Summer League. For us fans, it’s a reprieve from what are otherwise the dog days of the NBA calendar, with the draft and the opening flurries of free agency having come and gone. For the hundreds of players who find themselves on Summer League rosters, it’s a chance to make it onto basketball’s biggest stage. Of course, the Las Vegas Summer League is also the first chance we get to see the year’s most highly-touted prospects in anything close to NBA-level action and rules.
Beyond the hyped-up lottery picks, every year there are a few players who outplay their expectations, putting the league on notice with every game. As a Vegas kid myself, I had the pleasure of watching five such players, ones that you should look out for as their young careers progress.
You know this year’s draft class is stacked when perhaps the most infamous Blue Devil since Christian Laettner can be considered “under the radar.” The controversial forward saw himself mocked in the second round by Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The Ringer, NBADraft.net, and CBS Sports. Granted, his draft stock fluctuated wildly across different editions of those mocks, but very few had Allen going around the 21st pick, where Utah eventually called his name.
That being said, Allen absolutely balled out in Summer League, leading Utah’s Summer League team in points, assists, and steals per game and was only .1 rebounds away from surpassing Georges Niang in that stat. He showed the complete package, scoring from all over the floor and displaying a solid basketball IQ. In Utah, he could eventually become a serviceable starter.
As a Celtics fan who was excited when the Dancing Bear, as the French forward is known as, first came to Boston, let me be the first to tell you that I did not like watching Guerschon Yabusele in the slightest. He looked a step slow every single time he was on the court. His shot never seemed to go down.
In Summer League, though? Yabu was a man on a mission, throwing down some monster jams and bringing the ball down and across the court with more speed than I’ve ever seen him bring. Will he crack the rotation? Not with Gordon Hayward and Daniel Theis coming back into the fold in the frontcourt and Semi Ojeleye looking to get a bigger role from Brad Stevens. But when he does play, he’ll be a bit more fun to watch than he was this year.
A four-year Kansas guard from Cherkasy, Ukraine, Svi was nothing more than a raw unknown his freshman year, posting 3 points per game on a field goal percentage barely over 30%. After that, he was nothing more than an efficient player who did what you asked of him, shooting 45% from the field and 40% from 3 for the next two seasons on increasing minutes. His senior year, he became an integral part of the Jayhawks’ Final Four run, spacing the floor as a solid scorer. Nonetheless, he clearly wasn’t seen as anything incredible by NBA scouts, as he fell to the 47th pick in the draft.
Svi went on to become not only the best Summer League player from that talented Kansas roster but one of the best players in July. His stats tell the story on their own; he scored 16.6 points per game on 48% shooting from the field and almost 41% from deep on a stacked Los Angeles Lakers roster that featured eventual Summer League MVP Josh Hart, 9-year veteran Jeff Ayres, and first round pick Mo Wagner. Standout moments from him included a 31-point explosion against the Cavs and a display of James Harden-like handles against the Clippers. Don’t be surprised if he has a breakout year five or so seasons down the line.
You can usually tell who’s been in the NBA for a year or two in the Summer League; they look more polished, smart, and, of course, dominant. I only sat in on one Bulls game in person this summer, but that was the game that Blakeney dropped 25 on the Cavs. That wasn’t even out of the ordinary for him; the second-year guard averaged 21 with 4 rebounds and 3 assists per game.
Last season, he was the NBA G-League Rookie of the Year for the Windy City Bulls, taking advantage of his two-way contract to post 19 solid games for Chicago themselves. That being said, the previous holder of that award is fellow Summer League standout and perennial offensive black hole Abdel Nader. Time will tell how similar the two end up being.
Wade Baldwin IV
Originally a highly-touted project picked right outside of the lottery at 17th, the Vanderbilt point guard from New Jersey was on the cusp of falling out of the league altogether, never getting anything beyond minimal minutes in Memphis before becoming one of Portland’s first players on a two-way contract and signing with the Texas Legends.
Baldwin showed off his scoring, passing, and perimeter defense while leading the Blazers to the title over the Lakers, knocking off the defending champions with 14 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds. With Seth Curry joining Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the guard rotation for Portland this offseason, minutes might be hard to come by for a Blazers team that looks to make the playoffs in the stacked Western Conference, but Baldwin will look to impress in whatever rotation he finds himself in.