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Six Takeaways From the 2017 Las Vegas Summer League

Lonzo Ball and Josh Jackson are not hiding their pros and cons, and Donovan Mitchell and Dennis Smith Jr. look like franchise-changing steals. The biggest stories from the most well-attended NBA summer league ever.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

I made it a mission to meet Warren LeGarie at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference back in March. LeGarie is a pretty big deal in the NBA — he’s a coach super-agent and the executive director of the Las Vegas summer league. After a panel, we crossed paths and chatted about NBA general manager philosophies. As we were about to say bye, LeGarie turned back and asked me if I had ever been to Vegas summer league. I told him no, but I’d been to Orlando. He then leaned in, like he was Judge Reinhold’s character in Seinfeld, and pretty much said: You’re an idiot if you don’t go. Everyone in the NBA that matters is there. It’s Vegas. It’s fun. You better go if you care about your career.

"I know. I’ll see you there this summer," I responded. "Great," he said, walking away and moving on to shake hands with tons of other people. Months have since passed, and I fulfilled my promise. I’m now back home from Vegas summer league, which concludes Monday night with the championship game between the Lakers and the Blazers. As a whole, the experience was more than I could’ve expected from an NBA perspective. What LeGarie told me at Sloan is true: If you care about basketball, you should go in 2018 if you missed this year’s.

Until then, here are a few scattered thoughts on the big names of the summer as we move toward the quiet months of the NBA calendar:

The Good and Bad of Lonzo Ball

Maybe I’m just a basketball romantic, but in a sport dominated by athleticism and brawn, the majestic passers have always been the players who touched my soul. When I was a kid, I watched videos of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and thought how cool it’d be if the league were flooded with passers like them. Point guards like Steve Nash, Chris Paul, and Jason Kidd have captured the same type of mystique as Bird and Magic. Lonzo Ball is starting to do the same. It’s beautiful.

"[Ball is] already one of the best passers I’ve seen at this level. [Those are] kind of big words, but he can really pass the ball," Lakers summer league head coach Jud Buechler said last week. "He just gets the ball, looks up, and has that incredible natural ability to put that ball right on the money." Buechler’s words are big, but they’re not an overreaction. Call it hyperbole or say "it’s only summer league" if you’d like, but Ball is one of the best pure passers I’ve ever seen. His court awareness, recognition, and accuracy on everything from outlet to entry to swing passes is surreal. As is the fact that he almost always puts the right amount of velocity on his passes. We’ll never have a league filled with transcendent passers, but I guess it’s their rarity, like precious metals, that makes them so special.

That doesn’t absolve him from what he hasn’t shown, though. Anyone who watched Ball at UCLA or Chino Hills knows the type of passer he is. But in the NBA, more goes into passing than just the lone act of delivering the ball to another player. As a point guard, Ball’s weaknesses on offense have been on full display as much as his prominent strength. He has not shown the ability to use his dribble to manipulate the defense. He’s struggled to create in the half court. His shot has not fallen. If you’re a Ball stan, you’re now saying "it’s only summer league," and you’re right. But there are endless examples this summer of Ball struggling to create space off the dribble against a set defense; these are just a handful from his game on Saturday against the Nets:

Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie are not high-level defenders, but they bottled Ball up. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson looked more like DeAndre Jordan deterring Ball at the rim. Ball’s weak handle is nothing new, but it would’ve been nice to see some progress since the end of the college season. As of Sunday morning, he’s scoring just 0.66 points per possession in the half court in summer league play, per Synergy. We’re talking about small samples here, so don’t panic too much. The list of guards drafted in the first round to log at least 60 possessions and score around the same efficiency in the summer league includes: John Wall, D’Angelo Russell, Dion Waiters, and Dennis Schröder.

But for Ball’s passing ability to carry as much gravity as it has the potential to, he’ll have to become a more reliable scorer and improve both his handle and first step. Ball is at his best in transition. He’ll always be a stud in the open floor, where he has the space to fully leverage his unpredictability. Does he see a pass the defender can’t? Does he pull up from 30 feet? Does he weasel his way to the rim? But there will come a time that Ball will need to create against a set defense, and right now he’s nowhere close to ready. For Ball to elevate his play, he’ll need to prove he can create in the half court against an NBA defense.

It’d help Ball’s cause if his shot started falling. Through Sunday, he missed 38 of 50 jumpers, per data derived from Synergy. Lonzo’s dreadful percentage could just be bad luck on a small sample size. If summer league lasted longer, maybe he’d make 38 of his next 50. But it’s also possible, as detailed in March, that he’s simply had trouble finding comfort releasing his shot using his quirky mechanics against NBA-caliber defenders. Or it’s possible that he’s slow to adjust to the Spalding ball (at UCLA, Ball shot noticeably better using Wilson balls than he did other brands like Nike or Adidas).

Someday we might look back and chuckle at the micro-analysis of Ball’s game, but a prospect like him is deserving of it. I’ve never been more fascinated by a player. From the offbeat shooting mechanics to his outspoken father, Ball holds our attention. Las Vegas had its best summer league attendance ever this year. Ball not only makes his teammates better with his slick passing, but he’s raised interest in the league as a whole for us fans in the crowd and watching from home.

What’s John Wall Waiting For?

I’d be shitting my pants if I were the Wizards. They offered John Wall a four-year, $168 million supermax extension at the end of June, and Wall still hasn’t accepted. Wall’s initial reason for waiting was: "I just want to kind of see what they do throughout free agency, talk to my family, talk to my agency and my managers and see what we want to do." Wall reiterated the sentiment again in Vegas. But wait a minute: Who says let me think about it to a $168 million deal when they’re one year removed from double knee surgery? Who says let me think about it to $168 million — period?

You want to know who says no to $168 million? An All-NBA talent who said he "ain’t got no billboards" in Washington and "you can’t leave a legacy hiding behind the doors." A player who basically said Otto Porter Jr. is "great," but understands that the Wizards need another true star to make a significant leap. A smart businessman who last year hired Rich Paul, the most powerful agent in sports.

You can brush away Wall’s decision to wait before signing on the dotted line. Perhaps he’s looking into the future and the financial gains he stands to make by gambling on himself. Wall could earn another $40 million–plus if he gets named All-NBA again next season and remains qualified for the designated player veteran extension. Wall can currently add only four more years to his deal on an extension this season since he has two years left on his contract, but if he waits and qualifies again, he could add a fifth year. My hunch is that it’s a more telling decision than we think.

I passed along my theory that there’s more to Wall’s decision than money to multiple NBA executives and agents in Las Vegas. The response was mixed. One agent put it like this: Right now it’s about the money, but one year from now it might be about something else if the Wizards show signs of decline or a more appealing destination presents itself. In other words, Wall can position himself for a greater financial payday and he gets more time to review his options.

According to one league source, there’s a chance he’ll end up signing the supermax this summer, but any choice is unlikely to come until later in the offseason. Wall wants to take his time. He will be an unrestricted free agent in 2019, and the more time he runs off the clock, the more Wizards fans ought to be worried.

Josh Jackson’s Achilles’ Heel

The Suns have been future-proofing their roster by adding versatile, dynamic players like Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, and now Josh Jackson, whom they selected with the fourth pick in June. All three players have high upside, but they also come with risk. Chriss is extremely raw, and while his court sense has come a long way since college at Washington, he still has a steep mountain to climb. An NBA writer I spoke to in Vegas told me a lot of NBA executives are down on Bender, which I found maddening since the Croatian 7-footer is only 19. But it’s fair: Bender at times looks like a giraffe on ice skates; he may never pan out. The key in determining how high these Suns can rise is Jackson, who in Las Vegas flashed his playmaking upside, defensive versatility, and elite athleticism.

Jackson’s downside was also on display. As discussed many times leading up to the draft, his shooting numbers at Kansas weren’t awful, but his shooting form and free throw percentage suggested that his shot will be problematic in the NBA. The early returns at summer league show little if any progress has been made since the college season ended. Let’s first look at his free throw routine and mechanics:

Jackson changed his routine, which suggests there’s been at least some attention paid to improving his shot. In college, he spun and dribbled the ball three times before shooting, while this summer he simply dribbled while moving his left foot back and then into place. But the rest of his form and the quality of his makes and misses stayed the same. He sprays the ball all over. Even of his 16 successful attempts at the line, four clanked off the rim before rolling in. It’s preferable that a player miss only short and long, since it indicates that the shot is at least in line. Misses to the left and right suggest there’s an issue with the player’s hands, or something else biomechanical. This problem also occurs on his jumpers:

Jackson’s jump shot form looks largely unchanged; his feet are spread too wide, and it looks like he’s flinging the ball rather than using the kinetic energy from his legs to power the ball. His shot is still slow, leaving him prone to getting blocked by long, athletic defenders:

Jackson does enough tremendous things on defense and as a playmaker to assure he’ll have a long NBA career. But if his shot keeps clanking off the rim like it has in Vegas, he’ll never make the kind of impact his talent suggests is possible.

Rajon Rondo Is a Risk Worth Taking

The Pelicans haven’t done a whole lot this summer. Their big splash came in February when they acquired DeMarcus Cousins in a trade for what essentially became Buddy Hield and the draft rights to Justin Jackson, Harry Giles, and Frank Mason III. On draft night, the Pels dealt for the rights to rookie point guard Frank Jackson. They re-signed Jrue Holiday to a five-year, $126 million deal. Most recently, they added Rajon Rondo, who was terrible for about 95 percent of last season before coming back to life for two playoff games.

Rondo obviously comes with risks. He’s a low-effort defender who dominates the ball offensively yet scores inefficiently. Rondo still has some benefits, but his utility has diminished to the point of near obsoletion. Adding Rondo pushes Holiday off the ball; Holiday has shot just 34.3 percent on 198 spot-up 3s since 2014–15, per SportVU. Rondo has shot better off the catch since being traded by the Celtics in 2014 (38.5 percent on 252 attempts), but he still has not earned the respect of defenders. Spacing could be an issue, especially when neither Cousins nor Anthony Davis is a true knockdown shooter, at 33 percent and 29 percent from 3 for their careers, respectively. If Holiday and Rondo play "large chunks of games" together, as sources suggested to ESPN that they will, it means one of them will be forced to defend a larger wing. Holiday is one of the best on-ball guard defenders in the NBA, but doesn’t have the same success against larger players.

But it’s worth considering the pros: Having multiple ball handlers who can attack a defense is always beneficial. Cousins had one of his best statistical seasons while sharing the floor with Rondo in 2014–15, scoring 1.07 points per possession when Rondo was on the floor versus 0.93 points per possession when he was off, per NBA Wowy. Rondo and Cousins developed good chemistry on the floor, and more importantly, perhaps, they became close friends.

Relationships matter, and Rondo’s greatest impact could come in the locker room, on the bus to and from the hotel, on planes during long road trips, and at practices. Chicago’s young players grew fond of Rondo, as he organized team dinners and took on more of a mentor role. Every choice the Pelicans make over the next three years will be made with Davis and Boogie in mind. Davis can opt out of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020; Cousins will hit unrestricted free agency in 2018.

If the Pelicans make some progress this season and locker room chemistry is good, keeping Rondo around would theoretically increase the probability that Cousins re-signs. If Boogie re-ups long-term, that, again, theoretically, helps the chances that Davis also sticks in New Orleans. The looming threat that Davis walks (or even demands a trade as 2020 approaches) is what makes handing over $126 million to Holiday and adding Rondo worth it. They don’t have many options when they’re depleted of trade assets and cap space. Rondo is declining as a player, but he’s ascending as a leader.

Donovan Mitchell Is the Elixir Jazz Fans Need

The best move Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey made this summer was not acquiring Ricky Rubio for virtually nothing. It was packaging Trey Lyles and the no. 24 pick to move up to no. 13 for Donovan Mitchell, a high-upside athlete whose talents have been put on display this summer.

Mitchell has resembled an All-NBA defender by locking down virtually every opponent he’s faced. Few defenders possess his combination of length, muscle, and will. Even if Mitchell’s offense doesn’t develop an inch beyond its current level, he’s good enough as a spot-up shooter and a defender to sustain a long career. As Chris Ryan wrote on The Ringer, "Mitchell is already on his ‘why didn’t you draft me?’ revenge tour, and it’s not even August."

Mitchell will keep getting better. He’s played basketball full time for only four years (a wrist injury inclined him to quit baseball during his sophomore year of high school and focus entirely on basketball). Mitchell has risen quickly. His 37-point performance to cap off his summer showed what he could become if his offense develops. He was draining spot-up 3s, pulling up on a dime from midrange, and penetrating the paint to draw fouls. Terry Rozier, Russ Smith, and Peyton Siva are the past three Louisville guards to be drafted, and Mitchell has the chance to be better than all three combined.

There are 10 players that I think have chance of being the best player in the draft when we look back many years from now. Mitchell is one of them. It must be hard for Jazz fans to feel good about anything after losing Gordon Hayward. Hopefully Mitchell helps.

Dennis Smith Jr. Is Who We Thought He Was

First, watch this:

Now, imagine Smith on the court with Nerlens Noel rumbling down the lane, Dirk Nowitzki spacing from the wing, and Wesley Matthews spacing from the corner.

Hmm.

What do you think? I’m thinking Smith landed in the perfect situation for his development. Smith played nearly his entire season at NC State with two non-shooting bigs clogging up the paint despite being a point guard who’s at his best going downhill in the pick-and-roll. Rick Carlisle offenses run a heavy dose of the two-man game, and Smith should be able to make an immediate impact with the support of Noel and Dirk.

Smith is showcasing the skills often found in the NBA’s best point guards. He has burst. He’s explosive. He handles contact at the rim. He can create his own shot without a screen. When he’s attacking the basket off a screen, nothing can stop him. Smith’s summer mirrors Damian Lillard’s summer league in 2012, back when anyone watching just knew that Lillard was going to be good because of the way in which he scored.

Smith will experience difficulties adjusting to the speed of the game like Lillard did, and like any other young point guard does. Smith didn’t drop to no. 9 by accident. In college, he didn’t play a lick of defense, and his decision-making and shooting still must come a long way. There was a sense heading into the draft that he could become just another supreme athlete at the guard position who didn’t have the full breadth of skills necessary to thrive. But so far, Smith has quelled those concerns and has a real shot of being the best player from this draft class. We’ve only seen a glimpse of what Smith could become. The league’s future is bright.