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Six Encouraging (and One Not-So-Encouraging) Summer League Developments

Who says you can’t learn something from exhibition games? Wendell Carter Jr., Marvin Bagley III, and more incoming rookies flashed parts of their games against pro competition that are worth keeping an eye on.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Summer league can bring out the existentialist in an NBA fan. Throughout the three weeks of exhibition games in Las Vegas, Sacramento, and Utah, you’ve probably heard someone claim that everything that happens there is meaningless. But from a scouting perspective, summer league has value. It provides a stage for young players and those on the fringes of the NBA to display the advancements they made (or didn’t) from the last time we saw them in live competition. With that in mind, here are seven skills displayed by rookies that caught my eye:

Wendell Carter Jr.’s Defense

Carter has been knocked for his defensive ability while guarding ball screens and defending switches—which was a totally overblown concern, as I argued pre-draft. This summer, he’s putting those concerns to rest. The Bulls’ rookie center has a lean body ready for beach season after changing his diet and dropping weight. Carter logged 2.6 blocks in 28.8 minutes over five games in Las Vegas by performing like an enhanced version of his college self.

Only a few months ago, as a Duke freshman, Carter relied on his smarts and understanding of angles and positioning to play effective defense; now his improved conditioning and technique have allowed his athleticism to shine. Measured at 6-foot-10 and 251 pounds, with a 7-foot-4.5 wingspan before the draft, Carter is athletic enough to move his feet laterally—as he showed above by nimbly swatting away Trae Young’s stepback—and he’s strong enough to defend larger players. Carter played stout interior defense by rotating well, playing sturdy post defense, and continuing to alter shots without fouling.

Carter, 19, always had the high IQ and hustle to become an effective defender in the NBA. But now he’s showing even more upside. If Carter masters his defensive fundamentals and develops an even more chiseled frame, there’s a chance he’ll someday be a defensive anchor.

Anfernee Simons Fitting In

Simons skipped college and trained for one year at IMG Academy in Florida, which made him more of an unknown heading into the draft. Simons then avoided playing in competitions such as the NBA combine scrimmage, which raised concerns about his actual talent level and frustrated many scouts and executives who wanted a fresher look at the 19-year-old.

But Simons shined in team workouts, generated interest from teams in the mid-first round, and ultimately earned a promise from the Trail Blazers at the no. 24 pick.

At 6-foot-3.25 with a long 6-foot-9.25 wingspan and bouncy athleticism, Simons is already providing answers to the pre-draft worries by showing shot-creation skill in the pick-and-roll and by shooting well off the bounce. He’s still young and raw, so scoring against NBA-level defenders will be a new challenge. But the early returns playing for the Las Vegas summer league champs are positive—he flat-out looks comfortable and plays with both pace and feel. The fact Simons is already playing competitive defense by sliding over screens and generally being in the right position is even more encouraging. Simons still has a long way to go, but he already has the makings of being a perfect third wheel behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum—or maybe someday, a replacement.

De’Anthony Melton’s Jumper

I ranked Melton 19th overall in the 2018 draft class and was shocked when he fell to the Rockets at no. 46. It was the USC guard’s versatile defense, gritty attitude, rebounding, and passing that made me fall in love. It’s everything else on offense that was a concern. Melton needed to tighten his handle to take advantage of his passing, and his shooting wasn’t very encouraging, either. Melton shot 28.4 percent from 3 and 70.6 percent from the line during his freshman season with the Trojans. Melton didn’t get a chance to show any progress during his sophomore season, as USC deemed him ineligible because of his connection to the FBI’s investigation into corruption in NCAA men’s basketball.

But there are early signs to be optimistic about Melton’s jumper.

As The Stepien’s Cole Zwicker ‏tweeted, Melton made only a pair of 3s off the dribble in college, yet made seven (on 18 attempts) this summer. Melton’s form looks far smoother as he transitions from his dribble into his shot, which is a drastic improvement from college, when his shooting motion was as rough as sandpaper.

Shooting from a standstill is still another story. Melton shot 1-for-9 on spot-up 3s, per Synergy, and 12-for-18 from the free throw line. All of these numbers are small samples, but even his form off the catch looks stiff, like he’s throwing a knuckleball at the rim. It’ll take time for him to totally overhaul his jumper, but the early returns are at least more positive than prior evaluations that focused on his lone college season.

Zhaire Smith’s Handle

Smith was one of the players I was most excited to watch in Las Vegas. He certainly showed what the hype was all about by soaring through the air for blocked shots, making nifty passes (a significantly underrated skill of his), and scoring athletically. But we already knew he can do all that. What I wanted to see from the new Sixer was his jumper and ballhandling, and that part of his game was underwhelming.

Smith’s shot looks slightly smoother, but he still has too big of a windup, as he goes into a virtual seated position before rising. He sprayed the ball all over, missing short and long, to the left and to the right. Smith’s shot off the dribble was also an eyesore; he couldn’t consistently create space for his shot, and when he did unleash, it didn’t fall (he shot 3-for-14 off the dribble, per Synergy). While displaying the same average first step and a similarly loose handle that he had in college, Smith didn’t deal well with ball pressure, often having to pass or simply losing it on his drives.

All of that is fine. The odds are Smith’s lane as a pro is a 3-and-D role player who dazzles with his otherworldly athleticism. The 19-year-old has a long career ahead of him even if his shot only reaches an average level. That’s why it made sense for the Sixers to trade Mikal Bridges to the Suns while picking up the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. To be clear: Smith had a good summer overall. I was just hoping for a little more this month in the ballhandling department, since that’s the key to unlocking his full potential.

Marvin Bagley III’s Handedness

Unlike Ben Simmons, Bagley is a true left-handed player. You’ll rarely see Bagley use his right, which makes him quite predictable. Watch here as Warriors big man Damian Jones reads his move then swats Bagley’s sad fadeaway to the sideline:

Or here, as Bagley drives from the perimeter toward his right, then forces up an awkward lefty shot:

If Nick King, a rookie from Middle Tennessee State, is blocking Bagley, what will King James do? Bagley could put up volume numbers this season provided Sacramento gives him the opportunity. But efficiency will be a struggle until he diversifies his offensive skill set by improving his right hand.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s Handle

Gilgeous-Alexander was the 30th-ranked high school recruit, per RSCI, but quickly became a lottery prospect during his lone season at Kentucky by displaying immense defensive versatility using his size (6-foot-6) and length (6-foot-11.5 wingspan), while also showing offensive upside as a slashing, playmaking guard. But his offense only came in flashes. SGA attempted just 57 3-pointers (though he hit 40.4 percent of them), and didn’t display a knack for shot creation. Though Gilgeous-Alexander could slither his way to the rim to draw fouls, his first step was average, he’s not a leaper, and his jumper was shaky. Those are obviously all important skills for a point guard. But Gilgeous-Alexander’s performance in Vegas was encouraging.

Here, Gilgeous-Alexander used a hesitation dribble to get by Melton on his way to the rim. This is how it’ll have to be for SGA: he’s not explosive laterally or vertically, so changing pace will be necessary for him to score. SGA did have some difficulties finishing against length in Vegas, so there will obviously be a learning curve in the real games, but there has been some progress in terms of creating shots.

Gilgeous-Alexander still needs to extend his range, but his jumper is a bit smoother off the dribble. That’s a positive indicator considering his college season ended almost four months ago. His footwork also needs to be more consistent, but hopefully that’ll come in time. For now, the Clippers have to be feeling good about Gilgeous-Alexander’s future.

Svi Mykhailiuk’s New Moves

Mykhailiuk looked like a one-trick pony over his four seasons at Kansas: He could shoot, but his athletic limitations kept him from contributing much else on the floor. We’ll see. Mykhailiuk averaged 15 points and 38.8 percent from 3 over 10 games this summer for the Lakers, the eventual runners-up in Vegas. The 21-year-old didn’t just spot up or run off screens though. Mykhailiuk has emerged this summer as a ball handler who can at least attack for one- or two-dribble pull-ups and make the right pass within the flow of the offense.

My favorite activity in life right now is reading the YouTube comments on Mykhailiuk highlight videos. As user Chen Liu put it: “Klay Thompson is just [a] poor man’s Svi Mykhailiuk.” That’s not true, but the Ukrainian certainly wasn’t splashing filthy stepback 3s at Kansas:

Mykhailiuk’s not in Kansas anymore. He hit only 26 jumpers off the dribble over 1,346 minutes last season, per Synergy. This summer, over 243 minutes, he hit 14. ESPN’s Mike Schmitz pointed out that Mykhailiuk showed similar scoring flashes playing last summer at the U-20 European Championship, but he’s reached a new level since the collegiate season ended. Mykhailiuk’s newfound scoring may not translate to the regular season, but it’s hard for a no. 47 pick to impress any more than Mykhailiuk has with the Lakers.