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What Should We Be Looking for in Summer League?

Every year NBA fans lose their minds over young prospects’ play in Summer League. Does anything actually matter in Summer League? If so, what?

2018 NBA Summer League - Las Vegas - Los Angeles Clippers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When NBA fans have top prospects on their Summer League teams, their performance is highly scrutinized. This is fine— it’s what fans do. And it also makes sense. When the players in question are rookies, it is the fans’ first chance to see them in NBA uniforms, their first look at the rookies in a setting even close to approximating the NBA. If the players are veterans, fans are excited to see what they’ve added to their games since the end of the season, and how they look against lesser competition. Basically, there are legitimate reasons to pay attention to Summer League, and get excited for it.

There is also some evidence that Summer League play can provide real insight into NBA success. This is more true in negative cases: if a player struggles hard in Summer League, regular NBA play is unlikely to be any easier for them. The key with Summer League is not necessarily to look at stats, but at skills, and how likely they are to translate to the NBA.

Take, for example, the Clippers’ game yesterday. As Lucas already wrote about in the recap, Sindarius Thornwell was the Clippers’ standout player yesterday, leading their offensive efforts and contributing strong defensive play. His stats looked fantastic. But stats are misleading in Summer League. Teams are playing with little practice time, and certain types of play are rewarded more than others.

Thornwell played really well yesterday. But he played in a way that’s difficult to see succeeding at the NBA level. On offense, he mostly went straight at defensive players, using his superior strength and size to muscle his way to the hoop and finish over defenders. The average player who will be guarding Thornwell in the NBA will be bigger, stronger, and better defensively than the smaller guards he trampled Friday night. Rather than showcasing an improved finishing ability, or flashing tightened handles, Thornwell played much the same as he did last year in the NBA, but with better results because the quality of play was lower.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, on the other hand, shot a mere 5-19 from the field. If you just looked at the boxscore, you’d think he had a bad game. But he demonstrated the precise skills and abilities that made him such a desired prospect, and did so in ways that promise translation to the NBA. He was measured on the court. He got to his spots whenever he wanted. The Clippers’ offense looked noticeably better with him on the court, running more smoothly and generating easier looks. Those are traits that you want to see from any point guard, and having them all shown by a rookie in his first game was truly impressive. Shai has issues. His “spots”, more often than not, are midrange jumpers and long floaters, and those are difficult, inefficient shots that he settles for too easily. His shot in general, especially from deep, clearly needs work. But the passing, the quickness, and the smooth handles are qualities that should be present at the next level.

In general, stats just aren’t as important in Summer League. If someone is missing all their threes, or shooting a horrible percentage from the field, that’s obviously not a good sign. But even more than regular NBA play, Summer League is context dependent. The sample sizes are small, teams aren’t truly built to fit or play well together, and practice time is low. So, when watching Summer League, pay attention not to the results, but to process, and approach. The goal of Summer League isn’t to win the games, but to showcase talents that will be useful in the NBA. Players, therefore, should be evaluated in the same manner.