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The 13 best rookies at 2021 NBA Summer League, ranked

These were the rookies that impressed us the most during NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.

NBA Summer League is a diehard basketball fan’s dream. Every year, the league congregates in Las Vegas shortly after the draft with teams comprised of young players trying to prove they’re worthy of a roster spot. The main attraction is always the debut of the rookie class, and this year we got to watch a great one take the floor in their NBA jerseys for the first time.

It’s important not to overreact to Summer League. League history is filled with players who shined in this environment but never made their mark when the games counted for real. Regardless, it’s still fun to track the progress of the rookies starting in Vegas before they head to their new teams.

With apologies to Davion Mitchell, James Bouknight, Josh Primo, Josh Christopher, Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, B.J. Boston, Jericho Sims, and others, here are the 13 most impressive rookies we saw at Summer League.

13. Miles McBride, G, New York Knicks

Tom Thibodeau reportedly had his eye on McBride ahead of the draft, and it isn’t hard to see why. The 6’2 guard was a bulldog defender at the point of attack throughout his two years at West Virginia, and he made major strides as a three-point shooter during his sophomore season. Both skills shined during Summer League.

McBride looked great as a shooter on both pull-ups and spot-ups to hit 18-of-36 attempts from three-point range. He continued to defend smaller guards well on the other end, and finished with eight steals in six games. The Knicks’ backcourt is suddenly deep after adding Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier during the offseason, but McBride is the type of second round pick who feels like a safe bet to carve out a role eventually.

12. Scottie Barnes, F, Toronto Raptors

It was shocking to see Toronto select Barnes ahead of Jalen Suggs at No. 4 overall, but there’s no doubt the Raptors are the best possible landing spot for him considering the organization’s sterling developmental track record. We know what Barnes has done well since his days as a top recruit: he brings a 7’3 wingspan, non-stop motor, and legitimate facilitating chops to every matchup. Each of those skills was on display during his four game run in Las Vegas. Barnes packed Summer League box scores with averages of 15.5 points, 6.75 rebounds, 3.25 assists, two blocks, and one steal per game all while showcasing his defensive versatility. Despite struggling at times to score efficiently with a 50.7 true shooting percentage, he still left his mark on every game as only he can.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign from Barnes’ run in Vegas is that he attempted 11 three-pointers in the four games and shot 74 percent from the foul line. Even though he only sank three of those triples, the fact that he isn’t hesitating to shoot from deep is a positive sign. If the Raptors can develop that jumper, his top-four draft status might not feel all that surprising in retrospect.

11. Sharife Cooper, G, Atlanta Hawks

The NBA somehow let Cooper fall to No. 48 on draft night because he’s a tiny point guard who struggled to shoot in college. It was obvious at the time that was foolish. We had Cooper as a top-10 player in this draft because he’s an absolute magician with the ball who has an incredible gift for passing his teammates open. He showed how talented he is from the moment he arrived in Vegas. Cooper dropped 21 points and nine assists on the Summer Pacers, and then put up 21 points and 12 assists on the Summer Sixers two days later. Did we mention he hit a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer, too?

Cooper even hit 5-of-8 threes in one game. While the size and shooting are still a concern, there simply aren’t many players who the world who can create offense like he can. It feels like he rolls out of bed and posts a near 50 percent assist rate. Cooper only signed a two-way contract, and will likely spend most of his time in the G League. You can expect him to do what he’s done against SEC and Summer League competition, which is post big numbers and plenty of highlight-reel plays.

10. Bones Hyland, G, Denver Nuggets

Hyland never got to show the world what he could do in college after VCU’s NCAA tournament run was canceled because of a positive Covid test, but NBA fans are going to love him. The 6’3 guard is a classic microwave scorer with deep range and quick trigger from behind the three-point line. He put all of his talents on display by dropping 28 points on the Mavericks in his third game.

Hyland cut up Summer League defenses with a tight handle and an ability to change pace in addition to his long-range shooting. His defense and playmaking looked better than advertised, too. With Jamal Murray recovering from his torn ACL, Hyland feels like a perfect fit playing off Nikola Jokic to give the Denver offense some added punch. He should be a major steal as the No. 26 overall pick.

9. Alperen Şengün, C, Houston Rockets

Şengün felt like a player built to dominant Summer League after winning MVP in the Turkish League at only 18 years old, and there were times when he did exactly that. The 6’9 center is confident with the ball as an interior scorer and passer, and also adds value as a rebounder. He led all rookies in blocks in summer league with 12 in his four games. He even knocked in a few threes in Las Vegas — 3-of-8 from deep — which wasn’t supposed to be part of his game early in his career, but his free throw shooting troubles (60.7 percent on 28 attempts) should keep any early shooting optimism in perspective.

Şengün still struggled to score efficiently at times with a 51.5 true shooting percentage. The real test was always going to come in the regular season when he’s facing bigger and faster athletes than the ones he saw in Turkey or Vegas. For now, Şengün can already bank on doing a few things well as he continues to work to progress as a shooter.

8. Trey Murphy III, F, New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans moved down from No. 10 to No. 17 to nab Murphy, and he looked like everything the team hoped he could one day become during his run in Vegas. The big 6’9 forward showed off his shooting skill and his tough defense during four games in Summer League, knocking down 44 percent of his threes on 25 attempts while adding seven steals and five blocks on the defensive end.

Murphy isn’t a great athlete and will mostly be relegated to a catch-and-shoot role on offense, but his strengths are a nice fit alongside Zion Williamson. That’s what it’s all about in New Orleans.

7. Cam Thomas, G, Brooklyn Nets

Say it with me: Cam Thomas is a bucket. The 6’4 guard put up big scoring numbers during his freshman year at LSU with a one-track mind to stockpile points. The Nets were happy to take him with the No. 27 overall pick to add firepower to their bench, and if his four-game run in Las Vegas is any indication, it looks like a great pick. Thomas got better and better each game, scoring 19 points in his opener, 22 points in his second game, 31 points in his third game, and 36 points in his finale. He wasn’t just prolific, he was also clutch. Thomas hit a game-tying shot in overtime and then a one-legged game-winner in double OT to beat the Wizards, and then helped knock off the Spurs with a deep step-back.

For as awesome as Thomas was, his scoring efficiency (solid 56.3 percent true shooting in Vegas) could still be a concern against real NBA athletes. It’s also fair to wonder what Thomas’ game will look like when he’s not dominating the ball and instead playing off the Nets’ veteran superstars. Regardless, Thomas has a clear NBA skill as a volume scorer who thrives from mid-range and behind the three-point line. It already feels like a mistake to have him ranked outside of our pre-draft top-30. Somehow, Brooklyn has added even more offense during the draft.

6. Evan Mobley, C, Cleveland Cavaliers

Don’t read too much into this ranking. We had Mobley at No. 2 on our pre-draft big board because of his tremendous defensive versatility and tantalizing playmaking flashes. Both showed up in Las Vegas during his best moments. Mobley has a rare ability to play any pick-and-roll coverage on defense with long arms and quick feet. He’s going to be a good shot blocker from day one, and he swatted five shots in three games in Las Vegas. His passing might be the most exciting part of his game. Mobley dropped six assists in his second game in Vegas against the Magic, and he could have had a few more.

Mobley’s scoring could take more time to come around. He only averaged 11.3 points per game, and didn’t capitalize on his face-up potential just yet, shooting only 1-of-8 from three. Mobley has an incredibly high ceiling if he can add strength to his frame. While it feels like he’s just starting to scratch the surface of his long-term upside, there’s no doubt he should be a great building block for Cleveland for years to come.

5. Chris Duarte, G, Indiana Pacers

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Duarte looked great in Summer League considering he’s already 24 years old, but it was hard not to be impressed by his mix of high volume three-point shooting and pesky defense. The former Oregon Duck was letting it fly from deep from the minute he arrived in Vegas, hitting 48.3 percent of his triples on 7.25 attempts per game. Duarte’s defense was almost as impressed with 10 steals over four games. His playmaking flashes were nice, too.

New Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle typically doesn’t like to play rookies, but Duarte’s shooting and defense on the wing could make him an early favorite. The No. 13 overall pick feels like he should be a solid rotation player in the league for a long time even if his ceiling isn’t as high as some of his younger peers.

4. Jalen Suggs, G, Orlando Magic

Suggs flashed all the skills that made him a freshman sensation at Gonzaga and a top-five NBA draft pick in Las Vegas before a thumb injury ended his run midway through his third game. The 6’4 guard showed his signature mix of tenacious defense, fearless attacking in transition, and flashes of pull-up shooting while very much looking like a future leader for the Magic. He also provided two of the most memorable moments of Summer League with his game-saving transition block against the Warriors, and his soaring tip-dunk against the Cavs.

Suggs still had some problems consistently breaking down opposing defenses off the bounce, and wasn’t an efficient scorer with 51.2 percent true shooting. Even still, his frame, strength, and competitive mindset should allow him to have an impact from day one. The Magic have badly needed a new face of the franchise ever since trading Dwight Howard, and it feels like Suggs could be that type of player.

3. Jalen Johnson, F, Atlanta Hawks

We had Johnson as a top-10 talent in this class, but the NBA let him slip all the way to No. 20 on draft night after a disappointing freshman year at Duke. That already looks like a mistake. The 6’9 forward was a two-way force in Las Vegas, showing off his transition scoring, rebounding, passing flashes, defensive playmaking ability, and a surprisingly good shooting stroke over his four games in Summer League. He ended his run averaging 19 points, 9.5 rebounds, two assists, and 1.25 blocks per game on outstanding 64.6 percent true shooting.

Johnson is big and athletic with rare comfort as a ball handler and passer in the open court for a player his size. NBA teams thought he’d be a shaky fit in halfcourt offenses because of his shooting struggles, but Johnson shot the ball really well in Vegas, hitting 5-of-12 three-pointers and 9-of-11 free throws. His defense always seemed to be an under-discussed asset of his game, and he looked great on that end in Summer League. It will be fascinating to see how Johnson slots into an Atlanta team which already has so much depth and young talent, but he looked like a player who will be tough to keep off the floor after his performance in Vegas.

2. Cade Cunningham, G, Detroit Pistons

Cunningham established himself as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft because of his complete all-around game. He showed off his vast array of talents after a tough debut in Las Vegas with the Pistons. Cunningham’s outside shooting — thought to be a weakness in his game heading into Oklahoma State — now looks like arguably his biggest strength. He knocked down 7-of-10 three-pointers in his Summer League finale against the Knicks, and shot 50 percent from deep through his three games. His ability to hit tough pull-ups off the dribble or spot-up off-the-ball will make everyone’s life easier in Detroit. He’s also excellent defensively, using his big frame to provide resistance both in the paint and on the perimeter.

The Pistons mostly used Cunningham off the ball in Vegas, but it would be in their best interest to let him run the show full-time. While putting the ball in Cunningham’s hands might make for a shaky fit next to second-year guard Killian Hayes (who struggles as a catch-and-shoot threat), his passing skills are too impressive for him to be limited so often to off-ball duty. Aside from mysteriously shrinking two inches since the draft — he was listed at 6’8 by Oklahoma State and 6’6 by the Pistons — Cunningham showed why he’s the best long-term prospect in this class in Vegas.

1. Jalen Green, G, Houston Rockets

Jalen Green was born to get buckets, and he put his full scoring talent on display during his three-game run in Las Vegas. Green was the second leading scorer among rookies by averaging 20.3 points per game, and he did it on ridiculous scoring efficiency with a 70.7 true shooting percentage. While those are undeniably impressive, it was the diversity of Green’s scoring package that really stood out.

Green stockpiles points in just about every way possible. He has an incredibly quick first step with the ball in his hands that lets him burn the initial line of defense. He’s explosive driving to the basket and comfortable pulling up from mid-range. He’s also showed great footwork and an effortless shooting stroke on step-back and side-step three-pointers. His decision-making in the pick-and-roll will be a work in progress, but he puts an enormous amount of pressure on the defense with his three-level scoring ability. Off the ball, Green can whip around screens for threes and stockpile points in transition. His scoring arsenal is the total package.

Green still has a thin frame and may struggle to play through contact when the games count for real, but there’s no denying his talent. The Rockets found a player who could one day flirt with averaging 30 points per game with the No. 2 pick in the draft.

Davion Mitchell was named co-Summer League MVP

After leading the Kings to the Las Vegas Summer League championship, the No. 9 overall pick out of Baylor was named MVP alongside Thomas. Mitchell showed off his tenacious defensive ability, and also shot the ball well from three-point range by making 10-of-25 (40 percent) shots from deep.

We didn’t have Mitchell on this list originally because he struggled to score efficiently with 48.3 percent true shooting, but that was an oversight. Kings fans are right to feel encouraged by the pick.