Summer league basketball usually resembles glorified street ball. Watching players ignore their teammates to go one-on-one for contested jumpers is not easy on the eyes. They’re trying to impress coaches and get a job, but you and I, and everyone else watching, all know that what teams would rather see is the player make the right play. Even during the summer, the best players and teams buy into moving the ball and locking in on defense. The Lakers won the Las Vegas summer league title on Monday, defeating the Blazers 110–98, by demonstrating a rare cohesion for a summer team. "You could see the joy they had in that," Lakers summer league head coach Jud Buechler said. "It’s kind of like the Golden State Warriors, their blueprint, and you end up winning."
The Warriors play a selfless style on offense; the ball is moved around, everyone gets touches, and everyone scores. Defensively, they switch screens, hustle to get back on defense, and communicate. The kinds of players teams are endlessly in search of typically fit the Golden State mold. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the best players in Vegas exhibited those qualities. All eyes were on the big-name, lottery-drafted rookies this summer — we covered many of them on Monday — but there were a number of summer standouts who had flown under the radar — either in the draft or in their first season of NBA basketball — and fit the demand for multifaceted young players. In the spirit of players like Draymond Green, Jae Crowder, and Malcolm Brogdon, here is a starting five of the most versatile, most overlooked players to take the court in Vegas, starting with the real MVP of the Summer Lakers.
Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
Everything about Kuzma’s NBA upside screamed theoretical player. He had great shooting fundamentals at Utah, but he hit only 30.2 percent from 3 on 169 attempts. He has long arms and played his ass off on defense, but his awareness and fundamentals left a lot to be desired. The signs were always there, but the results weren’t. For a player who projected as a 3-and-D-style forward, Kuzma lacked a lot of 3-and-D qualities you’d like to see from a rookie who turns 22 later this month.
But after watching Kuzma dominate the Las Vegas summer league, averaging 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.7 assists while playing versatile defense, I already feel like an idiot for ranking him 47th in The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Guide. I can’t imagine how some teams are feeling for passing on him in the draft. Even though it’s only summer league, Kuzma has already shown enough to prove he shouldn’t have fallen to 27th.
It helped Kuzma’s cause to play a chunk of his minutes with Lonzo Ball, who is "a giver," as The Ringer’s Danny Chau described him Tuesday. Kuzma did a lot of the receiving, racing up the floor in transition, knowing he could be rewarded with spectacular outlet passes, or properly making himself available for kickout passes for 3. This is what happens when you assemble a team with smart players who play unselfishly. It helps that Kuzma’s summer shooting was about as hot as the Vegas sun.
"In college, you’re the no. 1 option. Everyone has eyes on you," Kuzma said. "With a lot of spacing and great players around me, I’m able to free up my game." Kuzma drained 24 of 50 triples in Vegas. Let’s be real. There’s no friggin’ way Kuzma will sustain his hot shooting after hitting just 30.2 percent in college. Maybe Kuzma is right that poor college spacing stifled his game. But it’s worth asking why he shot such a low percentage in college. Was it a biomechanical issue? Does he have poor touch? He also shot just 63.1 percent from the line. Was 169 attempts just a small sample size? It’s hard to know. At the NBA combine, Kuzma shot 4-of-5 from 3 during a tremendous all-around performance in the combine scrimmage game, after which he shut it down and declared for the draft. He’s since followed that up by hitting 48 percent of his 3s this summer. If you combine all these shots, Kuzma’s lifetime 3-point rate is 35.2 percent on 224 attempts. Not too shabby, and it could keep rising.
What’s fascinating about Kuzma’s Sin City hot streak is his form hasn’t changed. About the only difference I’ve observed is more consistent footwork when landing — you’ll see in the college clip, Kuzma lands on his left foot, while in the summer he lands balanced on both. But even then, his footing isn’t consistent. Sometimes he lands with his feet wide, sometimes narrow. I’m not sure what this means for his shot. The best shooters are able to hit off-balance shots, so maybe it’s a good thing. But it could be a sign that his fundamentals need further tweaks. Only time will tell what kind of shooter Kuzma really is. In the meantime, he needs to keep playing defense with this type of effort:
Blazers rookie Caleb Swanigan, drafted one pick ahead of Kuzma, is a heavyweight. He weighs 246 pounds to Kuzma’s 223. Yet in the summer title game on Monday, Kuzma battled, bruised, and bumped with Swanigan. Swanigan might have tossed Kuzma around, but it was encouraging that he showed the will to defend a much much beefier player.
Kuzma also had impressive moments defending the perimeter against top-level isolation scorers — by summer league standards — like Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum.
Defending the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, or Paul George will demand even more from Kuzma. But he’s off to a good start. The indicators (his effort, hustle, and lateral quickness) that he can translate success are there. The next stage is to keep honing his fundamentals and getting stronger. Magic Johnson says the Lakers are back. That might not be true yet, but they’re getting closer.
Semi Ojeleye, Boston Celtics
Kuzma wasn’t the only rookie to flash versatile goods this summer. Celtics rookie forward Ojeleye was selected 10 picks later with the 37th pick and was arguably the top-performing second-rounder of the summer. While Kuzma needs to add muscle to defend bigs like Swanigan, Ojeleye looks like he might’ve popped out of the womb with a Herculean frame.
Blazers rookie Zach Collins couldn’t even get Ojeleye to budge. It’s like he’s backing down against a brick wall. In the other clip, Ojeleye steers Ivica Zubac and perfectly contests the shot to influence a miss. "I think what he’s doing translates [to NBA play]," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said of Ojeleye, per CelticsBlog. "His flexibility defensively is going to be enormous. I think that he will compete to be one of our better defenders right out the gate."
Ojeleye is a brick house, but his muscles don’t limit him when defending the perimeter. He’s incredibly quick laterally, largely thanks to his excellent fundamentals by locking into his stance. Ojeleye plays hard and has made a commitment to locking in off the ball, which is important because his off-ball focus waned in college. Watching Ojeleye up close, it’s impressive to see how quickly he can react to an action. There’s little doubt Ojeleye will defend well in the NBA. As long as he sustains his shooting — 42.4 percent from 3 as a junior at SMU, and 37.5 percent this summer — he could quickly turn into the second-round steal of the draft.
Jordan Bell, Golden State Warriors
Patrick McCaw was quickly labeled the steal of the draft last summer after falling to no. 38 and having his draft rights traded to Golden State from Milwaukee for $2.4 million in cash considerations. McCaw went on to earn important minutes in these past NBA Finals and built upon his success in the Las Vegas summer league. The Warriors might’ve repeated history by acquiring Bell, the no. 38 pick in 2017, from the Bulls for $3.5 million in cash considerations. Like McCaw did in each of the last two summers, Bell looked fantastic in Vegas.
If you’re a Bulls fan, you’re probably crying right now: The Bulls dealt the rights to Bell for cash — then invested $32 million in Cristiano Felicio. As Joshua Riddell said in his tweet, Bell had "elite timing" protecting the rim at summer league. Anyone who watched Bell wreak havoc in college at Oregon knew this was coming. He not only blocks shots, but he has the lateral quickness to slide his feet on the perimeter against guards and wings and the court awareness to jump passing lanes or pickpocket ball handlers. The only real question was whether his rebounding and shooting would make strides, but at the least, his rim protection offered a foundation.
Bell even had a 5x5 game against the Wolves, with five points, 11 rebounds, five assists, five steals, and six blocks, which The Ringer’s Haley O’Shaughnessy detailed. After the game, Bell tweeted that he was just trying to be like his new teammate Draymond Green. "We’re get scrutinized a lot, kind of the same. We’re undersized. They don’t know what we do well, little things like that," Bell said in a postgame interview with CSN Northwest’s Bri Amaranthus. "They tend to overlook the type of heart we bring, our winning mentality that we bring to any team we’re on."
Bell likely won’t become a ball handler or playmaker like Green. He might not even develop his shot to a league-average level the way Green has. He definitely won’t be asked to be the kind of leader Dray is, or the martial artist — Green is unique in that regard. But Bell does embody the versatile defensive qualities of a player you’d think teams would seek out as a means of defeating the Dubs. The fact that Bell fell so far is stunning. The fact that he was traded for cash considerations is unforgivable.
DeAndre’ Bembry, Atlanta Hawks
The summer league all-versatile team needs a big playmaker. At 6-foot-6, look no further than Hawks second-year wing Bembry, who has shown the ability to take advantage of mismatches on offense and play versatile defense — like he’s a poor man’s Andre Iguodala, or potentially a rich man’s Evan Turner. After logging only 371 minutes in 38 games as a rookie with the Hawks, Bembry found himself in the "too good for summer league club" posting 17.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists in 26 minutes per game. The no. 21 pick in last year’s draft scored from all levels of the floor, defended guards like Quinn Cook and wings like Caris LeVert, and made plays off the bounce:
Bembry had 13 assists to 16 turnovers. Ignore the numbers. They lie. Bembry frequently passed open teammates or made nifty cross-court passes that simply resulted in a missed shot, which is the fault of no one. While Bembry does need to tighten his dribble and cut down on flashy plays, his creativity is the gift that makes him who he is. Over the course of a full season with the tanking Hawks, the kiddos will get plenty of developmental minutes this season. Bembry will be able to pass. Bembry will be able to defend. Bembry will be able to make the right play. The question, like it is for so many players, is whether he will be able to shoot. Only time will tell, but at least the minutes will be there for us to find out while enjoying the rest of his game.
Jonah Bolden, Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers started rookie forward Bolden as a small-ball center to create "crossmatch opportunities," assistant head coach Lloyd Pierce said. "His ability to shoot the 3 with the 5-man defending is something we wanted to explore."
Bolden shot only 31.4 percent on 35 3-pointers in Vegas and Utah. But beyond the numbers, his ability to stretch the floor strained the defense by putting lumbering centers in uncomfortable situations. The other end of the floor matters, too, though. Philadelphia’s team defense at summer league was abysmal, but individually, the 6-foot-10 Australian looked terrific. Pierce said that from a defensive standpoint, the Sixers looked for ways they could use him, whether it was switching onto the perimeter or manning the paint. "We’re just looking at him and evaluating him, seeing all the different facets of his game and getting excited," he said. Here’s what they’re getting excited about:
Bolden frequently blocked shots from the weakside, showcasing the court awareness to rotate over, and the explosiveness to rise and alter shots. As an interior big, he also was competitive against larger bigs like Ivica Zubac and Ante Zizic:
Bolden’s greatest defensive skill, though, is his ability to switch screens. "I think defensive versatility is a strength of mine," Bolden told The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks. "I want to become a player who can guard all five positions." Bolden wasn’t lying. He defended a long list of perimeter players this summer, including Dejounte Murray, Jayson Tatum, Denzel Valentine, and Patrick McCaw.
Bolden might be draft-and-stashed this season — international basketball reporter David Pick reports Bolden may sign with Maccabi — but the glimpses we saw this summer are enough to hold us over.
Three of the players listed in this article were drafted consecutively. Bolden was drafted no. 36. Ojeleye went no. 37. Then Bell at no. 38. You’d think every team in the NBA would know how important versatility is at every position, but with the way the draft board has fallen, it’s not clear that’s the case.