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The 9 most impressive rookies in NBA summer league, ranked

These were the rookie stars of Las Vegas Summer League.

SB Nation

Las Vegas Summer League is all about the rookies. Teams get an early chance to see if their draft picks have improved on their college scouting reports, while the players get a unique opportunity to leave a strong first impression in front of an NBA audience.

This was considered a strong draft class, and summer league only reinforced that idea. Even as a few notable lottery picks like Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. sat out, the rookies put on a show that will leave lots of fanbases optimistic heading into the season.

These were the nine best rookies at Las Vegas Summer League.

9. Collin Sexton, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers

Sexton willed the Cavs to the semifinals at summer league by doing the same thing he’s done all his life: play point guard like he’s hellbent on scoring every time he touches the ball.

This is an example of Sexton’s ability to break down the opposing defense off the dribble and finish at the basket. It helped him become one of college basketball’s best at drawing fouls while at Alabama, an area where he should continue to thrive in the NBA.

Sexton was second among all Vegas rookies in scoring by averaging a shade under 20 points per game. The Cavs are going to be in a sorry state without LeBron James this year, but Sexton is a compelling reason to keep watching. How do you not love a player who shows this type of intensity in summer league:

Sexton has the game and personality to be the next face of the oncoming rebuild in Cleveland. Just please, Cleveland, get him some help.

8. De’Anthony Melton, G, Houston Rockets

Melton slipping all the way to No. 46 in the draft was a crime, and opposing franchises are going to regret giving Houston another potential gem. This is a hard-nosed guard who plays such a smart game on both ends of the floor. He’s a physical defender, a willing passer and can be a bull charging to the rim:

The biggest question Melton faced in the pre-draft process was his outside shot. He showed solid progress in that area in Las Vegas, hitting multiple threes in four of his five games and even canning five triples against the Clippers:

Summer league was especially telling for Melton because he didn’t play at USC last year after being ruled ineligible for his role in the program’s part in the FBI corruption scandal. It had been a long time since we’ve seen Melton in a competitive basketball game. He looked better than ever.

7. Deandre Ayton, C, Phoenix Suns

Ayton is going to put up numbers. That’s exactly what he did in summer league, averaging 14.5 points and 10.5 rebounds on 60 percent shooting from the field. He already has elite size, strength and athleticism for an NBA center. He’s going to be throwing down alley-oops like this all season:

Ayton puts up big stats and undeniably passes the eye test. So why is he still only No. 7? It remains fair to question his impact on winning. He didn’t have an assist through four games in Vegas, and continued to show poor defensive instincts. Yes, he made some highlight reel defensive plays like this ridiculous chase-down block:

But there were also a lot of times he was standing around watching a play instead of making a play:

Ayton is going to be good, there’s no doubt. It’s just a question of what cost his numbers will come at.

6. Jaren Jackson Jr., PF, Memphis Grizzlies

Jackson’s summer league experience got off to an amazing start in Utah, when he hit 8-of-13 threes the first time he put on an NBA uniform:

In Vegas, Jackson showed the other key part of his game: his defensive ability. He’s so quick laterally for a player with his size, and already has sharp instincts as a shot blocker. He blocked nearly four shots per game in Vegas, highlighted by a seven-block effort against the Jazz.

Jackson has the talent to be the best big man in this draft class, the only worry is that he still hasn’t found himself in an ideal situation on court. Jackson largely played out of position at power forward for Memphis in summer league next to center Deyonta Davis, and he figures to log plenty of minutes there in real games next to Marc Gasol. Michigan State made this mistake, too.

Jackson is the perfect modern center. Just stick him at the five and figure everything else out later.

5. Kevin Knox, F, New York Knicks

Knox put on a show in Vegas, leading all rookies in scoring at 21.2 points per game. He was able to generate offense in a variety of ways, showing an ability to attack the basket and finish from a variety of angles while also proving the strides he’s made as a perimeter shooter.

He put up one of the best performances of summer league when he caught fire against the Lakers to finish with 29 points.

It’s clear Knox is going to benefit from NBA spacing after playing with so many non-shooters during his one year at Kentucky. He used Vegas to show just how much he’s improved his perimeter skills. He had no problem crossing up defenders to create room for his downhill drives and flashed pro range on his jump shot off the dribble and on catch-and-shoot opportunities.

It’s fair to point out he only shot 35 percent from the field, and rated as a 0.0 in win shares. But for such a young player — he doesn’t turn 19 until next month — Knox was indisputably impressive.

4. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Los Angeles Clippers

There’s so much to like about Gilgeous-Alexander’s game. At 6’6 with a 7-foot wingspan, he offers advanced slashing skills, developing playmaking ability, and the length to defend multiple positions. He was unstoppable in Vegas when he decided to wanted to go to the basket:

He’s such a smooth ball handler for a big guard. He can finish with either hand, and his footwork is already so impressive around the basket.

SGA still has plenty of room to grow. He needs to get better as a shooter, particularly on pull-ups. He’ll have to add weight to his thin 180-pound frame, too. Even still, it feels like the Clippers look like they got a steal at No. 12. He has every tool to eventually go down as the best point guard in this rookie class.

3. Svi Mykhailiuk, SG, Los Angeles Lakers

College fans will remember Mykhailiuk as the Ukrainian sharpshooter who came to Kansas at 17 years old and never quite lived up to the hype. The Lakers saw a 6’8 two guard who hit 40 percent of his threes over his college career and scooped him up in the second round with the No. 47 overall pick.

If summer league is any indication, it looks like a shrewd selection. Here he is dropping 31 points against the Cavs to put the Lakers in the title game at Vegas:

The Lakers knew Mykhailiuk could shoot, and he’s done that so far. He took seven threes per game in Vegas and made 43 percent of them. What’s been even more impressive is his craft as a scorer when he’s not working off the catch-and-shoot. Check out this Eurostep:

And this step-back jumper:

The Lakers are going to need shooters and ball handlers around LeBron James. For a second round flier, Mykhailiuk at least has a chance to turn into that type of player.

2. Mitchell Robinson, C, New York Knicks

Robinson was the biggest mystery in the 2018 NBA Draft. He was a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American out of high school who ended up skipping college when he decided he’d rather train full-time for the draft than honor his commitment to Western Kentucky.

NBA teams knew he was incredibly athletic for a 7-footer, but they didn’t know how to gauge his feel for the game on either end of the floor in lieu of playing meaningful games. It pushed him all the way to the second round, where the Knicks tabbed him at No. 36 overall.

Robinson wasn’t just good for a second rounder in Vegas. He was arguably the productive rookie in all of summer league. He put up basically the same numbers as first overall pick Deandre Ayton, only with a huge advantage in shot blocking. Here’s how they stacked up per-36 minutes:

Ayton vs. Robinson

Player Points Rebounds Blocks Steals True shooting percentage Win shares PER
Player Points Rebounds Blocks Steals True shooting percentage Win shares PER
Deandre Ayton 19.5 14.1 1.3 1.3 65.2 0.7 22.5
Mitchell Robinson 18.9 14.9 5.8 1.5 65.2 1.1 34.8

The numbers only tell one side of the story. Just look at how quickly Robinson darts to the corner to block this shot:

Check out this level of bounce and body control:

You usually need a top-five pick to find a center with Robinson’s size and athleticism. The Knicks got one in the second round. He still has a lot to learn when it comes to grasping the nuances of NBA defense. His offensive skill level remains unpolished.

But when the game is made easy for Robinson, and he can use his natural gifts to run and jump and make plays above the rim on both ends of the court, he has all the talent to be an effective NBA center. If Vegas is any indication, the Knicks got a steal in round two.

1. Wendell Carter Jr., C, Chicago Bulls

Carter looked like a 10-year veteran at summer league. He’s already so good at so many aspects of the game, showing he can be a plus as a shooter, passer, rebounder, and especially as a shot blocker.

Carter faced skepticism about his lateral quickness and rim protection entering the draft, but he looked great at both areas in Vegas. He sure seems like he never got to show everything he can do at Duke while playing in a zone next to Marvin Bagley III.

Carter might not have the flashiest game, but he’s already so dependable in so many different areas. He’s also a high IQ player who is always in the right spot at the right time.

The Bulls’ front court of the future is set with Carter joining Lauri Markkanen. It’s everything else in Chicago that’s in question.