July 19, 2012; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) drives in the first half of the game against the Atlanta Hawks at the Cox Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Damian Lillard was clearly the standout rookie on the 2012 Summer League circuit, but who else was impressive? We rank the 52 drafted rookies that took part in the competition in either Orlando or Las Vegas.
The 2012 NBA Summer League circuit is over, and while it's far too early to accurately judge the trajectory of all these players' careers, it was instructive to see the members of the 2012 rookie class play for the first time. A great Summer League doesn't guarantee greatness, nor does a bad Summer League guarantee disappointment. Nevertheless, we now have a better idea of what these guys can do for their teams once the games start counting.
All in all, 52 players selected in the 2012 NBA Draft participated in Orlando or Las Vegas. Two first-round picks didn't play, as No. 1 overall selection Anthony Davis is in London with Team USA, and No. 24 pick Jared Cunningham never suited up for the Mavericks. Five second-round picks were draft-and-stash international players that never put on a uniform. The other 52 drafted rookies, though, did suit up.
Seems kind of natural to rank all of them, right? Let's begin.
The obvious headliner of this class this summer.
1. Damian Lillard, Blazers
He was the co-MVP of Summer League, and it was well deserved. There's just so much to like about Lillard. On the surface, he piles in points, displays great on-court leadership and has such high character that any franchise would be happy to prop him up on billboards and in front of season ticket holders. But there are also so many subtleties to his game that the hardcore fan can appreciate.
For one thing, he already has an incredible sense of timing on the court. Most young point guards play at one speed because that's all they've needed to dominate their lower levels. Lillard, though, has already figured out how to shift rapidly from second gear to sixth gear, keeping his knees bent and his dribble low at all times so he can explode at any time.
He's a score-first player, but he never forces drives. He got trapped often in Vegas, in particular against the Denver Nuggets, but instead of dribbling too quickly to one spot on the court or getting rattled, he held off the trap with his quickness and patiently waited for just the right opening when his teammate would be open and in rhythm to fire. Some players take a decade to master that art. Lillard, despite being more of a scoring point guard, already has it down.
It's also amazing to see just how well he finishes against the trees. There are two reasons for this, and both of them are incredible given his age and experience against high-level competition in college. For one, not only is he capable jumping off one foot and off two feet, but he knows when to do each. He understands when he needs to use the one-foot jump to take advantage of a quick opening that will soon close, and he also understands when he needs the momentum of both feet to power through defenders and avoid the shot block. For another, his upper body strength is well-developed, allowing him to keep his attention on the rim even as his shoulders are being battered. His body control in the air reminds me of a young Gilbert Arenas.
It'll be interesting to see how he fares against NBA athletes that have scouted his game. He displayed an obvious tendency of dribbling to his left when he drove to the basket, and I suspect the defenders he faces in the league will understand and engulf that tendency more than his opponents in Summer League did. In addition, his jump shot, while effective, was often a bit flat.
But those are incredibly specific concerns, the kind that should dog point guards who are 26 and have already been in the league for several years, not a 22-year old rookie. This kid is absolutely special, and the Blazers are very lucky to have him.
The three best rookies besides Lillard.
He played just one game, but he so thoroughly dominated it that the Bobcats really saw all they needed to see. There was no point risking further injury to his knee after he controlled the defense and the tempo of the game in a blowout win over the Kings.
Given his size, length and offensive skill level, it's amazing he slipped to 14th in the draft. We know Henson is a bit skinny, but if that's the biggest knock on him, it's not much of a knock at all. His frame can certainly support more weight.
Three things in particular stood out to me with Henson's play. The first was his offensive skill level, particularly in the low post. Honestly, I didn't know that he was so proficient hitting left-handed hook shots. At his size, that was unblockable. The second was his perimeter shot, which was on point all week. He took that shot often last year, but he didn't make an incredibly high percentage, which dragged down his true shooting percentage. In the pros, though, he should be money hitting the 18-footer off pick and pops.
Finally, his defensive discipline was superb. Henson committed just five personal fouls all week, a staggeringly low number for a young big man playing in the tightly-called Summer League style. Sometimes, this discipline was mistaken for lack of effort, but I think that's unfair to Henson. Considering his length, it's more valuable for him to contest shots than fly around the court blocking them. In particular, he displayed that skill guarding Jared Sullinger in the Bucks' win over the Celtics.
He's not technically a member of this draft class, but the 2011 first-round pick will play a huge role for the Rockets next season. His skill level for a man his size is off the charts, as he flashed a beautiful jump hook with either hand and a strong perimeter game. He has an acute sense of timing on pick and rolls, knowing exactly when to slip the play to go to the basket and when to hold his position. He had a reputation for being a weak rebounder and defender, but I didn't really notice that very much.
Ten years ago, Motiejunas' slight frame would have doomed him. He would have been considered soft, and his coach probably would have buried him on the bench. In today's NBA, though, his agility, combined with his skill level around the basket, makes him incredibly valuable.
Four players who will play a major role for their teams right away.
5. Jeremy Lamb, Rockets
It looks like he'll end up being the best shooter in this draft. Despite his slender frame, he has no issues getting on balance, wherever he is on the floor. Given his size, he will be lethal running off baseline screens and spotting up in corners. He also has a reputation for being a poor passer, but I saw several nice reads when he popped up from the baseline. It'll be interesting to see if he can shed the bad habit of dancing around side-to-side too much on pick and rolls. That's about the only weakness I noticed in his game.
Still not understanding how he went four picks after Terrence Ross.
He didn't shoot the ball all that well, and he clearly grew more fatigued as the week went along, but I imagine the Wizards are happy with what they saw. He's such a versatile player, and he never loses his cool during a game. Any coach has to be thrilled knowing they can use a 19 year old in so many different ways without worrying that he will lose his rhythm. He flashed the ability to run pick and roll, get out on the break, spot up and come off pindowns.
One potential weakness: his lack of size sometimes hurt him in getting shots off, as well as making the right passing reads on pindowns.
7. Terrence Jones, Rockets
The only reason I have him this low is that he came off the bench in every game, meaning he did most of his damage against tired starters or second-stringers. He also put in a ton of garbage-time points, particularly against the Wizards in the Rockets' second game. But he's also a legitimate isolation threat at the power forward position, able to use his shot fake, perimeter skills and body strength to get to where he wants to go on the court. Assuming he continues to develop, he could be outstanding at punishing the slow-rotating big man in pick and pop situations.
Probably the best draft prospect among the eight teams that played in Orlando. His play fell off a bit as the week went along, and he still needs to improve defensively, but he's tremendously skilled for his size and can fit in posting up smaller players or running pick and pop with any point guard. He reminds me a lot of David West.
Five players selected after the 20th pick who should be in their teams' rotation.
9. Jae Crowder, Mavericks
The phrase "he's a basketball player" is so overused, but there's simply no other way to describe Crowder's game. He just finds a way to make an impact in so many different areas on both ends of the floor. He can act as an off-ball cutter because he understands space so well, but he can also handle the ball and make plays with his passing. Defensively, he has an acute sense of help principles, positioning his body in the perfect spot when he's defending the weak side. Combine all that with a better-than-expected shooting stroke (he shot 37 percent on threes), and he really has a complete all-court game despite his size.
As crazy as it sounds, the player he most reminds me of is his current teammate, Shawn Marion. Crowder isn't as explosive athletically, but like Marion, he finds ways to make an impact despite being a poor one-on-one player and not possessing an elite outside shot.
10. Evan Fournier, Nuggets
It's too bad there aren't a lot of minutes available in Denver because I'd like to see Fournier's style in the Nuggets' wide-open system. I really like how he attacks in straight lines, covering lots of ground in a short amount of time when defenders close out on his shot. The Nuggets thrive on attacking closeouts, and Fournier is very good at that skill. He also shot the ball better than I expected given his play overseas.
11. Doron Lamb, Bucks
If you switched their jerseys, you wouldn't have noticed much of a difference between Lamb and Beal. Beal's the better playmaker, but Lamb is no slouch himself. The Bucks will be able to use him coming off baseline screens, and he's a willing enough passer to find his big man or run a pick and roll if the shot isn't there. His three-point shot deserted him a bit as the week went along, but he found points by being opportunistic with his two-point shots. If he can continue to improve as a pick and roll player, he'll be a real steal.
He's one-dimensional, but boy is he proficient at that one dimension. He spent most of the week curling off screens and taking long jumpers, but he still managed to shoot over 50 percent from the field. He was especially impressive going against aggressive defenders like Washington's Bradley Beal and Dallas' Dominique Jones. Despite being undersized, he has a hyper-quick release, much like former Hornets star Dell Curry. I look forward to tracking his development, especially with Kyle Korver as a mentor.
13. Jeff Taylor, Bobcats
Already an elite defender, Taylor is a perfect fit in new coach Mike Dunlap's system. He is extremely quick sliding his feet, and he has great length to contest shots. In a full-court game, Taylor will thrive. He also flashed a pretty good three-point stroke, as well as a nice shot-fake, dribble pull-up game. The shots didn't always go down, but he was making all the right plays. He reminded me a lot of Thabo Sefolosha, except with better three-point capabilities.
Five big men who won't be stars, but should have long careers
It's not quite clear whether Zeller is a small center or big power forward, but his skill set practically defines what the modern big man should be. He has a proficient jumper out to 18 feet, runs the floor like a gazelle and is willing to mix it up inside. He reminds me a lot of P.J. Brown, who stayed in the league a long time because he was reliable and played to his strengths.
Zeller had some moments where he struggled, and it's not entirely clear how he fits into Cleveland's frontcourt with Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson around, but Cavaliers fans have to be encouraged by his play all week.
15. Jared Sullinger, Celtics
The Celtics have employed plenty of wide bodies on their second unit over the years, and Sullinger seems poised to follow in their footsteps. He's very good at forcing contact when facing up a defender in the mid-post area, and that will be his bread and butter in the pros. I also liked him shooting perimeter shots, even if he did get a bit trigger-happy from beyond the arc. He'll need to hit those shots to increase his value as a pick and pop player, so there's no reason to be shy.
On the flip side, he often did struggle with length, particularly against Andre Drummond and Henson.
16. Royce White, Rockets
No big man is more skilled, as you could honestly argue that he was the best passer of any position in Las Vegas. Combine that with his excellent rebounding skills, and White should intrigue his coach enough to play him. He does have to get in better shape, though, and he got caught too far underneath the basket many times when trying to score. He's so unique that he needs to grow into his gifts, and that will be a challenge when it's not entirely clear what role he occupies on the court.
17. Meyers Leonard, Blazers
He reminds me of Joel Przybilla, and I promise that's a compliment. He's big, and he already knows how to use his size well, whether it's setting a screen, defending the paint or controlling the defensive boards. His overly mechanical movements probably will ensure that he'll never be a major offensive threat, but if he can stick to his strengths, he should have a long career. I was especially impressed with the chemistry he developed with Lillard while running pick and roll.
He kind of blew me away, to be honest, with his ability to rebound and finish inside in Orlando. I expected him to be outclassed by his peers, but he actually managed to show that he could replicate the role Lou Amundson filled last season. He's obviously limited, but he already has a keen understanding of what he does well, and that's going to keep him in the league.
VERY GOOD IN THEIR ROLE
Two wings that will be role players for their teams right away, but may not advance past that stage.
The most impressive thing about Barnes, to me, is how easily he scores in transition, whether it's filling the lane or spotting up beyond the arc. Because of that, he'll find points even when he's not engaged otherwise. I just felt like there were too many times where he wasn't doing much in a half-court set, and that was exactly the knock on him coming out of college. He is supremely athletic when running at full speed, but he didn't demonstrate to me that he made any progress in creating good shot opportunities for himself or teammates off the dribble. Maybe that's not necessary in Golden State, but it still left me with a sour taste in my mouth.
20. Terrence Ross, Raptors
If the Raptors see Ross as more of a "3/D" guy that camps out on the perimeter to space the floor and plays strong one-on-one defense, then they should be encouraged by his play in Vegas. You could see him playing with DeMar DeRozan or Landry Fields, occupying a complimentary role while making an impact for his team.
I just feel like the No. 8 pick should have shown a bit more than that. He had major issues getting into the paint off the dribble, forcing him to fire up a bunch of errant jumpers. For the Raptors to get him a scoring opportunity, they had to hope a defender helped off him or that he could free himself using the maze of screens set up for him. His defense was impressive, and he'll be used next season, but I was frankly disappointed in his inability to get to the hoop.
CHANCE TO BE USEFUL
Five second-round picks who should stick.
21. Will Barton, Blazers
In his first three games, he made all the right moves, but had issues finishing the play around the basket. All that changed in the final two games, as Barton scored 21 against the Nuggets and 27 with Lillard sitting against the Heat. Despite his slight frame and so-so jumper, he has a knack for getting all the way to the basket, whether he's operating with the ball in his hands or off a cut. He must gain more strength to consistently finish off his opportunities, but that should come in time.
22. Tyshawn Taylor, Nets
Much like he did at Kansas, Taylor was often erratic and struggled to generate many assists. But he also found a way to make plays, and defensively, he was outstanding. Something tells me he'll fit in quite well with Avery Johnson's fiery personality.
23. Bernard James, Mavericks
Given his experience in the armed forces, it's not a surprise that James often played like a man among boys inside. He's a bit slight in his frame, but he threw his weight around enough to average nine rebounds per game in just 26 minutes per contest. He has pretty nice touch around the rim as well, and as long as you can rebound and score on your putback attempts, there's a place for you in the league.
Didn't get as many opportunities to showcase his game as I would have liked, but he was lights out from three-point range and did a nice job playing off his teammates. There will be some games where he makes a very small impact because his teammates don't find him, but when they did, he generally seemed to make the right play. I don't foresee him having too many issues adjusting to the longer three-point line.
25. Kyle O'Quinn, Magic
He's clearly limited, but he also played like the biggest dude on the court in every one of his games, and that has to count for something. Most famously, he made Andre Drummond look small when the Magic squared off against Detroit. I'm not sure how well he'll hold up defensively, and I was a bit disappointed when looking at his final rebounding totals, but he's big, physical and takes up space. That'll keep him in this league for a long time.
Five players who showed flashes, but must continue to transition their games to this level.
26. Andre Drummond, Pistons
Drummond started his week in Orlando slowly, getting shoved around inside by O'Quinn in a game against the Magic, but he came on nicely by the end of the week. Given how raw he is, the types of performances he put up in games against the Thunder and Celtics were very encouraging. Drummond altered plenty of shots in the Celtics game in particular and did a really nice job holding Sullinger down. He still has a long way to go, but the Pistons have to be happy he at least showed some flashes.
If Marshall plays the entire week like he did in the Suns' finale against the Grizzlies, he'd be near the top of this list. In that game, he was attacking the paint and making plays off his own penetration. In the other three games, though, he was content to play air-traffic controller, going three-point line to three-point line and letting his teammates do the rest.
Fifteen years ago, a point guard could sit on the perimeter zipping passes to more athletic players so they can do the heavy lifting. They can't do that anymore, though, because defenses will stop treating them as an offensive threat. For Marshall to succeed in the NBA, he must act as if he can score, because then the defenses will think he can score. If he is aggressive in that way, it'll make his fantastic passing have more of an impact.
28. Tony Wroten, Grizzlies
Wroten had his moments, in particular his splendid 19-point, eight-rebound, six-assist debut against the New York Knicks. There's clearly a lot of talent here, and the Grizzlies were smart to pick him as late as they did. However, there were many other times when he clearly seemed to struggle with not being able to have the ball in his hands as frequently as he did with Washington. Predictably, his perimeter touch, which was so good against the Knicks, deserted him the rest of the week. He still needs to put in a lot of work on his jump shot.
29. Perry Jones III, Thunder
We didn't see him play much in Orlando because of an injury, but when he did play, Jones III was as much of an enigma as he was at Baylor. When given the chance to go one-on-one with the floor cleared, Jones III looked as impressive as any prospect in this draft. Otherwise, though, he floated, unable to impact the game when the conditions weren't perfectly in his favor. The Thunder know he's a project, though, so they're probably not too concerned.
30. Austin Rivers, Hornets
The transition to point guard might very well work out, but it certainly won't be easy. Rivers played in just two games, but in both of those contests, he played tentatively, trying too hard to make the right play instead of being aggressive. Rivers generally does a nice job of running his man into the pick initially, but he's not used to having to make a decision based on how the big man is helping out. That ensured his reads off pick and rolls were too slow, which thwarted chances to turn these plays into hard drives to the basket. Rivers will definitely get better, but he has a ways to go.
Two high lottery picks who played poorly.
31. Dion Waiters, Cavaliers
We knew coming into the draft that Waiters could run pick and roll and force himself into the lane, and he displayed that in the three games he played. What was disappointing, though, was the lack of development he showed in other areas. He struggled as a spot-up shooter, took plays off defensively and hoisted too many bad shots during the rare instances when he couldn't get to the basket. He also looked like he was carrying a little too much weight, and while he should always be sure to maintain his thick frame to aid his strength getting to the basket, he probably needs to lose 5-10 pounds to become more explosive.
If I'm the Cavaliers, I'm very worried with how Waiters fits in with Kyrie Irving. An injury to Irving robbed them of much-needed court time together. It's clear Waiters has a long way to go to adopt his game to fit his superstar point guard's talents.
32. Thomas Robinson, Kings
The scary thing about Robinson's Summer League is how differently he played than he did at Kansas. Rather than throw his weight around inside, which is why he was drafted No. 5 overall, Robinson was content to play point forward and drift out on the perimeter. There were so, so many possessions where his foot never even touched the paint. Unless the Kings are planning on turning their rebounding beast of a prospect into Boris Diaw, this was Robinson's doing.
Because he was given liberty to dominate the ball, Robinson managed to put up numbers. But his efficiency was poor, his turnovers (nearly five a game) were obscenely high, and the guy that seemed unafraid to go up against even the very best prospects looked like he wanted to prove he was someone else. There's room for experimentation in Summer League, but Robinson took it too far.
35. Mike Scott, Hawks: You can see how he'll be useful as a pick and pop player, even if the shots didn't go down.
36. Quincy Miller, Nuggets: The talent is clearly there, and there were a couple of plays where we saw flashes of that, but too often, he struggled to find his role. If he's a 3, he needs to play more efficiently and improve his outside shot. If he's a 4, he needs to bulk up.
37. Festus Ezeli, Warriors: Pretty much a non-entity offensively, but did a pretty nice job taking up space, sliding his feet and playing post defense.
38. Maurice Harkless, 76ers: Saw very, very little of him, but in the time we did watch him play, he showed that, while talented, he has a long way to go to figure out how he fits into an NBA role.
39. Kris Joseph, Celtics: He has the look and the game of a player, but he must learn how to be more efficient.
40. Tomas Satoransky, Wizards: Was turnover-prone, weak defensively and lacked a perimeter shot, but considering many Wizards fans thought he was completely useless after the team picked him over several more well-known guys, it was encouraging to see he at least had pretty good court sense.
41. Quincy Acy, Raptors: Was seemingly desperate to prove he could hit a perimeter shot, and actually wasn't that bad at it in the limited time he played.
44. Orlando Johnson, Pacers: Got one hell of a green light, and responded by shooting 26 percent from the field. The upside: he did get to the line plenty.
45. Draymond Green, Warriors: Seemed way too determined to show he was a three-point shooter, when he probably should have just focused on playing his game. There's no reason he should have shot 15 three-pointers in five games.
46. Khris Middleton, Pistons: Take away his 5-5 performance against the Celtics, and he shot 7-26 from the field and 2-11 from three-point range. Not good for someone known for his shooting.
47. Darius Miller, Hornets: Seemed like he struggled in two areas: the speed of the game and the longer three-point line. He was lethal curling around to shoot college threes, but it'll be a tough adjustment getting used to the NBA line.
50. Darius Johnson-Odom, Lakers: Victimized by playing on a horrendous Lakers team, but four points a game on 23-percent shooting is ... yeah.
51. Izzet Turkyilmaz, Nuggets: When the crowd goes crazy every time you do something because they view you as the benchwarmer curiosity in Summer League, you know you have a long way to go.
52. Fab Melo, Celtics: Was more known for his ridiculous passes at the worst time than his rebounding, defense or shot-blocking. Bad sign.
UPDATE: I forgot to rank Tornike Shengelia, who played decently for the Nets in Orlando. Let's put him 33rd just for the heck of it.