Early impressions of top rookies in NBA Summer League

Jay Asser 18:41 09/07/2017
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Ahead of the game: Jayson Tatum. Picture: Getty Images.

The NBA’s Summer League has never been easier to follow and as such, has never been more picked apart either.

While the exhibitions in Orlando, Utah and Las Vegas provide the first chance to watch the incoming batch of rookies, it’s important to keep perspective of how much these games mean – which is to say, not much.

Success or failure in the Summer League doesn’t guarantee anything when the real competition starts against NBA veterans, but it can certainly be useful to learn more about players.

As far as the top five overall picks in last month’s draft, we’ve now seen each one play at least one game. Here are the first impressions from how they’ve fared:

Markelle Fultz

Unfortunately, a high ankle sprain suffered last night could keep the number one overall draft pick on the shelf for the rest of Summer League and potentially longer.

Before exiting, Fultz logged 15 minutes in the Philadelphia 76ers’ 95-93 win over the Golden State Warriors and has averaged 16.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 21 minutes per game through three appearances.

His ability to score efficiently in his freshman season at Washington was the most appealing facet of his game and he’s put that on display for stretches this summer. More than anything, his smooth and controlled style has translated as he’s proved capable of getting to his spots on the floor.

Fultz’s shooting has been a concern as he’s knocked down 6-of-16 from long range, but his reliance on two-foot jumping – while far from a major deterrent – is something to keep an eye on as he tries to score on better, more athletic defenders when the real games start.

Lonzo Ball

After a disastrous debut, the most scrutinised prospect from this year’s draft class bounced back in his second showing.

Ball frankly couldn’t hit the ocean in his first appearance, shooting a paltry 2-of-15 from the field and 1-of-11 on 3-pointers. But many of those shots were either rushed due to the shot clock winding down, or just flat out difficult.

Playing with more control in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 86-81 loss to the Boston Celtics last night, Ball looked more like himself as he finished with a triple-double line of 11 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.

The points were again hard to come by as he converted 1-of-5 triples and 5-of-13 overall, but his passing helped make up for it.

The ball is rarely in the point guard’s hands for too long and his unselfishness results in opportunities most ball-handlers wouldn’t try to take advantage of. Maybe it’s giving Ball too much credit, but it feels like his passing is contagious, with his teammates getting in on the act of sharing, often without even taking a dribble.

With Ball, passing is never in question. His scoring, or lack of, on the other hand, is a little concerning.

He’s yet to show much in the way of slashing and finishing at the rim, choosing instead to pass out of drives to the basket. His shot, which has so far eluded him, hasn’t kept defences honest either.

Ball will have an impact in the league with his passing and feel for the game alone, but to be the kind of player the Lakers are hoping he can be, he’ll need to improve in other areas – and that’s not even getting into his defence.

Jayson Tatum

Undoubtedly, of all the rookies who’ve played, Tatum has been the most impressive early on.

Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge turned heads when he chose to trade down from the number one overall pick to number three, opting for the Duke wing over Fultz – the consensus top choice – but through four games, it’s easy to understand why.

Tatum has looked like a polished, All-Star scorer, showcasing a varied offensive arsenal that simply gets buckets.

The mid-range shot is a dying art in the NBA, but Tatum seems comfortable operating in that area, utilising impressive footwork and turnaround shots to nail tough jumpers with a hand in his face.

He’s also scored in isolations and by coming off curls, with his length helping him finish in traffic at the rim. That same length has allowed him to average 10.0 rebounds to go with his 20.7 points per game.

For a 19-year-old, Tatum already looks like he knows what he’s doing and understands what spots to attack from. It’s very early, but Ainge’s sentiment that he grabbed the best player in the draft could very well end up proving true.

Josh Jackson and De’Aaron Fox

The fourth and fifth overall selections went head-to-head in their first and so far only showing in the Summer League, impressing in their own ways.

Jackson and Fox are known for their defence and athleticism, but both poured in 18 points in the Phoenix Suns’ 89-85 win against the Sacramento Kings in the first day of Las Vegas competition.

While they combined to go 0-of-5 on 3-pointers, Jackson and Fox displayed an ability to attack inside the arc on mid-range shots, slashes and getting to the free throw line. Specifically, Fox wielded a step-back, while Jackson was aggressive in attack the rim.

It was an encouraging start to their Summer League campaigns as any consistent offence in their rookie year will be found money, considering the impact they can have on their respective teams with everything else they do.

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