How to Assess NBA Summer League Like a Scout

Each summer, Las Vegas becomes a ground for standouts who catch fire and that later make a splash in the league.

As fans and enthusiasts of the game what can you look out for?!

Scouting in the NBA Summer League is one of the hardest things to go through these days. I have seen coaches, training experts fail miserably at it and other much more carefully watching the game seek out nuances that could easily be missed make great strides at succeeding.

First of all it should be agreed upon that the level of play is much higher than the regular NCAA game but a fraction lower than the NBA standards of regular season games. While teams were hastily built up till 2017 the last few years franchises have been making more of an effort to attempt to build up rosters that they will create a playbook around and check out thoroughly.

Once there, they play five or more games in the span of seven days. Rosters are comprised of rookies selected in the latest NBA Draft who are making their league debuts, second and third year players who are trying to prove that they are too good for Summer League, veterans of professional leagues overseas who are making one last push for a training camp invite, and more than a handful of guys that will never sniff a regular season NBA game. Some teams lack a high-quality point guard, the most difficult positional shortage to overcome; others lack rebounding, or rim protection, or shooting.

And yet, over this one week in mid-July, basketball fans never fail to overreact.

In 2002, Nikoloz Tskitishvili won Summer League MVP; four years later, it was Randy Foye; in 2012, Josh Selby collected the honor. Every summer, there are players who look good in Las Vegas but can’t parlay that success into meaningful NBA performance—and vice versa. Who can forget the immortal Glen Rice, Jr.? Or the time Anthony Randolph outshone an overmatched-looking teammate named Steph Curry?

Of course, none of this is to say to say that Summer League is completely meaningless. In addition to being a lot of fun, it’s a great opportunity to scout the next wave of NBA talent— provided you know what to look for, and what to overlook. League teams send scouts to Las Vegas for that very reason. Here’s what they look for:

Speed

Unlike college basketball, Summer League is full of grown men. Moreover, while most of the players taken in the first round of the NBA Draft are still teenagers, the majority of players competing in Las Vegas are a bit older and either have pro-level athleticism or have played at NBA speed at some point in their careers.

As such, scouts get their first chance to see how rookies adjust—or struggle to adjust—to the faster NBA game. In this clip, Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball is matched up with Dallas Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. The Mavericks spread the floor and run a fake ball screen at Ball, which he anticipates by icing the screen, forcing the ball-handler to one direction with the expectation that his teammate defending the screener will show on the screen to slow him down. Only the Mavericks don’t actually set the screen. Instead, they have the screener fake the screen and clear out before rolling to the rim.

This is a classic NBA action, and a staple of Dallas coach Rick Carlisle’s spread offense. Ball, who is already on the slower end in terms of on-ball defensive foot speed, is also slow to react to the fake screen, yielding a wide open lane to the basket and a tomahawk dunk.

Lonzo Ball has the skill, but does he have the speed? Photo by Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Ball has been incredibly impressive during Summer League and may end up named this year’s MVP, but this play showed how he’ll have to improve his foot speed to keep up with the long list of super athletes playing point guard in the NBA—a list that now includes Smith Jr.

Of course, raw speed is only one aspect of NBA athleticism. Scouts also look for players who have the ability shift tempo and play at the proper pace throughout a game. Often, a super-athletic, but raw, player will get stuck at one speed, sprinting aimlessly into and out of traffic. Some players take years to figure out how to regulate their intensity; others seem to have a natural feel for the rhythm of the game. Just check out how effective this fast break from Kyle “Slow-Mo” Anderson is despite the fact that he never appears to leave second gear.

Strength

If NBA speed is a notch higher than that of college basketball, NBA physicality is about five notches greater. If you have the budget for courtside NBA tickets, or are lucky enough to score some, it’s fun from that vantage point to count the number of times you’d cry foul if you were playing.

Consider Jack Cooley. He stands 6-foot-10, and weighs nearly 250 pounds. Every time a shot goes up, Cooley bangs his body into the nearest opponent, like a Greco Roman wrestler trying to wrangle an opponent to the ground. When Cooley corrals a rebound, he immediately slings his elbows back into the chest of the same opponent, attempting to draw contact and score.

Cooley will probably never hang around in the NBA, but if you take the ball up softly against him in Summer League, you’ll get sent back with a bruised chest and a bruised ego. In the NBA, bigs have to learn how to attack the rim with purpose and finish through contact that would be considered a foul in the NCAA—and the rare young player who already knows how to do that enjoys a significant advantage.

Shooting

Summer League is much more about process than it is about results. Nowhere is this more true than with regards to shooting. Since teams only play a handful of games, shooting efficiency is especially prone to variance—if a player has an off-night or two, his overall efficiency will be terrible.

As such, you have to look past the numbers. What really matters? First, see if ball-dominant players display a basic understanding of shot selection. In Las Vegas, it’s especially easy for one player to dominate the ball. Defenders barely know each other, never mind a well-honed defensive game plan. Volume shooters and high usage players can get away with going one-on-one much more than they ever would be able to in an real NBA game.

When you see a player score, ask yourself if he made the right read on the play. And if not, was his move to the basket good enough to get by an actual NBA defense despite being the wrong read? Many players can look like Russell Westbrook against Summer League competition—the aforementioned Rice Jr. being a good example—but far fewer can bully their way through legitimate pro defenses.

Former Syracuse player Tyler Lydon struggled to get up shots during Summer League, a sizable red flag. Photo by Mike Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Second, off-ball players have to find ways to get open. Sometimes, this is heavily dependent on the surrounding talent on the roster. If a Summer League team lacks a go-to playmaker that can draw a double-team, or a point guard that can successfully get a team into their offensive sets, then it becomes much harder for a spot-up shooter to get open looks.

Nevertheless, most elite spot-up shooting prospects have developed little tricks for finding angles off the ball to get open. Timing on cuts, the quickness of a release, footwork on the catch—all can be the difference between a player getting three or four open looks per game versus getting seven or eight. Kyle Korver and Klay Thompson are masters of every trick and fundamental that helps them shake free behind the arc. Some players at Summer League show flashes of those fundamentals.

Denver Nuggets rookie Tyler Lydon attempted 9.4 FGAs per game last season with Syracuse, including 3.7 three pointers and 3.4 free throws per game. In five Summer League games, he only attempted 20 shots total which led to just 12 points. Both of those numbers are uniquely low, especially considering that he was on the court for 120 minutes over five games. Why does this matter? The Nuggets had decent playmakers on the floor in second year wings Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, and also had point guard Monte Morris, the NCAA’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio for four straight seasons. So Lydon’s inability to get shots off is a fairly sizable red flag.

Footwork and fundamentals

Against bigger, stronger, faster opponents, a player’s footwork and fundamental weaknesses are bound to be exposed. Put an average post player in an empty gym, and you’ll see an arsenal of moves; add in some elbows, speed, and opposing muscle, and every little misstep becomes fatal.

The same is true for pick-and-roll scorers. When the game is slow, a player can be sloppy turning the corner off of a screen; but when the defenders’ arms are three inches longer and they’re 10 percent faster, that same sloppiness adds up to blocked shots and turnovers. A slightly loose handle suddenly makes it harder to bring the ball up court. A hitch in a jump shot makes for a wasted motion that leads to less time to get a shot off. Drives to the basket that don’t utilize full lower body extension look clunky.

On defense, bigs who in college relied on height and leaping ability are now forced to contest their athletic equals at the rim, or show on ball screens against point guards who are faster and more skilled than anyone they’ve seen. How well they read their defensive assignments or anticipate their opponents is as important as how they hard they block shots. The Miami Heat might allow 100 points in a 40-minute game, but that doesn’t mean that Bam Adebayo can’t protect the rim—it just means you have to watch his individual movements on the court separate from whatever else is happening.

Ultimately, Summer League is a lot like a glorified team practice. Details matter much more than outcomes. Players who impress on both fronts—like the talented rookie point guard class of Donovan Mitchell, De’Aaron Fox, Ball, and Smith Jr.—likely will do the same in the NBA. For almost everyone else, a closer look is required.

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