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It’s always difficult to decide how to assess NBA rookies’ summer league performances. It’s never wise to overreact, but in some cases, it’s only natural to develop a hot take you can’t help but buy into.
A handful come to mind after watching 2018’s draft picks for the first time in their new uniforms.
These are newly established beliefs and predictions that would have sounded irrational on June 21.
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Deandre Ayton was the No. 1 pick. He wouldn’t have been if Bleacher Report were running the show for the Phoenix Suns. B/R had both Luka Doncic and Jaren Jackson Jr. ranked ahead. But after summer league, it’s become easier to picture Jackson emerging as the class’ most valuable player long-term.
He picked up where he left off at Michigan State by making 14 of 28 three-pointers and blocking 3.3 shots in just 24.9 minutes per game. Ayton didn’t take a three and totaled four rejections in 107 minutes.
Jackson’s strengths are valued more in today’s NBA, and though he’s not as sharp as Ayton is scoring from the free-throw line to the block, the Grizzlies rookie hasn’t turned 19 years old yet.
We’ve still seen enough flashes of spin moves off the dribble and back-to-the-basket work that point to improvement coming over the next few seasons.
Jackson is already the clear-cut superior shooter and defender. But given his age, tools and foundational skill set, he should be the more enticing prospect compared to Ayton, or even Doncic, Marvin Bagley III, Trae Young, Mohamed Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr.
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Marvin Bagley III didn’t have an encouraging summer league. He shot 33.3 percent from the floor. Hot take: It wasn’t just a few bad games.
There was a reason Bleacher Report had him No. 6 before the draft and not No. 2 like the Sacramento Kings. But even No. 6 could have been too generous.
There are legitimate concerns about Bagley’s weaknesses and fit.
He struggles to create his own shot unless it’s a basic over-the-shoulder post-up, which NBA teams are moving away from, since they’re typically contested two-pointers.
Shooting isn’t a strength, either. His 62.7 percent free-throw mark at Duke was more indicative than his 23-of-58 three-point numbers. Bagley doesn’t shoot a soft ball, and he missed nine of his 10 attempts from deep in summer league.
He isn’t skilled enough now to be a perimeter player. And he lacks the strength, length and footwork to be considered a quality option to feature inside the arc.
Throw in the fact he was a notoriously inadequate defender in college (2.6 block percentage), lacking the wingspan to compensate for his poor instincts, and Bagley suddenly appears to have as much bust potential as any top pick.
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Mitchell Robinson skipped college and the NBA combine. He didn’t play organized ball for a year, and scouts hadn’t seen him outside workout settings since the 2017 Jordan Brand Classic (15 points, 7-of-7 FG). They should have rolled the dice anyway.
He led all of summer league in player efficiency rating (minimum four games), and now the question is, just how big of a steal did the New York Knicks get?
Hot take: He’ll be better than two Top Six bigs in Marvin Bagley III and Mohamed Bamba.
Despite missing a season’s worth of action, Robinson proved his athleticism and timing haven’t gone anywhere. He set a record dating back to 2004, blocking 4.0 shots per game in just 24.7 minutes, per RealGM.com.
We’ve already established that Bagley will have trouble in the pros. And while Bamba has the chance to be special, Robinson brings a whole new level of explosiveness, power and energy in the paint.
His 14.0 percent block rate and 21.3 rebounding percentage blew away Bamba’s (9.4 percent BLK, 14.1 percent REB). He didn’t take jumpers in Las Vegas, but Robinson still averaged 13.0 points on 66.7 percent from the field.
Robinson has a better chance to be Clint Capela 2.0 than Bamba does to be the next Rudy Gobert.
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It looks like Kevin Knox was misused at Kentucky based on what he showed during summer league, where he averaged 21.3 points.
It became clear that he’s far more threatening off the dribble than initially expected. Knox went from an off-ball role to the Knicks’ featured player, and it helped illuminate strengths that were masked in college.
At 6’9″, 212 pounds, Knox blends power forward size with guard skills, specifically the ability to face up and attack, shoot off the dribble and knock down threes. He’s big and athletic, loaded with scoring versatility that hints at a combo-forward mismatch down the road.
And he hasn’t turned 19 years old yet.
Knox went No. 9, and there will still be a handful of teams in the top eight who’ll regret overlooking him as an option.
A Rookie of the Year sleeper, the Knicks’ newest cornerstone is going to emerge as one of the draft’s top players over others who received far more hype prior to the 2018 draft.
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The Phoenix Suns had the No. 16 pick, but then they traded it, plus an unprotected first-rounder in 2021, to acquire Mikal Bridges, who was taken No. 10 by the Philadelphia 76ers. This will come back to bite them.
Bridges, who turns 22 years old in August, had a quiet summer league (6.2 points per game) as he struggled to find scoring chances. He attempted six two-pointers in five games. And with Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, TJ Warren, Josh Jackson and now Trevor Ariza, Bridges could continue to have trouble getting the looks and reps he needs to take the next step as a scorer.
Meanwhile, Zhaire Smith, one of the draft’s elite athletes, just turned 19 years old in June. His first season or two in the league won’t be as crucial as they are for the elder Bridges.
But it’s that unprotected pick the Suns will regret giving up. Unless Ayton suddenly changes everything for a team that ranked last in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per ESPN.com, or the front office brings in a star free agent, Phoenix seems unlikely to break free from the bottom of the West anytime soon.
2021 sounds far away, but it’s going to come and the Suns will watch as the 76ers pick for them in the lottery.