NBA Summer League: How not to watch


July is always the NBA’s silly season. Hurrying straight from the draft into free agency and coaching searches, there’s always a lot of smoke in the air. But among the least useful information is the breathless triumphalism over NBA Summer League performances. Irrational exuberance over new players doesn’t peak on draft night, but rather the first time a rookie performs his first impressive feat of athleticism in Vegas or Orlando.  The feverish dreams caused by lottery picks dominating players more hopeful of a deal with a mid-level European club than an NBA roster spot almost never come to fruition.

While there is some correlation (subscription required) between NBA Summer League performance and actual NBA production, it’s relatively small. At the previous link, Kevin Pelton found Summer League numbers to be about 1/3 as predictive of NBA success for rookies as college stats, while there was almost no relationship between Summer League production and sophomore year achievement. Further, the things which translate the least from these games, shooting efficiency and bulk scoring, are the things which tend to get noticed the most.

Certainly, performing well in the Summer League is better than performing poorly – especially for a rookie expected to contribute this year, strong Summer League play should be seen as a neccesary but not sufficient condition for a certain degree of “NBA readiness.” But in general, the best advice is to simply ignore the box score and stats and instead look for specific aspects of play that will translate to the NBA.  Does a big man move his feet well in the pick-and-roll? Does a wing attack a defender closing out effectively? Can a point guard get consistent penetration and make reasonable decisions with the ball? It’s just as important to look for  deficiencies in these sorts of areas as well.

Also vital is a sort of self-check on enthusiasm when a player for a favored team performs exceptionally well, but does so in a way that’s either unsustainable or just won’t work at the NBA level.  Josh Selby shot 27-of-42 in 2012 on his way to MVP. Selby took 22 shots during the remainder of his NBA career (assuming he doesn’t make his way back). Another example was Anthony Randolph, who scored 26.8 points per game on 61% shooting in 2009. Sounds great, right? Except he got those buckets pounding the ball, waving off teammates and shooting a variety of runners, pull ups and fadeaways over guys destined for the Latvian league, and despite his jaw-dropping combination of size and athleticism, at no point that summer did he resemble an actual contributing player in the NBA.

That same summer, Steph Curry couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, shooting only 33% from the floor. But he was more impressive than Randolph by a large margin.  First was his size. For all the worry about his stature coming out of the draft, the first impression of Curry was that he was both taller and bulkier than expected. Rather than a spindly sub-six footer, he was a thin-though-solid 6-foot-2 or so. And more than just his size was his command on the court.

Most rookies in Summer League are always moving at 275 miles per hour. It’s understandable, most are trying to secure jobs somewhere. Those that already have NBA guarantees are looking for minutes right away. The byproduct of this speed of play is sloppiness and poor decision-making, which leads to turnovers and poor shooting. Curry, from the first time he stepped on the court, was unhurried. Not to say he was slow – when the situation called for it, he could go up a gear and get where he needed to go. He was under control so the game looked comfortable to him and the style he was playing was familiar to an NBA observer as something that could exist within the framework of NBA play. This isn’t to say that Curry’s ascension to All-NBA performer was predicitable in any way based on his summer performance. However, he demonstrated fairly conclusively that he belonged.

For rookies, belonging on the court is all that Summer League can really prove, with some exceptions. Blake Griffin’s otherworldly physical talent and surprising skill level were certainly on display from his first appearance that same summer, but he was very much an outlier. Perhaps Andrew Wiggins or Dante Exum will show something similar this year, but its not likely. Meanwhile, for second year players, that same pace of play Curry showed from the off is vital. If after a year of experience in the NBA game, a perimeter player can’t consistently get where he wants to on the floor against this level of opposition, that should be a warning bell.

Big men tend to be the hardest of all to evaluate. First of all, the guard play tends to be of such a low standard that the games end up being largely perimeter dominated anyway. Further, there won’t be that many players with an NBA level combo of size and athelticism, so highly drafted bigs will be operating from the same position of physical advantage that the enjoyed in college.  Which is nice (and certainly better that Nerlens Noel was by far the most dominant big on the floor in Saturday’s Orlando league opener than not), but those advantages vanish or at least diminish against true NBA competition.

So, what to take from Saturday’s action? Noel has legit size and athleticism for his position, as does Aaron Gordon. Victor Oladipo is settling into the NBA game nicely. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope might have used the summer to expand his game a little. Shabazz Napier and Elfrid Payton have some work to do, but Nick Johnson looked like an NBA player even if he might not have a real position. Players like Oladipo and Kelly Olynyk have only so much to gain from these games, so only expect them to play one or two more games each. Of course, be prepared to revise any of these observations as more information comes in.

And beyond all, don’t get carried away, it’s just NBA Summer League.