Reviewing biggest NBA summer league winners, losers and pleasant surprises

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Trae Young, Collin Sexton and Mo Bamba (Getty Images)

We all know how useless summer league can be in the big picture. It’s a small sample size of five or so games, played against teams operating with virtually no practice time and against few legitimate NBA players. For the most part, what happens in Vegas Summer League should stay in Vegas Summer League. Or Sacramento, or Utah, for that matter.

Still, over the two-plus weeks of July basketball that featured high-profile rookies and veteran castoffs alike, there were big winners providing excitement for their fan bases. There were also some losers and things we found worrying. And there were surprises, too.

Here’s how we sorted out all three groups…

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Biggest summer league winners

Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies: Consistency wasn’t Jackson’s thing at summer league, and it is one of the concerns about him coming into his NBA career after an up-and-down freshman year at Michigan State. He opened his summer career with 29 points on 9-for-15 shooting, 8-for-13 from the 3-point line, then scored 35 total points in his next four games, on 27.0 percent shooting.

Still, his ability to run the floor, step back to the 3-point arc offensively and block shots in the lane (4.3 per game) bodes well for his future.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Clippers: The Clippers were scheming to land Gilgeous-Alexander throughout the pre-draft process, and landed him in a trade with Charlotte on draft night. There will likely be teams regretting not taking him despite his reluctance to travel for workouts before the draft.

He is a long-armed dynamo defensively, averaging 2.3 steals and 1.0 blocks, and the second-half scoring burst he had at Kentucky carried into the summer, as he averaged 19.0 points on 45.8 percent shooting.

Kevin Knox, Knicks: The 35.1 percent shooting in four games was not ideal, but Knox became event viewing in his summer league time, finishing with an average of 21.3 points per game. He commanded the ball, was aggressive offensively and ran the floor.

The knocks against Knox coming out of Kentucky were mostly defused by his approach and production in Vegas, where he played to contact and showed a varied offensive game.

Harry Giles and Justin Jackson, Kings: We saw some of Jackson last year during Sacto’s most miserable season, and he showed what you’d want to see out of a second-year guy playing in summer league: forward strides. He averaged 19.0 points in four games in Las Vegas, and averaged 17.0 in three games in the Sacramento summer league before that.

But we had not seen anything from Giles since his injury-plagued 2016-17 season at Duke. Finally healthy (we hope), Giles was impressive with his athleticism, intensity and defensive presence that has earned him comparisons to Kevin Garnett. He’s got a long way to go, but his summer showing was a good start.

WATCH: LeBron James gets standing ovation at summer league game

Wendell Carter Jr., Bulls: Carter was polished all the way on both sides of the ball and lent some credence to those who thought he was undervalued as the No. 7 pick. He was smooth offensively (14.6 points, 55.1 percent shooting) and impressive defensively, something we’d not seen much during his one season at Duke.

Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, Magic: The pair only played three games, and the key word for both guys remains “raw.” But the other word is length, and the Isaac-Bamba combo has arms for days and the potential to be an imposing duo clogging up the paint defensively.

With Aaron Gordon, they could make for a solid defensive front, but the question will be scoring. Isaac showed more of a knack for getting to the free-throw line, and he had 21 points in his SL debut, but was 13-for-37 from the field in his three outings, and just 1-for-8 from the 3-point arc.

Collin Sexton, Cavaliers: He’s probably never going to be a high-efficiency guy — he took 112 shots in seven games, second-most in Vegas — but he makes big plays and showed a toughness that resembles Kyle Lowry. Sexton gets to the rim, but much like Lowry at his age, he will need to develop his playmaking skills.

Aaron Holiday, Pacers: The stat line speaks volumes: 14.5 points, 6.8 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 2.3 steals. Holiday slipped to No. 23 in the draft and was undervalued because not many teams were in the market for point guards. He will sit behind Darren Collison for a year, but expect him to be ready to take over as a starter in Year 2.

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Biggest summer league losers

Robert Williams, Celtics: He went from a potential lottery pick the day before the draft, to skipping the green room on draft night, to landing at No. 27 for Boston. He was late for an introductory conference call (a scheduling error was blamed), then missed his flight to join the team. Once ready for action in Vegas, he played seven minutes before suffering a calf injury. Oh, and he lost his wallet — twice.

He’s a low-risk, high-reward player for Boston, but that high reward seems a long way off.

Marvin Bagley III, Kings: There was a sigh of relief in the Kings’ front offices when Bagley made his summer debut and logged 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting. Sacramento has much riding on Bagley’s success, considering it passed on Luka Doncic and friends to pick Bagley.

Unfortunately, the first game was the high point. Bagley was 3-for-16 for seven points in Game 2, and was — incredibly — 0-for-2 with one point in 29 minutes in his third summer game. Playing against No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton in his only Las Vegas appearance, Bagley was outscored, 21-15, and was just 5-for-13 from the field.

Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender, Suns: These guys, back-to-back No. 4 picks in 2016 and 2017, combined to start 72 games for the Suns last year. You might have expected them to come into summer league ahead of the curve, dominate for a couple of games, then get pulled from the roster and allowed to hit the Strip — especially Jackson, who was a much-improved player in the second half of last season.

Instead, each was discouraging in how bad he was. Jackson averaged 10.3 points and made just 24.4 percent of his shots in three games. Bender played five games and did not seem to fit with Ayton at all, averaging 6.6 points on 37.1 percent shooting. He may not last much longer in Phoenix.

Trae Young, Hawks: As we went over this week, Young’s summer was all over the map. He struggled badly in Utah, where he shot 3-for-24 from the 3-point line, but he improved once he got to Las Vegas. His talents as a playmaker were impressive, but he was drafted to score, and he will need to establish himself as a consistent shooter to do that.

Terrance Ferguson, Thunder: Ferguson ended on a high note, with 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting in his fifth summer league game, but that couldn’t hide just how ineffective Ferguson was in his first four games. Ferguson should have been the most assertive player on the floor, since he was the only Thunder regular with significant NBA experience.

Instead, he was 7-for-32 from the field, 2-for-16 from the 3-point line and scored 21 total points in those four games. For the tournament, he averaged 28.8 minutes per game — among the top 25 in Las Vegas in that category — but only 7.0 points. No one else who played as much as Ferguson scored so little.

Donte DiVincenzo, Bucks, and Jalen Brunson, Mavericks: There was much to like about fellow Villanova freshman Omari Spellman (a Hawks draftee), but his two veteran Wildcats teammates DiVincenzo and Brunson had a hard time in Las Vegas.

DiVincenzo was not expected to be a first-rounder (let alone a top-17 pick) until his 31-point performance in the NCAA championship followed by his sterling athletic testing at the pre-draft combine. But he carried none of that momentum to summer league, where he had a groin injury, played two games and missed all eight shots he took.

Brunson fell to the second round on draft night, but should have the opportunity to play for Dallas this season. In five summer games, though, he scored 6.8 points and was just 6-for-20 from the 3-point line (30.0 percent) and, worse, 4-for-24 on 2-point attempts (16.7 percent). Brunson did a decent job running the offense, but he averaged 3.0 turnovers in 20.2 minutes.

Georgios Papagiannis, Trail Blazers: It’s likely the last we will see of Papagiannis in an NBA uniform came in the Las Vegas championship game, when he made it on the floor for two garbage-time minutes against the Lakers and missed a shot.

We were as stunned as anyone when Kings president Vlade Divac made him a lottery pick in 2016, and less stunned when he proceeded to average 4.1 points in 39 NBA games. Vlade’s Folly put up 1.3 points on 3-for-13 shooting in summer league this year, earning himself a waiver and a new contract back in Greece.

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Biggest summer league surprises

De’Anthony Melton, Rockets: For a Houston franchise that did not have much go right this offseason, the steal of the draft might be with the Rockets. Melton was considered a top-20 talent, but he fell to No. 46 because he was forced to sit out last season, when he was caught up in the NCAA bribery scandal.

Melton showed he has a knack for getting out in the open floor and making perimeter shots. He can be a shutdown perimeter defender with his length and athleticism.

Trevon Blueitt, Pelicans: Sure, Blueitt might not be able to do much else in an NBA uniform other than shoot, but in his time in Las Vegas, he showed he can do that very, very well, averaging 18.3 points and making 53.6 percent of his 3s. That should have come as no surprise — he shot 41.7 percent from the 3-point line at Xavier.

Maybe the only surprise is that the Pels gave Blueitt a two-way G-League contract, allowing him to come up for 45 days. For a team always looking to add perimeter shooting help, Blueitt may have warranted a full rookie minimum deal.

Mitchell Robinson, Knicks: After a tumultuous year in which he bolted Western Kentucky and decided to simply work out on his own, Robinson was one of the great question marks of last year’s draft — we have not seen him in a competitive game since April 2017. It turns out he did not have the rumored first-round guarantee, and the Knicks took a chance on him with the 36th pick in this year’s draft.

So far, so good: Robinson showed his athleticism, his ability to bolt down the floor with a smooth gait that belies his 7-1 frame and the ability to control the paint with rebounding (10.2 per game) and blocked shots (20 in five games, a Las Vegas Summer League record).

The Young Lakers: Los Angeles earned a spot in the LVSL final, and point guard Josh Hart was the tournament MVP, scoring an average of 22.4 points, building on a solid rookie season and showing he’s ready for more responsibility. First-round pick Moe Wagner was so-so in the tournament, and he had his summer stint shortened by knee and ankle injuries.

Second-round pick Svi Mykhailiuk, however, was outstanding, and had one of the best games by any player in the tournament in the semifinals, when he logged 31 points on 12-for-20 shooting. Both he and Hart figure to be contributing reserves in LA next season. 

Wade Baldwin IV and Jake Layman, Trail Blazers: Portland brought a team laden with veterans to Las Vegas, and won the tournament championship with them. Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan were solid enough, draftees Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. showed potential and the team was auditioning the likes of John Jenkins, Archie Goodwin, Casper Ware and K.J. McDaniels.

But the two guys who stood out were Baldwin and Layman, important for a team seeking to cobble together a bench.

Baldwin had a disastrous rookie year in Memphis, and was picked up by Portland last year. He didn’t play much, but posted good G-League numbers that offered some hope for him as a defensive-minded combo guard. He pushed that role forward in Las Vegas, showing a capability to run the team, finishing with 13.4 points and 7.4 assists per game (second in Vegas). He should be ready for minutes alongside Seth Curry off Portland’s depleted bench.

Layman got a bit of a surprise in that Portland guaranteed his contract for next season at the end of June despite poor 3-point shooting in both the NBA (26.9 percent) and G-League (22.6 percent). Layman must make 3s to justify his NBA existence and was good enough in summer league play (13.4 points on 57.1 percent shooting, 60.9 percent from the 3-point line) to give some hope for a rotation spot next year.