NBA summer league: The best rookies so far

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NBA 2K23 Summer League kicked off Thursday night with a matchup between Orlando’s Paolo Banchero and Houston’s Jabari Smith Jr., the No. 1 and No. 3 picks, respectively, in last month’s NBA draft.

The Magic won 91-77 in the first meeting between two of the NBA’s most anticipated rookies, with Banchero notching 17 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists. Smith had a quieter night in his Rockets debut, finishing with 10 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists.

No. 5 overall pick Jaden Ivey made his debut with the Detroit Pistons, scoring a team-high 20 points en route to an 81-78 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. Blazers rookie Shaedon Sharpe, the No. 7 pick, had his debut cut short by a shoulder injury that ended his night after just six minutes.

The action continued Friday with several other rookies getting their first action in Vegas.

Which first-year players stood out? Our NBA insiders break down the rookies who stole the show through the first two days in Las Vegas.

NBA summer league 2022: One player to watch on every team


No. 1 vs. No. 3: Banchero and Smith meet for the first time

Banchero came into the NBA draft process billed as the most NBA-ready prospect in the class. Smith, on the other hand, oozes potential but turned 19 less than two months before draft night and was always going to need time to develop. When they took the court against each other Thursday night, both players proved those scouting reports — at least for one night — to be accurate.

Banchero, who looked every bit the 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds he’s listed at, used his size and physicality to get wherever he wanted on the court. He finished with 17 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists in 25 minutes. He played the way he likely will for Orlando next season: by serving as a de facto point guard in a power forward’s body.

He didn’t always get a lot of separation and has work to do defensively, and he admitted after the game he’s using summer league to get himself into shape, but even in a one-game sample it was easy to see what put him atop the draft.

Smith, on the other hand, is going to take a lot more time — and it showed. He was criticized at times last season at Auburn for not being assertive enough with his teammates in getting the ball, and that happened Thursday night.

But there’s plenty to like about his game. Smith’s high, quick release, combined with his 6-10 frame, has the potential to make him a serious spot-up shooting threat. In time, he could easily put on weight to expand his game like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and other young, projectable wings before him.

He competes hard on defense and has quick feet, which gives him significant upside at that end, as well.

Smith’s development is going to take time, particularly on a very young Rockets team with some inexperienced guards getting the lion’s share of the ballhandling minutes, led by last year’s No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green.

Two other significant rookies also stood out in this game: Houston’s Tari Eason (No. 17 overall) and Orlando’s Caleb Houstan (No. 32 overall).

Eason, a 6-8 forward from LSU, has the kind of rangy build that could make him an elite defensive wing. His 3-point shot, though, is going to take a lot of work to make him into a true 3-and-D player, and he did a lot of extra work on offense in this game that he won’t be doing in regular-season action.

Houstan, a former five-star recruit from Michigan who struggled as a freshman and fell out of the first round, is a very intriguing prospect. He finished with 20 points on 5-for-9 shooting from 3-point range in 28 minutes. The 6-foot-8 Houstan is the kind of long, athletic forward who could be a real find for Orlando if he develops into the player he was supposed to be before his lone collegiate season. — Tim Bontemps


Ivey and Duren shine for the Pistons

The Detroit Pistons came away from the NBA draft last month feeling like major winners after adding a pair of lottery picks — No. 5 overall pick Ivey and No. 13 overall pick Jalen Duren — to a budding young core centered around Cade Cunningham, last year’s top overall selection. Both Pistons fans and Cunningham, who watched from the sidelines, got their first glimpse at the duo during Thursday’s opener against the Portland Trail Blazers — from the opening play of the game.

On the first possession of the game, Ivey tossed an alley-oop toward the basket for Duren, who finished a two-handed dunk with authority.

Ivey scored a team-high 20 points with 6 rebounds and 6 assists while showcasing the athletic traits he brings to a Pistons backcourt that has a chance to be dynamic. Ivey zoomed past defenders with a quick first step and barreled toward the basket like a runaway train. However, his summer league debut was still a bit erratic, especially during the first half while he was trying to adjust to the speed of the game. He made some errant passes and ill-advised decisions that led to five turnovers and five fouls.

Duren, meanwhile, had been waiting all week for the draft night trade that brought him to Detroit to become official, and he was officially added to the roster the morning before the first game. Although the team kept him on a minutes restriction that limited him to 12 minutes, he made the most of his time on the court. Duren, who does not turn 19 until November, finished with nine points, a rebound and a pair of blocks. His size and vertical ability were so imposing that he looked far from the youngest player in last month’s draft.

There will certainly be growing pains with both rookies, but their debuts provided enough reasons for continued optimism about the future in Detroit. — Jamal Collier


Mathurin leads all scorers for the Pistons

Bennedict Mathurin, the Indiana Pacers‘ highest draft pick (No. 6) since Rik Smits in 1988, looked the part in his first summer appearance Friday against the Charlotte Hornets. Mathurin led all scorers with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting, knocking down three 3-pointers.

Mathurin’s ability to shoot the NBA 3 is the bedrock of his game entering the league. Opponents must respect Mathurin potentially pulling up off the dribble — one of his three makes was off the dribble in transition — which enhances his ability to create space as a driver. Mathurin leveraged that room to get off pull-up jumpers with a similarly smooth stroke.

I would like to see Mathurin develop his plan to attack hard closeouts. He dribbled in after one for a pull-up midrange attempt, the once-dominant NBA strategy that now has lost favor to a side step or one-dribble reset for an open 3-pointer. Mathurin’s athletic repertoire also includes the ability to drive closeouts and the leaping ability that saw him finish a transition lob off the backboard from 2021 Indiana first-round pick Chris Duarte with a powerful dunk.

At the defensive end of the court, Mathurin’s strong fame aids him as an on-ball defender. He could stand to be more active defensively off the ball.

On the other side, Hornets center Mark Williams faced more of a learning curve in his debut. Without a strong pick-and-roll point guard to set him up like he’ll have with LaMelo Ball during the regular season, Williams frequently caught the ball in the middle of the paint and struggled to finish. Williams, who shot 72% during the 2021-22 season at Duke, was 2-of-8 from the field. He did contribute eight rebounds and a pair of blocks in that span. — Kevin Pelton


Agbaji should give Cleveland fans hope for the future

Cleveland’s Ochai Agbaji scored 16 points in an encouraging summer league debut, but it’s how he did it that should have Cavs fans most excited. Twelve of Agbaji’s 16 points came from beyond the arc, and he proved to the NBA world that he could not only knock down catch-and-shoot 3s, but create his own looks from deep too, as he hit this NBA-ready step-back early in the first.

Abgaji looked confident in his debut, and he has good reasons for that — he arrived in Vegas with one of the best résumés of any rookie in his class. The 22-year-old shooting guard not only helped the Kansas Jayhawks win the NCAA title in April, but he was also named a first-team All-American and Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four. Those achievements owe a lot to the simple fact this rookie played a ton of college hoops — he was the only senior drafted in the first round this season, and the oldest lottery pick in this year’s draft.

Still, the Cavs are hoping Agbaji’s best days are still ahead of him and that he can help this group improve its offensive efficiency. Last season, the Cavs ranked fifth in the league in defense but just 20th in offense, thanks in part to a mediocre output from beyond the arc.

Agbaji has the potential to become an elite 3-point scorer, and his debut didn’t do anything but support that claim. He took nine 3s in his first game as a pro, making four of them. If he can add some perimeter strength to this Cavs core that already features Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, Cleveland’s future is only getting brighter. — Kirk Goldsberry

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