What level of competition did your favorite player actually face in the 2021 NBA Summer League, and what does it mean for future projections?
NBA Summer League provides a theater for rookies to make first impressions and sophomores to make a statement. At the same time, it’s a petri dish for speculation, premature praise and criticism, and small sample bias.
The variety of players at Summer League, from Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey to Michael Beasley and 25-year-old undrafted free agent Troy Baxter Jr., create a variety of situations. A team could play five legitimate NBA players in one moment, and five guys just happy to wear a jersey in the next. Here, I’ve tried to contextualize the performance of rookies and returnees to see whose numbers are real, and who’s helped by an easy situation.
Which rookies played against the most experienced opponents at NBA Summer League?
James Bouknight jumps out as a top performer among 2021 lottery picks (note: Josh Giddey falls below the 100-possession minimum). According to Composite Lineup BPM, an application of Box Plus-Minus at the lineup level, the UConn product outproduced nearly every rookie in his class. Bouknight’s ability to perform at that level against such experienced competition bodes well for his future in Charlotte.
Cleveland’s Evan Mobley struggles set off a few alarms. Despite facing the third-least experienced opposition, he performed worse than all other lottery picks. While not a referendum on his future, Mobley’s performance raises a warning flag or two for Cleveland. Joshua Primo’s brief showing in Vegas proved a few doubters wrong, holding his own against solid NBA competition.
You already know that Jalen Green and Cade Cunningham played well in Summer League, but that they did so against above-average experienced lineups further strengthens their cases that they will be ready to go come October.
The Pacers, Rockets, and Pacers faced the most experienced competition in Las Vegas (read: they played the Kings), which gives coaches and executives realistic NBA situations to evaluate their players.
Note how situations vary for players on the same team. Usman Garuba, on average, faced opponents with an average of 1400 career NBA minutes, while Josh Christopher‘s opponents averaged just above 1000 minutes, and Jalen Green’s (not shown) were down around 500. This means that any two teammates do not necessarily have the same challenges, or lack thereof, while on the court.
It’s no coincidence that the two All-Summer League rookie guards, Cam Thomas and Davion Mitchell, played against inexperienced opponents. While in the game, Mitchell and Thomas faced the least experienced and fourth-least experienced opponents, respectively, among rookie first-rounders. They are still strong prospects, but their Summer League production could be heavily influenced by the situation in which they played.
Among all players, the top Summer League scorers faced wildly different competition. Cam Thomas led all scorers but had some help from the Summer League Scheduling demi-gods (the Scheduling Gods only plan the regular season).
Chris Duarte flashed some ability to score against tougher competition, a good sign for Indiana, who received some flak for selecting a 24-year-old in the lottery.
While Josh Christopher did not score at the level of his teammate Jalen Green, he performed well against the more experienced competition. Summer League star Jalen Johnson took advantage of his easier competition to flash his scoring ability and showed why some already consider him the steal of the draft.
Which returning players faced the most experienced competition at NBA Summer League?
Focus on Tre Jones. The previous chart illustrates his scoring prowess against tougher competition, and here we see his strong playmaking as well. Jones’ production in realistic NBA scenarios projects for solid improvement in the guard’s second season.
The Tyrese Maxey–Payton Pritchard–Kira Lewis Jr. trio led the way among 2020 first-round picks. Each guard dominated their inexperienced competition and proved that they’ve graduated from the Summer League experience and are ready to take on a legitimate role during the regular season.
It’s good to see Jalen Smith play well against tougher competition. The forward out of Maryland struggled to find playing time on last year’s surprise Western Conference champion Suns, but a strong showing in Summer League will hopefully earn him some minutes.
Production depends on competition. I am Wilt Chamberlain in a third-grade league, but little more than a warm body in an NBA game. Some rookies like Cam Thomas and Davion Mitchell took advantage of inexperienced competition in Vegas. Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, and James Bouknight showed they are ready to go no matter who’s on the other side.
Keep an eye out for the sophomore point guard trio of Pritchard, Maxey, and Lewis. They clearly showed that they are ready to take a big step this year.