Hollinger: My favorite under-the-radar guys from the Las Vegas Summer League

The first weekend of the NBA Summer League brought us perhaps the most entertaining matchup of the entire event as top pick Victor Wembanyama went toe-to-toe with … Michael Devoe?

Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Devoe only played that much because third-choice Scoot Henderson, who was slated to be Wembanyama’s foil in this sold-out affair, suffered a shoulder injury in the opener that ruled him out for the rest of the summer league.

In came Devoe, an undrafted 23-year-old southpaw out of Georgia Tech, fresh off a season in which he averaged 6.7 points per game. game with a 9.8 PER for the Clippers’ G League team in Ontario. So low on the totem pole was he that he was a DNP coach’s decision in the Blazers’ summer league opener.

Nevertheless, he went on to steal some of Wembanyama’s thunder by scoring a game-high 29 points in Portland’s 85–80 victory and kept it up for the rest of the summer league. Through four games, he averaged 18.8 points on 53.2 percent shooting, made 11 of his 17 3-pointers and finished with a 27.4 PER — one of the best marks of any guard in summer league.

And among the “True Sickos of Summer League” there was much joy. For this group, it is not seeing Victor Wembanyamas that provides the real entertainment; it’s seeing the elusive and borderline guys, the third-best players on their mid-major college teams and, “Hey, wasn’t that guy on the road in Detroit five years ago?” moments.

Seeing these players check into a game is one thing, but when they actually shine like Devoe did? That’s as much a part of the magic of summer league as watching the top draft picks.

This year we were in for quite a treat as an unusually large number of undrafted or unaffiliated players shined in Vegas. I’ve already talked about some of the best players and some of the low points, but I wanted to highlight a special third category for these guys. Most of them probably played over their heads and will fall back into careers in Europe or the G League, but for a few, their Vegas stint may have signaled that the league needs to take them more seriously.

Let’s take a look at some of the best deep cuts from the summer league. My “All-Sickos” team, if you will, of non-roster players that the die-hards will be talking about after Vegas. In addition to Devoe, here are the others who stood out:

Javon Freeman-Liberty, Chicago

Of all the non-roster players in the summer league, Freeman-Liberty is the one who made the strongest case for belonging in the NBA. The 6-foot-4 combo guard went undrafted out of DePaul and landed on Chicago’s G League team in the Windy City, where he was one of the better players in the league through 35 games but never got a call-up.

Freeman-Liberty made the All-Summer League second team and made a strong case for the first team as Chicago’s go-to operator, scoring 21.2 points per game. game on 61.2 percent true shooting. Not known as a shooter, he made 12 of his 26 3-point attempts and was effective enough as a distributor to finish with 22 assists against just 10 turnovers.

Freeman-Liberty’s archetype of scoring guard tends to thrive in summer league, but he was better than the other players of his ilk and had a strong track record in the G League coming in. At the very least, I’d hope he gets a two-way out of this.

Merrill was technically already in the NBA, but it was a leap of faith to think that would continue to be the case when summer league started. The 27-year-old had bounced around among three teams and was signed by Cleveland at the end of last season to a non-guaranteed deal through 2023-24. Cutting him wouldn’t cost the Cavs anything, and the other 124 Cleveland roster spots are filled with guaranteed offers.

After what happened in Vegas, they might hold off on the last part. Merrill was one of the best players there, helping the Cavs to the championship and (in my opinion, anyway) deserving of the MVP award of the summer.

Merrill succeeded by raining fire from deep, early and often. He fired 56 shots from distance in just five games – taking just 12 2s! — and made an impressive 25 of them for 44.6 percent accuracy. Included in that was his 30-point blitz against his former employers in Memphis, against whom he made eight 3-pointers in just 21 minutes in a Cleveland victory.

Matthew Mayer, Houston

I’ve been a Mayer fan since he was a key part of Baylor’s 2021 national champions, but he seemed to level off from there, going undrafted after a meh fifth college season at Illinois. However, he was arguably the best unaffiliated rookie in summer league.

As with Devoe, Mayer didn’t get his chance until a lottery pick fell out of line; he DNP’d Houston’s first game but was pressed into service when Amen Thompson sprained his ankle. Mayer responded with 19 points and 10 rebounds, finishing Vegas with a 71.5 percent true shooting mark. The 6-foot-9 forward made 23 triples in 101 minutes, but also showed up big on the glass with a 14.5 percent rebounding rate.

He’s not just a big stinker roaming the 3-point line, either; Mayer can handle the ball and move. His college shooting numbers have never caught up to the eye test of his shots (33.9 percent from 3 career; 68.9 percent from the line), so this could be an unfortunate outlier week, but if Mayer can shoot consistently, there’s at least room for him in a two-way.

Cleveland has possibly the best two-way in the league. Holdover center Isaiah Mobley, the 49th pick in 2022, was arguably the best big man in summer league and looks set to upgrade to a roster contract at some point this coming season.

But the player that got scouts talking was Porter, an undrafted player from Wichita State who I didn’t see on any top-100 lists coming into the draft. It was simply an oversight.

Porter is 23 and played for the sixth-best team in a mid-major league, so you can see why scouts didn’t exactly seek him out. But his statistical profile screams draft: a five percent block rate for a 6-2 guard is does not usually, and he paired it with the type of stat-stuffing in the non-scoring categories that usually marks under-the-radar prospects. Sometimes guys like this can’t shoot, and that undermines everything else at the NBA level, but Porter also shot decently (35.1 percent from 3), albeit infrequently, as a collegian.

He didn’t shoot well in summer league (1 of 11 from 3), but he did so much in so many other areas that he still helped Cleveland win the title. Porter shot 53 percent from inside the arc, dished out 32 assists against just 15 turnovers and swarmed the glass (13.7 percent rebound rate! He’s 6-2!) while proving to be a solid defender. Realistically, he’s going to spend some time with the Cleveland Charge figuring out where his lopsided game fits in at the pro level (and maybe refining his shot a bit more), but Cleveland has time — the Cavs smartly signed him to a two-year, two-way deal. Keep an eye on this guy, he has a chance to become a really interesting player.

Orlando Robinson (Stephen R. Sylvania / USA Today)

Robinson is a bit of an under-the-radar guy on this list, as he was on a two-way deal with Miami last season and signed a roster contract for this year. But watching Robinson crush summer league opponents in the paint had to trigger an obvious thought in Heat fans: What if they had drafted him in the playoffs last season instead of signing Cody Zeller?

The 6-11 Robinson still needs to hone his game defensively, but he can really score. In six games between Vegas and Sacramento, he averaged 20.5 points per game. game while playing just 28.6 minutes in one contest. Robinson can threaten inside and out, making 8 of 21 3s this summer, but also shooting 58 percent on 2s with a high free throw rate. On the defensive side, it must have warmed Miami hearts to see him chip away at 10 steals in six games.

Robinson might not be the only star candidate from Miami’s two-way factory this year. Guard Jamaree Bouyea struggled with his shot but showed significant growth as a distributor with 35 dimes in his five games and just 10 turnovers. He was second-team All G League for Sioux Falls last season but was unaffiliated until he signed a two-way deal with Miami this summer. Meanwhile, 6-7 Jamal Cain remains unsigned but looks to bounce back in a two-way fashion after a solid summer showing and a strong Sioux Falls campaign in 2022-23.

Hunter Hale, Phoenix

As for, “Where the hell did he come from?” guys, it’s hard to top Hale. He graduated from Winthrop in 2020 and has spent the past three seasons playing overseas. His last stop was a place called KK Borac Cacak in the Adriatic League — you’ve probably heard of it, fellow sick — where he had a breakout year for a miserable team that went 7-20.

Well, the 26-year-old Hale got his chance in Phoenix’s last three summer league games, and man did he show. He produced a Hale flurry of 3s (12 of 23, in just 58 minutes), showed decent quickness on the ball and committed just one turnover his summer. Overall, Hale’s 31.8 PER was third among all summer leaguers, topped only by returning lottery picks Keegan Murray and Jabari Smith Jr.

What makes this a little more interesting is that the Suns are the only franchise without a G League team (they’re working on it). Hale would otherwise be an ideal “Exhibit 10” guy to log into a G League program and see what happens. Will another team try to poach him or will it be back to Europe?

A 6-10 stretch from UC-Santa Barbara, Norris was another guy who didn’t appear on many draft lists entering June, but signed a two-way deal and had a strong summer. He didn’t get a ton of run with draft pick Mouhamed Gueye playing the same position, but Norris showed some athletic pop in addition to his stretch ability.

While his burn was admittedly limited — just 57 minutes, mostly off-ball play and distance to the corner — Norris’ plus rebound rate (16.5 percent) and overall efficiency (27.5 PER) at least hint at NBA viability, especially if he can fill out his wiry frame a bit. He will likely get most of his action at College Park this year while the Hawks see what they have.

I’m always hesitant to get too excited when a small, shoot-first guard has a strong summer league; I’ve seen this movie too many times before.

In Miles’ case, though, there’s a reason to make a notable exception: He’s only 20 years old, he was sober, and he was still cooking. Miles did this while struggling from the 3-point line, but he was so good inside the arc (63.0 percent on 2s, with a high free throw rate) that it didn’t matter much. Miles repeatedly used his strong frame to either dig to the rim or get in pull-ups, and he didn’t just play bully ball — he managed an assist every five minutes and had just nine turnovers for the summer.

Miles went undrafted because of questions about his shooting and his alligator arms (measuring only a 6-0 1/2 wingspan at the combine), but his summer showed he can be successful nonetheless. Dallas signed Miles to a two-way deal after the draft, and his immediate path to minutes appears to be blocked by a similar player (Jaden Hardy), but he’s another one to follow through the G League as the year goes on.

(Photo by Craig Porter Jr. and Jevon Freeman-Liberty: Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)

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