The NBA never sleeps. After a week of free-agency madness, we’re also settling into the start of the Las Vegas Summer League. For the most part, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas — it’s easy to get excited for certain players, but not smart to jump to conclusions based off tiny sample sizes against wildly uneven competition that will largely be playing in the D-League or overseas next season. The real action occurs off the court, where the NBA Illuminati wear socks and sandals, network, and lay the groundwork for deals years in the future. Everyone will want to get a glimpse of Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, but both will get plenty of chances to show what they can do as rookies. Here are five guys worth following next week who might not.
Thon Maker, Milwaukee Bucks
Maker has been a household name longer than almost anyone else in this year’s rookie class, yet we know almost nothing about him. Aside from a couple of lackluster showings in high school all-star events last year, Maker has mostly stayed under the radar ever since the infamous flood of articles and mixtapes declaring him the second coming of Kevin Durant. Age controversies aside, a 7-foot-1 player with his combination of size, athleticism, and ball skills is always interesting. He may be able to carve out a spot in the Bucks rotation as a rookie, or he might end up spending a lot of time in the D-League. His play in Vegas will be our first real glimpse into how ready he is.
Georgios Papagiannis, Sacramento Kings
Papagiannis was a fast riser in mock drafts, going from the middle of the second round to the first round in a span of a few weeks. The Kings haven’t exactly earned a ton of credibility when it comes to bucking the draft consensus, but that doesn’t mean Papagiannis can’t play. As a 7-foot-2, 240-pound 19-year-old, he has a preposterous combination of physical tools. The wild up-and-down nature of summer league play should give us some indication of how ready he is for the more perimeter-oriented NBA game. He’s probably not going to get a lot of playing time as a rookie in a crowded frontcourt rotation in Sacramento, so this could give us our only real shot of watching him play for a while.
Dragan Bender, Phoenix Suns
Compared to Maker and Papagiannis, Bender is a pretty well-known product, despite how he was often portrayed coming into the draft. He has been on NBA radars for years, and he played at the highest international and club levels in Europe. Now that we’ll be able to watch him up close and personal, it’ll be interesting to see how he fares playing off the ball with the Kentucky backcourt of Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker likely dominating the action for the Suns’ summer league team. The crown jewel of the Suns’ Vegas adventure, though, is the chance to see the team’s front line of the future, in Bender and Marquese Chriss, together on the court for the first time. There should be minutes available for Bender coming off the bench as a rookie in Phoenix, so developing a rapport with Ulis will be essential.
Tyler Ulis, Phoenix Suns
As one of the smallest players in Vegas, Ulis doesn’t really fit the profile of a Kentucky point guard — certainly not the one shared by his future teammates in Phoenix, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. No one has ever questioned Ulis’s skill set or toughness, but it’s fair to wonder just how much of that he can translate to the pro game at 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds. Summer league isn’t the NBA, but it isn’t the SEC either, where he was the Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore. In the past, the summertime struggles of undersized guards like Shane Larkin and Trey Burke in Vegas and Orlando wound up being early warning signs for problems they would face in the NBA. Ulis can’t quiet all the doubters with a strong showing, but he has a chance to put a few to bed.
Mamadou N’Diaye, Golden State Warriors
Extremes in size are always interesting in this type of environment, and the gargantuan center from UC Irvine is Ulis’s polar opposite. At 7-foot-6 and 300 pounds, N’Diaye is an awe-inspiring sight who covers up the paint and changes the geometry of the floor. N’Diaye can change ends without breaking a sweat and he’s much better equipped than fellow giant Sim Bhullar (7-foot-5, 360 pounds) to handle NBA-caliber athleticism. Whether there’s a place for him in the modern NBA is an open question, but it’s not impossible to imagine him as a backup center on a half court–oriented team with schemes to funnel pick-and-roll ball handlers into the lane. Either way, all eyes in the gym will be on N’Diaye whenever he steps on the floor for the Warriors’ summer league team. He’ll be hard to miss.
An earlier version of this piece misattributed the origin of the comparisons between Kevin Durant and Thon Maker. Articles and mixtapes declared Maker the second coming of Durant, not Maker himself.