Summer League is always a strange event that inadvertently pits two extremes of the NBA landscape against each other. As soon as you touch down in Vegas you’re met with billboard after billboard advertising the basketball showcase, stuffed between billboards of Usher and David Blaine.
The faces on those billboards are the biggest stars in the NBA: Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James. That’s who the NBA chooses to advertise the event, but it’s not who you’ll see there, unless you watch the sidelines. Instead, basketball fans, nerds, and devotees flock to the desert to see players in their NBA infancy: Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, and Jalen Green. They’ve yet to make their professional debut, yet the NBA is already selling you on the idea that one day they might be as popular as Curry, as dominant as Durant, or as legendary as James.
Yet the real magic seems to happen in between those extremes. If you want to find the best basketball, you often have to look at the non-rookies — the players who have already tasted the NBA, and know what they need to show off in order to keep their place in the league.
These are six non-rookies that stood out to me when I spent last week in Vegas.
Tyrese Maxey, G, Philadelphia 76ers
Maxey may never live up to the hype that was unfairly attached to him after Daryl Morey reportedly made him untouchable in James Harden trade talks. But after averaging 15.3 minutes per game as a rookie for the team with the best record in the East a year ago, Maxey looks ready for a bigger role with the 76ers.
He didn’t dominate Summer League, which is fine because that’s not what Philly asks him to do. But he was absolutely everywhere. It seemed like Maxey was involved in every possession on both offense and defense, and not in the chaotic, scattered way. His fingerprints were just over every portion of every game he played in.
And when I say he didn’t dominate, I really just mean physically: the 26 points per game he averaged were second-best in the tournament, and tops among non-rookies. He shot 50 percent from the field, and averaged 4.5 assists to two turnovers per game.
He just didn’t do it in an isolation-heavy, physically overpowering way. He did it in a manner that felt translatable to the NBA: by looking in control, getting to his spots, and outsmarting the defense. Just look at the patience on these drives: he waits for his screens or for the defensive adjustments, attacks while staying in control, and finds the places where he can do damage.
Payton Pritchard, G, Boston Celtics
Pritchard had an ultra-solid rookie season for the Celtics a year ago, and yet I still wasn’t prepared for him to pick apart Summer League.
The 2020 No. 26 pick looked like he could one day blossom into a star. Two things stood out. First, Pritchard was a dynamic playmaker, perhaps the best at Summer League. He averaged 8.5 assists per game, despite having only 2.5 turnovers. While he displayed some elite passing skills, it was more his ability to manipulate the opposing defenses, and get into dangerous spots on the floor to open up things for his teammates that stood out.
Second was the range. My goodness, the range. Pritchard shot 46.9 percent on eight three-point attempts per game, and many of them would’ve been four-pointers if the league ever decides to adopt that silly rule.
Payton Pritchard's too good for Summer League pic.twitter.com/ewovYH9ODl— Taylor Snow (@taylorcsnow) August 13, 2021
Immanuel Quickley, G, New York Knicks
I’m excited to report that all the things Quickley did during his rookie campaign he did even better in Vegas. There’s a reason fans fell in love with the Knicks’ No. 25 pick last year, and those reasons are only growing.
Quickley struggled to shoot the ball — he made just 33.7 percent of his field goals and 24 percent of his three-pointers — but judging bad shooting percentages over a five-game exhibition sample is a silly game to play. Instead, it was more about the looks he generated for himself and others.
Despite the lack of efficiency, the combo guard averaged 20.2 points per game, and dished out 7.8 assists to just 2.4 turnovers. After spending parts of his rookie season looking a bit all over the place, Quickley was uhh … not overly quick. He was slow (in a good way), and patient, showing marked improvement in his understanding of how to use screens, angles, and play with timing.
Look at the timing and the hesitation in this first play:
Something many young scorers struggle with is finding a balance between patience and stopping the ball, and Quickley looks well on his way to mastering it.
Obi Toppin, C/F, New York Knicks
Quickley’s lottery pick teammate also impressed. Toppin looked more like a big than a wing at Summer League, which is a credit to both his play and the way the coaches used him after an odd rookie campaign. His physicality was on display in transition, while rolling towards the rim, and while gobbling up — and putting back — rebounds (he averaged 8.3 boards per game to go with his 21 points).
Toppin has the ability to become a quality three-point shooter during his career (he made a fair share of them at Summer League), but he’ll always be at his best when moving towards the rim. He found a way to make that happen in Vegas. Sometimes it was after spacing the floor like a wing and cutting at the perfect moment:
Other times it was pushing the pace:
✅ good defense— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) August 15, 2021
✅ run the floor
✅ finish at the rim
Obi Toppin checking all the boxes in Vegas, Year 2 going to be fun. pic.twitter.com/xWZfjwfll1
There’s a lot of potential in Toppin, even after a rookie year that most would call disappointing.
Gary Payton II, G, Golden State Warriors
You won’t see Payton gracing many of these lists, because his stats weren’t much to write home about: He averaged just 11.3 points and 3.7 assists while playing only three games.
And Payton doesn’t fit the typical mold of the other players listed here. He’s 28, and already has five years of NBA experience, even though he’s only played 71 games during that time span.
But Payton’s spent the last half decade trying to prove to teams that he belongs on an NBA roster, and it was hard to watch him at Vegas and come to any other conclusion. His defense remains sensational at the point guard position, but the rest of the game is starting to round into form. He’ll never be an offensive stud, but he shot 14-for-19 from the field, and 5-for-6 from the three-point line. He dictated the offense even when he wasn’t making plays, proving to NBA head coaches that he can be a reliable second unit conductor. He rebounded the ball (seven boards per game as a point guard), and showed off some explosive plays.
Payton might break camp with the Warriors, but if not, someone should give him a call.
Desmond Bane, G, Memphis Grizzlies
Bane finished third in Summer League scoring with 24 points per game, and he did it largely by shooting 69.2 percent from three-point range.
That shouldn’t be a shocker after the No. 30 pick shot 43.2 percent from deep as a rookie last year, but when you make nearly 70 percent of your triples you get put on the list. Those are the rules.
But most exciting for Grizzlies fans is how comfortable Bane looked handling the rock, both in the halfcourt and in transition. Look at how much offense he creates for himself in these plays, and how much it opens up the floor for his teammates.
Bane made it clear with his performance that he can play off the ball while sharing the court with Ja Morant, or help run the show when Morant is on the bench. If his ability to zigzag while moving full speed downhill translates at the next level, he and Morant could form a duo as deadly as they are entertaining.