The NBA Summer League has been the place where rookies shake off the rust, and where guys struggle to show they have the talent to make a roster. Saturday night’s Denver and Los Angeles game saw a slew of players that not even the most avid NBA fan could name, and by midway through the third quarter, featured a roster for both teams that featured mostly players that wouldn’t make an NBA roster in the fall.
But that’s the appeal of Summer League: everybody gets their chance. Players from all across the country get a look each year, with undrafted free agents being gobbled up to show off their skill-set. It works for many rookies, including many second-round talents who show they were worth the extra roster spot to keep them. In many cases, it gives the teams an idea of if they should be looking for another NBA-ready talent, or if they have a good building block.
Every star, regardless of where they come from, has started here. Some endure rocky beginnings, some show the signs right away. But either way, every player that’s come through the league has walked in those gyms in a hot July at some point or another. The symposium provides rookies with their first big stage, and allows a chance for an impression outside of the college highlights.
But that’s not the only purpose of Summer League. Each year, rookies, undrafted players, some free agents, and second-year players are eligible for the NBA Summer League. Each year, most established second-year players decide to sit Summer League out. It happened this summer, with Karl Anthony-Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, and Jahlil Okafor opted to stay at home, for reasons ranging from simply not wanting to go, to risking injuries playing in ultimately meaningless games.
But this year, some second-year players opted to go and test their skills, and in two cases, they have expanded their game to new heights on a stage where they are the top talents. Phoenix swingman Devin Booker and LA Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell have put their use of the Summer League to great use, with each capitalizing on their chance to showcase their growth from last season to this one.
Russell played fantastically, showcasing his ability as a leader on the floor, a trait he lacked considerably in his first season at the helm. Russell took the opportunity to grow with the new nucleus of teammates in Los Angeles with Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance, and the second round pick Zubac. The young core played well under Russell’s charge, and he was able to put on quite the show in limited action.
The 20-year-old upped his shooting number, averaging just under 22 ppg to go along with 7 assists and 4 rebounds, shooting 44% from the field. Russell was far more efficient than he showed in the regular season, and looked to come into his own from a physicality standpoint and with his shooting touch. Best of all, Russell showed he still has his ‘clutch gene’, burying a game winning shot at the buzzer against the 76ers.
Devin Booker put on perhaps more of a show in his second shot at summer ball, leading his Phoenix Suns to two wins in his two games of action. Booker put on a show, averaging 26 points on 60% from the three-point line, five rebounds and six assists. Booker was everything the Suns thought he’d be, lighting it up from downtown, and producing a shooting stroke that somehow was even better than his breakout stroke last season.
Known to be a shooter before Summer League, Booker’s done even better as a ball handler, being the go-to option up the floor and running the offense. On that end, Booker was able to show his improvement in the post, producing solid post work and putting himself in better situations to grab rebounds.
Booker was the main attraction in his limited action, and between he and Russell, the second-year stars proved why they were the cream of the crop from a year ago. Not everyone makes the leap that Russell and Booker has. The Lakers and Suns both seem to have solid center pieces to work with already talented rookie classes. For them to pan out, they’ll need the leadership of Russell and Booker.
But time will tell whether it’s a real jump, or just some solid play in scrimmage.