Oh, the NBA Summer League. Nothing like flocking to a city with a median temperature of 148 degrees to cram into a packed gym and watch players you’ve never heard of compete for a team’s final roster spot. I kid, I kid – well, sort of.
This year’s summer leagues (Sacramento, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas) were particularly exciting due to a fresh crop of rookies, led by potential generational talent Victor Wembanyama. His time in Vegas started with oneand ended with one of the most impressive games of the summer.
Meanwhile, other rookies didn’t fare so well, whether due to injury or poor performance on the field. As always, it’s crucial to remember that a player’s first summer is hardly a sure predictor of his career trajectory, so take everything with a very large grain of Himalayan sea salt.
With that said, here’s a look at a few of the winners and losers from the 2023 NBA Summer League with things set for Monday night.
Winner: Victor Wembanyama
Let’s just get this one out of the way early. Not only did Wembanyama generate more hype than any Summer League participant in history, but he also had his own mini-redemption story in the two games he played in Las Vegas.
The haters were out in full force after a disappointing 2-for-13 debut in which Wembanyama looked physically outmatched. But the 7-foot-4 alien responded with a brilliant performance two nights later, putting up 27 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks on 9-for-14 shooting, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range.
Perhaps most impressively, Wembanyama clearly elevated his game as the San Antonio Spurs rallied against the Blazers in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting. He looked increasingly energetic and enthusiastic as the match drew closer, pumping his fists and screaming for key defensive stops.
Overall, Wembanyama showed us everything that makes him one of the best prospects in NBA history – shot blocking, shot making and the ability to impact games in seemingly every way. It’s safe to say the Spurs didn’t make a mistake with this one.
Injuries are always bad, but they’re especially nasty for rookies trying to prove themselves in their first NBA action. Henderson and Thompson, the No. 3 and No. 4 picks respectively in June’s draft, were well on their way to doing so before being forced out of Summer League with ailments.
The future of the Blazers, who will become their present as soon as Damian Lillard finally goes elsewhere, Henderson impressed with 15 points and six assists in 21 minutes before suffering a right shoulder injury that sidelined him for the rest of the Summer League. The midfield looked good and he showed great vision in the half court.
“I think I played pretty smooth,” Henderson said after the game. “I know there are areas I definitely need to improve on, just little things in my game where I think I can really perfect and master. But you know, first game.”
Meanwhile, in the same game, Thompson piled up 16 points, five assists, four rebounds, four blocks and four steals before suffering an ankle injury that is expected to sideline him for two to three weeks. He showed the power, quickness and skill that make him such an exciting prospect as a 6-7 point guard.
Both will likely be ready for an unhindered training camp, but both Henderson and Thompson must be disappointed they couldn’t get a little more run in their first (and possibly only) Summer League outing.
If you’ve forgotten Chet Holmgren, don’t feel bad. We hadn’t seen him in basically a year since he suffered a foot injury during a Seattle Pro-Am game last summer that caused him to miss all of what would have been his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Instead, Holmgren will push his first NBA season to 2023-2024, and he reminded us all in Summer League why he was such a scary prospect out of Gonzaga.
Not only did last year’s No. 2 overall pick look healthy and fresh (he said his foot “feels great” and that if he didn’t have the scar, he wouldn’t even remember having surgery), but he also showed his exciting, multifaceted skills. In his first action of the summer, Holmgren put up 12.5 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 blocks over two games in Utah. He continued to improve in his two games in Las Vegas, averaging 20.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks.
Holmgren’s rim protection was his standout skill as he rejected shots from the weak side with reckless abandon — including multiple dunk attempts.
He also showed some fancy, basic footwork in the post.
Although he didn’t shoot the ball well from 3-point range over the summer, that will probably be a part of Holmgren’s game as well. What is clear, however, is that he will immediately be a borderline elite rim protector who can finish at the rim and facilitate from the top of the key. This was a good start to what will hopefully be a healthy and productive rookie season.
“He’s playing like he never got hurt, which is dope,” Thunder forward Jalen Williams said of Holmgren. “I think a lot of guys probably have that wall where they’re a little afraid to do a lot of things. You can kind of see him go out there and trust his work.”
With all the necessary caveats that this is the Summer League and is not an accurate predictor of future success… No. 2 overall pick Brandon Miller did not have a great July. He had nearly as many fouls as field goal attempts in two passive games in Sacramento, and he clearly wasn’t going to let that happen again in Vegas, where he averaged 16 shots per game. match. The problem was, he made just 35 percent of them, including 26 percent from 3-point range.
Miller finished the summer on a high note, however, with 26 points and six rebounds on 8-for-15 shooting against the Blazers before the Hornets shut him down.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a rookie averaging 17 points and eight rebounds on low efficiency in Summer League, but Miller has the added weight of being picked one spot ahead of Scoot Henderson, who many pundits ranked as the second-best player in the draft. They will be linked, at least early in their careers, so the microscope will be on Miller to prove his worth. It’s not exactly fair, but it’s just the reality of how these things work, and Miller’s career didn’t get off to the best start in Summer League.
Winner: Jabari Smith Jr.
Every year there is at least one second-year player who shows why he has absolutely no business being in the Summer League. This time, that player was Jabari Smith Jr. The 2022-23 All-Rookie Rockets forward didn’t mess around, averaging 35.5 points, seven rebounds and four assists before being shut down after just two games.
Taking advantage of a captive crowd waiting for Victor Wembanyama’s debut, he drilled a buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer from 28 feet away against the Trail Blazers.
Smith then abused the Pistons with 38 points, seven rebounds and six assists, grinning and crowing to his Rockets teammates watching on the court. At one point, Detroit center James Wiseman tried to guard Smith, who took exception to such audacity and drilled a step-back 3-pointer in his face.
Smith isn’t necessarily guaranteed big minutes due to Houston’s offseason additions, so they should be happy to see him take Summer League seriously and dominate like he did. Perhaps most impressive was his play — his four-assist average dwarfs his rookie mark of 1.3 per game. game — and the fact that he took 27 free throws in two games after averaging fewer than three last season.
Summer League is always full of missteps, weaknesses and mistakes – oh, the mistakes! But this summer brought us a bad basketball special: A player who scored on the wrong basket. Yes, Dallas Mavericks forward Marcus Bingham Jr. was the subject of universal ridicule when he ran in for a dunk on what appeared to be the other team’s basket.
Turns out Bingham was the only sane one in the building as the refs screwed up royally by not only setting up the play on the wrong side of the field, but also giving the ball to the wrong team. The Mavericks had made a 3-pointer on the previous play, but the refs awarded them the ball once again – going the wrong way – after a timeout.
Yes, that’s when you know your time in Las Vegas should be coming to an end.
Until next year.