can look like he has no plan. The ball winds up lost or the dribble picked up, the handle a little too high, a little too wide. Holmgren looked gassed in certain moments and struggled to get the kind of separation necessary to do what he wanted off the bounce. If he gets to an All-Star level it will be his shot that gets him over the hump. If he’s making 3s, that will open driving lanes and the other playmaking aspects of his game. And he has to get to where he can punish smaller guys on switches. If not by backing dudes down then by iso’ing at the nail and shooting over the top. But there was so much to be excited by, so much potential. Yes, this skilled, athletic cell tower needs to speed up the release on his stepback 3s but he is also taking stepback 3s, you know what I mean? Regardless, to see 7 feet and 195 pounds of Minnesota erase dunks and hit Dirks, control the paint on one end and create for himself on the other, those are the kinds of things that make you excited for whatever’s next in his development. So let’s get weird, man. Let’s try some stuff, find out what this puppy can do.
Which players have intrigued you the most?
Rob Mahoney: One of the best things about being an NBA elitist who’s totally unplugged from the college basketball scene is that when summer league comes around, I get to be wholly and unapologetically basic. You know who’s pretty good? This guy Paolo Banchero. He’s skilled, he’s nimble, and he’s even bigger than you think. The no. 1 pick made a compelling introduction out in Vegas, scoring and dishing with such natural fluency that the Magic shut him down after two games—denying a hype-hungry audience the chance to see him go head-to-head with Holmgren. I guess Paolo’s work was already done; he had looked so damn comfortable working over defenders that a flashy matchup was almost beside the point. It’ll be far more telling to see what a veteran defender would make of Banchero than what one of his draftmates would.
What’s material is that the man can cook. Banchero already has so many ways to score that it’s amazing to imagine what might be possible once he starts to layer new skills on top of old ones. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; it already looks like Banchero will be a matchup problem from day one, and an absolute punisher against the kinds of switches and cross-matches that turn lesser bigs into pumpkins. This dude will put you in the stanchion. Or, if it’s easier, he can simply explore within the offense until he finds something else to exploit. A big who can handle, seal a defender away, pass, and score unlocks all kinds of options. The real test is what he eventually makes of them. Everything else is just pageantry, though it certainly made for a hell of a show.
Which sleeper caught your eye?
Jonathan Tjarks: Summer league games, like everything else in Vegas, run together after a few days. The games are shorter while the rotations are longer, and terrible foul calls ruin the rare times there’s much flow to the action. The top draft picks are fun to watch but it’s mostly a steady stream of semi-anonymous players who are roughly the same size and speed, fighting for their basketball lives in contests their teams don’t even care about winning.
That’s what makes a player like Tari Eason, the no. 17 overall pick of the Rockets, stand out. The LSU forward doesn’t look like everyone else. He’s 6-foot-8 and 215 pounds, he’s built like a tank, and he’s easily one of the best athletes in Vegas. A search through the other summer league rosters for players like Eason would mostly be in vain.
The few players who do have his physical tools are often content to coast. Not Eason. He’s built like a football player and he plays like one, too. The ball finds him every time he steps on the floor. He dunked through and over defenders, snatched rebounds in traffic, and muscled his way past anyone trying to keep him out of the paint.
There’s still a lot we need to learn about Eason, but there’s one thing we know after the past week. The NBA is a top-one-percent league and Eason is a top-one-percent athlete. It’s hard to see how he doesn’t get minutes for a rebuilding team like Houston next season. The excitement there is focused on no. 3 overall pick Jabari Smith Jr., but the most successful rebuilds happen when a team hits pay dirt later in the draft. The early signs are promising for Eason and that kind of hope is what everyone in Vegas is selling.
Which prospect should the Warriors be most excited about?
Logan Murdock: Moses Moody. The 20-year-old dazzled in the team’s summer league opener against the Knicks, scoring 34 points, with Draymond Green watching in attendance. Moody, a front office favorite since last fall, is a model of everything Golden State expects out of its young core. Warriors brass has raved about his ability to read the game and pick up concepts quickly.
Moody’s ascent comes on the eve of transition. Last week, Warriors executive chairman Joe Lacob vowed to cut the Warriors payroll, meaning Moody, still on a cheap rookie contract, will likely have a chance to play above his pay grade. And if his recent summer league performances are any indication, he’s up for the challenge.
Which young core looked the most promising in Vegas?
J. Kyle Mann: This question has gotten more interesting since the draft last month. Purely going by who’s present and actually playing, I think it’s OKC. Their depth of (brief) experience showed. Five of their summer league players logged at least 10 starts last season for the main roster: Josh Giddey in particular has looked like the most competent pace-dictator and offensive chess player at the event. Chet hasn’t been perfect, but he’s frequently looked like a mature two-way terror. Worth noting, and I expected this guy to be good, but 12th pick Jalen Williams has been one of the real surprises in Vegas.
All of that said, as we know, four quarters don’t necessarily make a dollar in the NBA, and the dollars are the hardest currency to get. Any core that features a star like Paolo Banchero is automatically near the top of the conversation. He’s been absolutely outstanding with some helpful flashes from Caleb Houstan. The Pistons (Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart) look more physically imposing than they did a year ago.
Why can’t Lakers fans quit summer league?
Jomi Adeniran: Las Vegas summer league is a cool experience for a lot of reasons. The entire NBA family is in town, which means you can see Russell Westbrook while leaving the Aria or end up at the Wynn sitting next to Adrian Wojnarowski while Rich Paul, Matt Barnes, and Larry Nance Jr. walk by. Everyone makes the trip out to Vegas, and no fan base makes the pilgrimage in bigger droves than that of the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the past few seasons, it made sense that Lakers fans would fill the Thomas & Mack Center to the brim. With no. 2 picks D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball making their debuts three years in a row and the venue only a 45-minute flight away, it’s a no-brainer that the fans would flock there. What shocked me the most this year was that even though L.A. had zero first-round picks on their summer league roster, the place was STILL packed with the Lakers faithful. When their games tipped off, you honestly would have thought you were sitting in Staples Center (I’m not calling it Crypto)! The only time I saw the arena more rowdy was when Chet Holmgren faced off against Jabari Smith Jr. Lakers fans were cheering and hollering for Cole Swidler and Max Christie as if they were top-three picks.
Even with big questions facing the actual Lakers squad as the new season gets closer and closer, the L.A. fans showed up in droves to support the summer league squad. If that doesn’t cement them as one of the best fan bases in hoops, I don’t know what will.