Oh, Vegas. You monstrosity. I’m amused by you, but I wouldn’t say I’ve missed you.
There’s really nothing quite like standing at a Starbucks at 7 a.m. in a buzzing casino in the middle of the desert waiting on a latte made with absolutely zero enthusiasm, as “Centerfold” by the J. Geils Band plays at 120 decibels and dudes in Ferrari-branded clothing stand around constantly checking their phones.
Any time I’m out here, I can’t seem to get past the existence of this place without commenting on it. Yes, it’s an engineering marvel. The detail and the excess and the scale arrest the senses, especially when you barely raise your eyeline and notice that all of this sits in the middle of a sandbox diorama that resembles Tatooine. It’s almost like science fiction; a hedonistic colony on Mars.
But I do have to marvel at families of 10 walking away happily with 50-ounce alcoholic slushies from a street vendor who was selling every imaginable flavor. I have to marvel at the strip club pitch man on the sidewalk who did an improvised 20-second riff on why I should hop in a car with him, which included some rhyming driven by my Second City T-shirt. And I have to marvel at paying $10 to pick up a package from the hotel. For the vast majority of people visiting Vegas, the on-the-Strip experience is not real life.
Likewise, the cops tell us we’re not supposed to overreact to summer league, the annual exhibition showcase held in the same desert. It’s not real life. We’re supposed to remain even-keeled, calculated, emotionless, unfettered to foolish dreams. Push our glasses up and consider the sample size. Stop being such a child. Remain intellectually credible, otherwise we risk reacting strongly in the short term to something that hasn’t fully played out yet. That doesn’t sound anything like the broader NBA discussion to me!
Don’t listen to the haters, man. There’s plenty of time for real stakes and seriousness later. Thrive in that space between hope and the crushing bitterness of expectation. Enjoy the deep-fried jumbo shrimp and savor the infatuation stage while you can.
With that in mind, here’s a notebook of my observations from summer league. Know going in: There was a lot to see in Las Vegas. Too much, honestly. My analysis is based on what I got to see in person, and I tried to hop around as much as I could. Let’s dive in.
Paolo Makes a Point
The sky was falling for Orlando Magic fans at the start of Salt Lake City Summer League. There was hand-wringing, teeth gnashing … and their team wasn’t even playing. Like a jealous spurned lover hoping a first date goes poorly, many Magic fans were dialed in on what was happening between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder. With every trey that Chet Holmgren banged in and every shot he erased, a sickly, panicked feeling seemed to be coming over an already tortured fan base. When you’ve been conditioned to feel dread, the natural move is to try to see it coming.
The problem with quick-triggered cynicism is that it’s a reaction to an incomplete picture. Much is to be seen! The top of this draft might not have decisive winners and losers. One team might win more than the others, but there is a world where each of the top three teams ends up with a great NBA player for the foreseeable future.
But when your team gets a swing at the no. 1 pick after years and years of wandering, the prevailing mindset is don’t fuck this up. Having snagged Shaq in 1992, Penny (technically) in 1993, and Dwight Howard in 2004, it’s safe to say the Magic have a history of making solid contact with the ball on this front. And Paolo Banchero did a lot to ease the O-town anxiety by charging out of the gate in Las Vegas and seizing the opportunity to prove his mettle.
Most impressively, Banchero displayed an elaboration on the off-the-bounce playmaking instincts and spatial awareness that we saw from him this past college hoops season. It was the one thing that tempted me to move him ahead of Chet on my board. But it wasn’t clear how far Banchero could take it or whether his playmaking was just a necessity driven by Duke’s roster construction. The absence of consistent point guard play often forced Duke to lean on Banchero as a primary handler and creator.
What he showed in Las Vegas, however, was a choice. This was intentional, at times angry Point Paolo, which could be a sneaky subplot to who he is as a player. There are definitely moments when he seems to be looking to prove a point, when he comes on the court with that “no, fuck YOU” energy.
In two games, he threw a lot of paint on the canvas. In each, he slung six assists, but in his matchup with the Kings it came with eight turnovers. There were some thrilling moments, though. He zipped quick-touch lasers to cutting bigs right as the defense shifted uphill, he pushed in transition and sprayed darts to corner shooters, he placed dimes over the top to off-ball movers. I was most impressed with how purposeful many of his possessions were.
A consistent talking point coming out of Vegas is just how big Paolo actually is. At a legit 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, Banchero’s combination of size, strength, and handle fluidity are jarring. In one sequence below, he keeps the much smaller and quicker TyTy Washington on his heels with crossover hesitations, and then accepts a switch with the much bigger and stronger Tari Eason, attacking his chest off the dribble and powering through with his left hand, nearly completing an and-1.
It will be interesting to see how the scouting responds to his repertoire of rips and fakes before he’s put the ball on the floor. I’m going to call it his “rip-er-toire.”( If you have self-respect you can skip calling it that.) Banchero has a consistent but fairly repetitive way that he attacks a set defender, to the point where you wonder if he’s reacting to his defender or regurgitating a movement, and he’s been doing this for a while. My guess is that by the middle of this coming season, smarter defenders will sit on this and dare him to take the tougher long 2s. I’d like to see him punish people with paint attempts a bit more. The other stuff will be there.
The applications of the Paolo–Franz Wagner dynamic continue to fascinate me. It’s one of the more unique on-ball tandems in recent memory. Very rarely do you see two 6-foot-10 players who can facilitate facing the basket in the same lineup. The potential pliability of their ball-screen relationship could be a real headache for defenses. Franz’s on-ball capability was one of the major story lines for the Magic this past season: He logged 314 pick-and-roll possessions, fifth most among all rookies, and showed some real chops as a three-level scorer. It’s frightening to imagine either player screening for the other, creating mismatches, forcing extra help, and opening the door to kick-outs.
In Vegas, Magic second-round pick Caleb Houstan showed spot-up potential for the near future, something that Orlando desperately needs, but it’s also fun to imagine them embracing Milwaukee’s model of inverted offense: towering, physical initiators who can play with smaller spot-up players—in Orlando’s case Jalen Suggs, Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, or Cole Anthony.
Among the top four picks, Paolo seemed to have by far the easiest time imposing his will off the bounce. This Orlando roster still raises questions, and it’s far from complete, but this is what we said all year about Paolo: He is the most clear-cut candidate to shoulder the load of an NBA offense. When you’re designing something, anything, it helps to have a style guide—a central idea that is supported by a high level of certainty. It creates cohesion and lessens the possibility that wandering will happen on the journey to get there. That’s what this type of player does for a franchise.
He’s still gotta go and do it in an actual NBA game, but Paolo did a lot in Vegas to support Orlando’s logic.
Most NBA rosters have players on varying developmental timelines. Some guys are winding down, some are winding up, and some are in the thick of their prime. The Thunder, however, are collectively in the winding up phase: 15 of the players on their main roster are 24 years old or younger, and 14 of them suited up at least once at summer league. Recent history has proved that culture and continuity matter in the NBA—the teams that hang around tend to have it. A great way to do that is by starting early and putting in the work.
The Las Vegas setting was not particularly challenging for Josh Giddey. His scoring efficiency woes continued, but this is a player whose passing popped in the NBA at 19 years old, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he looked like he was out there yawning as he read Matrix code. He got wherever he wanted whenever he wanted most of the time.
This group’s offensive flow will be fun to watch as it settles into a groove. Neither Giddey nor Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are big-time shooters, but both are exceptional at getting into the paint. In the short term, this dynamic will likely function with Holmgren as the beneficiary rather than the benefactor. His IQ as a screener—when to quickly bump and dive, when to hold a bit longer, when to pop—and spatial sense as a pick-and-roll partner were fantastic, overall. If that keeps up, he’ll be fed a steady diet of easy ones.
His ability to engage and identify help coverages as they come will also be a major development point for the Thunder:
Holmgren’s limited on-ball ability was mentioned frequently leading up to the draft. At Gonzaga he frequently pulled the ball off the rim and pushed it to his own 3-point line for a pull-up, but didn’t show much beyond that in the half court. In this setting I was really watching Chet’s closeout attacks and his trips into the teeth of the defense, specifically when he was reacting to ball pressure—reaching hands, digs from helpers, etc. I wanted to see kick-outs or ball reversal opportunities.
Some of the physical questions that hover over Holmgren did surface, although I wasn’t super concerned. He hasn’t been the presence in traffic that I would like, and that goes beyond simply wrangling balls—when tangled, Chet’s ability to claim his space and then elevate to make any kind of a play with his hands is lessened. There were numerous occasions when he couldn’t leverage his size to control the ball against players that he should be able to finish over.
We also saw some confirmation of what defensive role might work best for Chet. To me, it’s as a super free safety who’s kept near the paint but not parked in it. Ideally, I think he’ll need to play with a mobile but bigger-bodied 4 or 5, and OKC will have to switch off-ball screens. Chet moves very well in space for his size, but most every 7-footer on earth is going to struggle to stay attached over the top in an action like this, and Keegan Murray isn’t exactly the fastest land-speed mammal on record:
It’s fun to imagine Chet taking on top-flight perimeter assignments, but his maximum impact will be roaming and snuffing. Go back and watch him mirror Daishen Nix to the rim and deter a shot from even happening, only to eyeball Nix’s handoff to Tari Eason and eradicate it from existence. A Chet blanket. Stupefying stuff.
I was also pleased by what I saw from the J-Dub–J-Will combo.
Jalen Williams (the 12th pick, out of Santa Clara) was one of my favorite players in the 2022 draft. I knew he could shoot it. We knew he had ample playmaking chops too, and he showed them. What I didn’t expect, though, was the efficiency he showed finishing around the rim. It was eye-opening.
It could be a case of moving into an offense where he’s no longer the focal point, and having the spatial sense to capitalize on the space that he’s being given. The Thunder have needed to find ways to get ball skills, particularly the one-two punch of shooting and decision-making, onto the floor at the 3, 4, and 5 positions. Jalen has been a point guard by trade for most of his life—he only recently grew to 6-foot-6.
Jaylin Williams (the 34th pick, out of Arkansas) will definitely get his chances, too, but they’ll be driven by defense. He also continued his theme of accruing more charges than Christian Dawkins’s Uber account. He has the potential to be a maddeningly clever positional defender alongside Chet’s from-the-rafters shot blocking. He also might compete for lowest jumpshot arc in the entire league this upcoming season. That thing is impressively flat; more or less a worm burner from 3.
Sore and Soaring Young Cores
In continuation of the Hot Pistons Summer, it honors me to introduce … BRAIDED CADE. Stupendous. Tough. Snorting emoji. I like a nice change in personal style for a marker in time. Vince Carter’s interest in growing hair during the summer of 2000 is a personal favorite.
If I were in Cade’s position, I’d feel grittier, edgier, probably even a bit cockier, too—primed for a leap forward after Troy Weaver finessed swaths of the league to strengthen Detroit’s roster and address some key areas of need. And like everybody else, I’m pretty eager to see how Cade’s game will braid together with Jaden Ivey’s.
For players like Ivey, the important first question in the NBA is the extent to which their physical gifts translate once they’ve leveled up. Did they lose their advantage at all? Ivey didn’t seem to miss a beat. His long and angular steps in early clock situations were just as impactful as they’ve been at lower levels; he slinked past defenders in a seemingly effortless manner. He moves like he’s refreshing at a different frame rate than everyone else on the screen.
I love the way he uses his driving ability to pull an entire defense toward the rim and then pass it back above the break. Saben Lee misses the shot below, but watch Ivey in-and-out toward the screen defender here and then time his acceleration and last dribble perfectly just before Didi Louzada can make a play on the ball. He then fires it back toward the 3-point line, and by now he’s moved the entire defense.
Some broad, but key, takeaways for me: First, Detroit’s spike in athleticism will create some interesting offensive duality. Ideally, improved size and physicality create defensive havoc, which feeds into the transition game, which will set Ivey up to eviscerate teams. On the flip side, Ivey and Jalen Duren give Cade some toys in the half court to utilize. Second, and although we didn’t see a ton of it, the glimpses of Isaiah Stewart’s improved shooting are encouraging. I admit that we’re in the early stages, but if Stewart can even marginally improve in this area, it could help the Pistons put some bruising lineups on the floor. I’ve also felt my affinity for Isaiah Livers resurface?
Elsewhere, how do Rockets fans feel coming out of summer league? If it were me, I’d feel mixed, slightly concerned but tilting toward cautiously optimistic.
There are clear positives. TyTy Washington is one, but Tari Eason is a huge one. After falling to 17th in the first round, Eason was arguably the most physically imposing wing forward in all of summer league. He looked unbothered by anyone who got between him and the rim. His defensive switchability was on display, which will be huge for the prioritized players on Houston’s roster. He did his typical “total carnage” thing on the defensive end, blocking shots and disrupting ball handlers. He was even tolerable from 3 in his five Vegas games.
Your feelings on Jabari Smith Jr. likely correlate with how you evaluated him coming out of college. While it’s true that loosely organized or schemed settings like this are tougher for players who can’t really make hay without the ball in their hands, it is interesting just how much Jabari fell back into some of the patterns we saw at Auburn. Forty-four of his 69 field goal attempts were jumpshots, and he managed to shoot just 37.7 percent from the field overall. He settled quite a bit, but at times you can see him really weighing whether he should attack the rim or take an early jumper. To me, these games were just further confirmation that this balance of shot distribution (and someday, hopefully, playmaking) will be a process that takes some time.
Conversely, we knew coming in that Jabari is an active and intelligent defender, and he lived up to that. Watch how aggressive he is here attacking switches, multiple times meeting the handler at the level of the action and forcing them to regroup.
I loved how much he talked when Houston decided to roll him out at the 5 spot, and I appreciate how dogged he is when getting low and guarding the ball. I’ve said it before, but if he defends like that and shoots the way we all know he can, he’ll justify being on the floor a lot this coming year.
To Play or Not to Play
Summer league varies wildly in seriousness depending on who you are. For the media and I’d assume much of the league, it’s a lighthearted (but needed) exhale after the climax of an intense season.
The reasons for playing in summer league vary from player to player. For some, it’s an important acclimation. The increased size and speed, the routine, in some cases the chemistry with teammates—it’s good for rookies to get a primer for what’s about to hit them. For many, it’s a chance to audition. Get a chance on a roster and make a big impression that keeps the dream alive. Lastly, it’s a chance to improve. Technically, you’d think that applies to every young player, but not everyone sees it this way.
I’ve been accused by some (ahem, Jonathan Tjarks) of being a “country mouse”—which could have some truth to it. In terms of sensibility? Sure. I typically pick the chill, quiet areas of the world where grass and trees grow on their own, there’s plenty of parking, and I can get a sandwich for less than $15. Vegas is not that place. It’s different than just about anywhere, for those reasons and in large part because the broadcasting of status is a key part of what makes this place go. Premium services, hidden entrances, VIP clubs, excess, heavily accentuated brand names.
The broadcasting of status seems to matter a great deal on the journey to becoming an NBA mainstay, too. Certain milestones and optics need to be hit, and failing to do so is a branding blemish. Like playing junior varsity as a junior (something I definitely did and regret pouting about now), or staying another year in college, or failing to secure a green room invite. But one thing you definitely want to do? Skip summer league as soon as possible so that the photographers and broadcast crews catch you sitting courtside, decked out in the drippiest get-up imaginable, supporting your teammates.
As a dorky YouTuber, what do I know? Admittedly not a whole lot, but I do hypothesize that this is a cultural issue within the sport. Workout culture is huge, and understandably—it matters for ball skills development. But some of those skills are flaccid without the decision-making to make them applicable. Hardware without software. This idea literally swung the NBA title last month when Boston couldn’t take care of their possessions.
I’m a big believer in low-consequence reps, especially for players who need some stimulus in order to grow as on-ball decision-makers. The more authentic the simulation, the better. The reality is that competitive teams need to get as much facilitating as they can on the floor, but they don’t have the time during the regular season to burn chunks of possessions on those players who need them the most. Summer league (and the G League) are perfect for that. It’s different when scrappy defenders are coming at you with sincerity, and when set and organized defenses are working to stifle a decision-maker.
I’m not saying players should continue to come to Vegas well into their careers, but look at what the Grizzlies did a year ago with Desmond Bane and this summer with Ziaire Williams. Or what the Knicks were doing with Quentin Grimes or what scoring machine Cam Thomas did for the Nets (even if he scoffed at the idea). We all know these guys can score at will in this setting, but if they come into the situation with a focus on playmaking growth, the experience can be invaluable.
The counterargument is simple: That competitive environment can risk asset depreciation. After the Pistons gave us a preview of what their bursting-at-the-seams athleticism might look like this coming season, Ivey sprained his ankle early in the second game. Two Pelican rookies went down in Vegas as Dyson Daniels sprained his ankle almost immediately and E.J. Liddell tore his ACL trying to establish position on the wing.
I came into summer league ecstatic for the chance to see Shaedon Sharpe play in person and in five-on-five situations for the first time in over a year. But in epic you’ve-got-to-be-shitting-me fashion, Sharpe left his first game after just over five minutes of action with a reported shoulder injury and didn’t return.
Injuries are going to happen. They can just as easily happen in a workout or five minutes into a season opener, but this entire situation is getting a little Fultzy. When players get disrupted like this to start their careers, what they desperately need is on-court time. I like to talk about player development. It’s probably my favorite subject within basketball: why this guy got better, why this guy didn’t, how the variables shake out and lead to either of those outcomes. Players can always get better and build on their skill sets, but among the ones who do, I believe there’s a common denominator, and that’s a willingness and ability to get game reps. That age range of 18 to 23 is especially critical, and when the initial salvo of a player’s career gets interrupted, delayed, or stifled in some way, it can then become hard to get back on track.
As you fall behind, it gets more and more daunting to catch up to that timeline, and frankly you hate to see it. Jabari Parker, Harry Giles, and Dante Exum are examples of players who fell behind because of physical issues and never recovered.
Do I selfishly wish we could see every talented top pick get out there and throw down? Yes. Is it the only means of getting better? Definitely not. Is it a huge deal? Probably not, but I do think that this window of a player’s development is critical.
Keegan Shuts Some Mouths
At the top of the draft, the question of “best player available or best fit” is a tough one. For most teams, the opportunity to lock down a special player, maybe even a franchise-altering one on a rookie deal, is not something that comes around frequently. In the past decade, when it comes to picking in the top 10, the Kings have done more stabbing than that gang from the prison shanking scene in Breaking Bad. Second Spectrum doesn’t have any data on this yet, but I’ll venture to say that it shouldn’t take eight attempts to land a franchise player. One or two top picks should get the job done. But if you exclude Sacramento’s recent addition of Keegan Murray, only two of its eight recent top-10 picks are still with the team.
As was amply discussed and fretted over, the Kings were in a tough spot in the 2022 NBA draft. On the surface, Jaden Ivey seemed like the best player available, but as we’ve repeatedly seen, the Kings are much closer to the “add something that meshes with existing personnel” end of the spectrum than “let’s pick someone good, even if it means drastically altering our plans.” Much of that is driven by De’Aaron Fox, who’s still only 24 years old and recently signed a $163 million extension that further cemented him as the face of the franchise.
My initial feeling on Sacramento picking Keegan Murray (whose name I always want to sing to the tune of this song) at no. 4 could be described as “shoulder shrug.” I didn’t despise it, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wondered if there was a higher-upside payoff available to them in players like Ivey, Dyson Daniels, Tari Eason, Jalen Duren, or even Jalen Williams. Ideally, you’re looking for significant return with a pick that high, but teams have done some idiotic things in the pursuit of upside. Sometimes it’s best to go with high-floored certainty, or maybe the Kings are seeing potential that I’ve had a harder time seeing.
Again, only three games, but the early returns indicate that Murray will be a useful player, perhaps even from the jump.
This was not a case of a player getting in a different setting and showcasing things we’ve never seen them do before. A lot of what we saw from Keegan in Vegas was on brand, and all of it projects to pair well with what Sacramento already has in place. On paper, the touches within this offense seem spoken for: Fox and Domantas Sabonis will be the primary initiators, with Davion Mitchell and offseason adds Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk supplementing the attack. Harrison Barnes will also have his number called often. But because Murray is so adept at getting buckets without pounding the ball, the avenues that remain play right into the prized rookie’s hands.
Murray will be an immediate spot-up threat for the Kings. This summer he’s been a sniper, hitting on 40 percent of his shots, even hitting some shots when he caught the ball high and quickly got his shot off (some call them no-dip shots) efficiently. That’ll be an important skill to have on this team. In simple relocations he was solid, but shooting off of movement he was a bit shakier; he often looked like he was losing power as he came to his right. Overall I think his off-ball tools will work in a nice harmony—his shooting will cause some urgency, and that will make defenses ripe for opportunistic cutting.
Bounce-created offense, specifically when trying to get downhill, is more of a challenge. Keegan is comfortable attacking and then getting his feet set as he steps backward, but I’d like to see him cultivate some comfort with burrowing into traffic and either finishing or getting the ball out to cutters or shooters.
The good news is that with the players who will surround him, there’s no real rush for these things to develop. We see it over and over again, but fit and situation matter a ton. Sacramento will have some lineup options to play with, and I expect Murray to feast on the pressure that Fox and Sabonis specifically will create by playing off of each other, both as a shooter and as a clever cutter. For what he does, he’s in a good spot.
- There was waaaaaay too much picture-in-picture on ESPN’s broadcasts. Show us the guest speaker for a moment and then get back to the game action.
- It’s always fun to imagine the conversations happening on the baselines.
“You know, Steve, Sidney Moncrief and the Zune actually have a lot in common.”
- Summer league just seems to get wackier and wackier every year. For the hardcore hoop heads, it’s a chance to see legendary NBA players, scouts, well-known front office executives, and even media legends like Chris Vernon just wandering around, out in the open. It’s NBA Twitter, in the flesh. For those bold enough, it’s a chance to reach out and say “hey” to Isiah Thomas. Give a wink to Joey Crawford. Shoot the ole jovial air pistol at Sam Presti. The Thomas and Mack Center concourse gets so crowded at times that if you stopped walking in the flow of traffic, somebody notable was bound to bump into you.
- The Johnny Davis Experience is off to a … let’s call it an uninspiring start. In three games, Davis shot 27.6 percent from the field and plated that with 1.7 assists and 2.7 turnovers. Richie Bozek, a masterful Ringer video producer, ultra-chill dude, and long-suffering Wizards fan, held a cold and sobered stare as he watched Davis throw brick after brick and said, “It’s like he’s just getting cardio in out there.” Prayers up for Richie.
- Bennedict Mathurin is going to score. I’ve been softer on him than most people I know, but I’ve come around a bit more to the idea of the potential guard combos that Indiana will be able to trot out there. Tyrese Haliburton, Chris Duarte, Buddy Hield, Mathurin. Mathurin also just … looks like a star? He has a strong presence.
- MarJon Beauchamp, Milwaukee’s late first-rounder, shot the hell out of the ball in Vegas. He went 45.8 percent from 3 on 4.8 attempts over the course of five games. You’d love to see that continue, although it looks a bit aberrational compared to his other samples. Still, I like his fit there.
- The Memphis rookies were wildly entertaining at times, but erratic. Kenneth Lofton Jr. was the story early on, but came back to earth a bit. Jake LaRavia couldn’t seem to throw it into the fountain at the Bellagio, although I think I might have my son watch him shoot the ball as something to aspire to. My guy David Roddy had moments but will definitely need to continue to develop his handle.
- As fun as summer league is initially, it does kind of wear on you like a music festival. The big acts come in on Friday and Saturday and everyone is fully bought into the experience. Maybe I could eat out for every meal and sit in an arena watching meaningless basketball all day with my friends, but by Sunday afternoon the incantation has started to dull. A lot of the vendors have cleared out and people you’ve never heard of are on stage playing their hearts out. It’s customary at summer league to at some point ask people their dates. When did you get in? When are you leaving? The healthy range is three to four days and then back home, but it’s fun to ask people on the team or league side when they’re heading out, and to watch that haunted, lifeless look glaze over their eyes as they say that they’re here until the end of the event. That said, I can’t wait to go back and overreact again.