The 2017 NBA Summer League is proving to be the most exciting one ever. In part this is because the NBA has moved toward being a year-round source of entertainment, and fans are more interested during the summer than they once were. It’s also thanks to the fact that the 2017 draft class looks to be among the best and most exciting in decades, and this is fans’ first chance to see new players in action with the teams that drafted them.
The star power out on the summer courts is undeniable. On display are Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox, and the list goes on. Last week, the Lakers and Celtics actually sold out a Vegas game —something that had never happened before, at least before game time. The game had the atmosphere of a high-level college match, and the action on the court didn’t disappoint. Even crazier is that a lot of Summer League games have felt this way.
It’s undeniable at this point that this rookie class is going to generate a lot of attention for a long time to come. Because of that, and because of the intoxicating excitement of this year’s summer ball, we wanted to highlight some of the most intriguing rookies, given combinations of talent, fit, and performance so far.
Lonzo Ball (Lakers) – Heading into the draft, Ball was most famous thanks to the antics of his publicity-seeking father LaVar. For better or worse, those antics have worked out, and Lonzo now commands the biggest spotlight in the rookie class. But it’s also looking like the kid can play. His unique command of the game and distribution ability have led him to double-digit assists in multiple games already, and on Wednesday night he had 36 points. Stats in Summer League are often meaningless, but Ball looks capable of living up to the hype and guiding the Lakers into a promising future.
Dennis Smith (Mavericks) – Once arguably the top guard in his class, Dennis Smith had to overcome a serious knee injury in high school to get back on track. Even then, he was ranked as the ninth best player in the class last summer, and even a campaign as ACC Freshman of the Year couldn’t elevate him much higher. He was drafted ninth by the Mavericks, who will give him the chance to run the team on day one. So far he just might be the best rookie in Summer League.
Jasyon Tatum (Celtics) – If Smith hasn’t been the best rookie, it’s been Jayson Tatum. The new Celtics wing out of Duke has drawn comparisons to everyone from Paul Pierce to Kobe Bryant in unleashing his mature offensive arsenal on the rest of Summer League. What makes him so interesting isn’t just his raw ability—rather, it’s the Celtics’ rotation. The team has four players (Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder, and the newly acquired Gordon Hayward) who would ideally play small forward. It’ll be fascinating to see where Tatum works his way in and what the team’s rotation winds up looking like.
Donovan Mitchell (Jazz) – Mitchell is the only other player who can enter the conversation with Tatum and Smith as the best performer among the rookies. He came out of a stellar career at Louisville and was highly regarded as a versatile guard with both scoring and defensive talents. However, Louisville has a history of great college guards struggling in the pros, so Mitchell’s excellent performance might be a surprise to some. With Hayward having left the Jazz to join the Celtics, Mitchell should get some early opportunities to shine.
Josh Hart (Lakers) – Now we’re getting into some lesser performers who are still interesting. Josh Hart is a veteran in every sense of the word, and was one of the reasons the Villanova Wildcats were hotly tipped to retain their crown heading into last year’s NCAA Tournament. That didn’t work out for Villanova, but Hart was drafted by the Lakers seemingly to add a mature touch to a young but exciting team. His stats haven’t jumped off the sheet at Summer League, but he’s looked very comfortable against professional competition, and could be one of the pleasant surprises of the class.
Jordan Bell (Warriors) – Bell was tabbed by a lot of writers and analysts heading into the draft as a potential sleeper, and just the kind of high-energy defensive forward that makes a difference on contenders in the modern NBA. So it was frustrating for a lot of fans when the Warriors essentially bought Bell from the Bulls on draft night. So far he’s performing as expected, notching impressive rebounding and blocking numbers in heavy Summer League minutes. It’s hard to imagine a true rookie getting too much opportunity for a team as stacked as Golden State, but Bell is playing well enough to make an impact, and could make the defending champions even better.
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