Many of the biggest young stars sat out, but that only allowed other first-year players to unexpectedly shine.
NBA Summer League lost its main attraction when Zion Williamson exited with a knee injury just nine minutes into his debut for the New Orleans Pelicans. Williamson wasn’t the only top draft pick to miss time in Las Vegas: Ja Morant, Jarrett Culver, Darius Garland, and Cameron Reddish were all top-10 picks who never suited up because of injuries or trade technicalities.
Despite a lack of star power, Summer League again provided a showcase for young players looking to make a name for themselves. You don’t need to be a first-round pick to stand out in Vegas, as second rounders like Carsen Edwards and Iggy Brazdeikis, as well as undrafted free agent Terence Davis proved.
These are the 11 most impressive rookies we saw in Summer League, ranked from last to first.
11. Coby White, G, Chicago Bulls
White was ice cold for most of Summer League. He ended his four-game run shooting 33 percent from the field and just 3-of-30 from three-point range. The Bulls hope the sample he showed in college (92nd percentile on spot-ups, 35 percent from three) is more indicative of the type of shooter he’ll be at the start of his career. White also struggled to score at the rim over NBA length, failing to generate enough power to absorb and finish through contact. He simply won’t be an effective player unless his jumper is falling.
It wasn’t all bad for White. He demonstrated his signature ability to play with pace, getting the Chicago offense in position to score early in the shot clock. His open-floor ball handling was particularly impressive and an extension of what he showed at North Carolina. White also made some nifty passes to finish with a 28 percent assist rate in Vegas, like this lefty kick out for a three:
10. R.J. Barrett, G, New York Knicks
Barrett put up some big numbers, but struggled with efficiency, showing many of the same strengths and weaknesses he had at Duke. The same criticism he drew in college for tunnel vision and poor shot selection followed him to Las Vegas, manifested by a lowly 47.6 percent true shooting percentage through four games. Barrett regularly missed open teammates with the ball in his hands and tried to force his own offense rather than making the easy play. He has a long way to go with his decision making before he can successfully initiate offense at the NBA level on a consistent basis.
The silver lining for Knicks fans is that Barrett did get better every game, ending his run in Vegas with a 21-10-8 line in a win vs. the Wizards. Just 19 years old, Barrett is already strong enough physically to finish through contact and get to the foul line. He was also able develop a rapport with second-year center Mitchell Robinson in the pick-and-roll, using the threat of his scoring to set up his teammate for dunks and lay-ins. Barrett is far from a finished product, but he still has the tools for a bright future if he can improve his decision making and perimeter shooting.
9. Rui Hachimura, F, Washington Wizards
Hachimura scored at Gonzaga and he scored again in Summer League, averaging 19.3 points per game on 59 percent true shooting over three games in Vegas. Hachimura does his best work from mid-range, showing soft touch on his jumper out to 18-feet while also having the strength to create separation and finish through contact. He played one of the best games of any rookie in Summer League, finishing with 25 points and nine rebounds on 9-of-12 shooting against the Hawks.
The question with Hachimura is what he brings to the table outside of scoring. He had only two assists through 95 minutes in Vegas, failing to leverage his scoring ability to make his teammates better. He also didn’t provide much resistance defensively, struggling with his rotations and getting only one steal (it’s worth noting he did have five blocks). Hachimura is talented enough to put up numbers as a rookie on what’s likely to be a miserable Wizards team, but his impact on winning remains a major question mark until he improves as a passer and defender.
8. Terence Davis, G, Toronto Raptors
Davis had a scorching first game in Las Vegas for the Nuggets, which was enough to earn him a guaranteed contract from the Raptors after he declined two-way offers from a number of teams.
Despite going undrafted as a senior out of Ole Miss, Davis has the physicality and scoring instincts to carve out an NBA career. A 6’4 guard with a strong frame and explosive athleticism, Davis consistently filled the box score through his three Summer League games, finishing with 18.3 points, six rebounds, and five assists per game on a sparkling 61 percent true shooting percentage. He also showed range on his jump shot (41.7 percent on eight attempts per game), impressed as a passer (31.2 percent assist rate), and continued to make plays defensively. He should have an opportunity in Toronto to continue rounding out his game.
7. Iggy Brazdeikis, G, New York Knicks
Brazdeikis was the Knicks’ most consistent and efficient scorer throughout Summer League, averaging 18 points per game on 67.4 percent true shooting. He was on fire from the three-point line, going 11-of-19 (58 percent) from behind the arc. Brazdeikis exudes confidence on the offense end, attacking the rim against slower defenders and never being afraid to let his jumper fly if he has a sliver of space.
Ignas Brazdeikis went off in the NBA Summer League for the Knicks:— Michigan in the NBA (@NBAMichigan) July 8, 2019
3-5 3PT FG
2 assists pic.twitter.com/lxn8ZGwqTy
Brazdeikis even made some nice passes in Vegas, which is considered one of the biggest areas of improvement in his game, finishing with 10 total assists. His ability to score over length at the rim remains a question, but the Knicks have found themselves a steal in the second round as long as Iggy continues to hit his jumpers.
6. Carsen Edwards, G, Boston Celtics
Edwards is a special shooter. It isn’t just his accuracy that’s impressive, it’s his volume and his shot versatility. The Celtics’ guard splashed threes in every conceivable way, whether he was pulling up out of the pick-and-roll as the lead initiator, or whipping around screens and draining threes as a catch-and-shoot threat. Edwards took nine threes per game and made 46.7 percent of them. He ended his run in Las Vegas averaging 19.4 points per game on 64 percent true shooting.
Edwards slipped to the top of the second round because he lacks the facilitating chops to play as a traditional point guard and will always be one of the shortest players on the floor at 6’1. It won’t matter if he keeps shooting like this. The Celtics must feel like they got a major steal with the No. 33 overall pick.
5. Tyler Herro, G, Miami Heat
Herro has a chance to be an excellent complementary piece for the Heat. The No. 13 overall pick showed his unique skill as a shooter in Vegas, firing off 8.5 threes per game with smooth pull-ups in transition, off dribble handoffs, and whenever a defender went under a screen. While Herro only made 33.3 percent of his attempts, he did make 96 percent of his free throws. His looks are going to start falling soon. Even the shots that didn’t go in looked good.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Herro’s performance was how impressive he looked in other areas. He was able to score on the fastbreak, he made some smart passes, and held his own defensively. He should fit well in the Miami backcourt next to Jimmy Butler.
4. Grant Williams, F, Boston Celtics
Williams became a cult favorite during the draft process but still slipped all the way to No. 22. Opposing teams are going to regret the day they let the Celtics get him. Williams averaged 13 points, six rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in Vegas, but his impact went far beyond the numbers. Despite being one of the country’s most prolific scorers at Tennessee, Williams has a skill set to be an effective NBA role player.
He showed this on the defensive end by making crisp rotations and forcing turnovers:
Grant Williams causing turnovers by just being a brick wall pic.twitter.com/IdMSLrjeAk— Basketball Society (@bbsociety_) July 6, 2019
He also did it offensively by showing rare ability to read the floor and pass on the move for a front court player:
Grant Williams excites me a lot. This is a 6'7", 240lb forward initiating pick-and-roll, making the correct read off of a hard gap stunt and with the awareness to relocate and hit an open three.— Andrew Kurzeja (@AndrewKurzeja) July 7, 2019
This is not normal. #NBASummerLeague #Celtics pic.twitter.com/56M64p8SkW
Williams also went 7-of-19 from three, good for 37 percent. If he can keep shooting it like that (he hit 32 percent of his threes last season for the Vols), Boston is going to have a big-time player.
3. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, G, New Orleans Pelicans
Alexander-Walker was the most productive rookie in Vegas. The No. 17 overall pick put his dribble-pass-shoot skill set on full display, averaging 24.5 points, six assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game while hitting 40.6 percent of his threes. Alexander-Walker was also terrific at using his length to cause havoc defensively with nearly three steals per game. The Pelicans have a 6’5 guard who should be able to play well off Zion Williamson on both ends of the court.
So why is he only No. 3? He still shot just 41.2 percent from the field with 54 percent true shooting, struggling at times to score efficiently inside the arc. His last game in Vegas tanked his percentages when he went 5-of-23 against the Grizzlies. Beyond that, it’s no surprise Alexander-Walker shined against lesser competition. His lack of explosiveness will be an issue against more athletic NBA players. Still, this was a tremendous debut.
2. Jaxson Hayes, C, New Orleans Pelicans
The term “elite athlete” gets thrown around a lot during the draft process, but it absolutely fits for Hayes. It’s not just his incredible run-and-jump ability, but also his rare coordination and great hands he developed as a former high school wide receiver and the son of a long-time NFL tight end. He put it all on the display to create the best highlight of Summer League.
Whether he’s pushing the break himself or cleaning up for his teammates, there is no precedent for Hayes’ open floor ability as a 7-footer. His production is already showing signs of matching his physical tools. After leading all of DI in true shooting percentage as a freshman at Texas, Hayes again scored efficiently in Vegas
It may take a couple years before Hayes is able to make an impact at the NBA level. He needs to add strength — particularly in his lower body — to handle traditional bigs in the paint. When it happens, there is no telling how high his ceiling might be.
1. Brandon Clarke, F, Memphis Grizzlies
Clarke delivered one of the most statistically dominant college basketball seasons of the decade at Gonzaga, so it should be no surprise he was also brilliant in Summer League. Clarke plays with breathtaking bounce on both ends of the floor, and knows how to deploy it effectively and efficiently. He thrives scoring around the basket as the dive man in the pick-and-roll and thinks a step ahead of everyone else defensively. He even hit 5-of-9 three-pointers in Vegas, which was considered the biggest hole in his game as a draft prospect.
Clarke averaged 14.6 points and 9.8 rebounds on 64 percent true shooting as his team’s primary option on the way to a Summer League championship. He’ll be even better surrounded by the rest of the Grizzlies’ excellent young core, where he should excel in the two-man game with Ja Morant and provide double-barrel rim protection next to Jaren Jackson Jr. The future is bright in Memphis.