The depth and quality of the 2017 NBA draft had teams tanking at the end of the regular season in hopes of vaulting into the top three picks.
With the huge caveat being that it was only summer league action, those at the top of the draft made quite a first impression.
Summer league play ended on Monday night after the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Portland Trail Blazers 110-98 in the Las Vegas league championship game.
Kyle Kuzma had 30 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Lakers.
Caleb Swanigan had 25 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists and Jake Layman had 21 points and seven boards for Portland.
“Everybody’s legs were tired at that point,” said Layman. “It was the final game though, you’ve got to push through it.”
Swanigan was named to the All Summer League first team prior to Monday’s game. He finished with his fifth double-double of summer league play also adding seven assists and three steals in 35 minutes.
“We came out here and competed and we won games,” said Swanigan. “That was my biggest thing I wanted to do and came and did that.”
For Blazers assistant coach Jim Moran, who was the acting head coach for the summer league squad, the experience was rewarding.
“I was telling them after the game this is my first coaching experience, I haven’t coached high school or anything,” Moran said. “To be in that locker room and see a group of guys who have only been together for two weeks, to see them actually care about each other and compete at that level, it was a lot of fun for me.
“I just thanked them for the opportunity because they were a great group to coach.”
After a slow start shooting, Layman averaged 17.4 points per game during tournament play and while playing solid defense throughout.
“I felt good the last couple games driving to the rack,” Layman said. “My shot felt better as well. I was just trying to stay aggressive.”
Kuzma hit 6 of 10 3-pointers and Matt Thomas scored 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting and 5 for 5 on 3s to help the Lakers overcome the loss of Lonzo Ball, who sat out with a calf injury.
Over leagues played in Orlando, Salt Lake City and Vegas, many of the top 10 picks gave their teams plenty to feel good about before heading into the league’s quiet period for the next two months.
No. 2 pick Ball owned Vegas with a pair of triple-doubles and was named Vegas MVP. Top pick Markelle Fultz showed off his wide array of scoring tricks in Utah before sitting out much of Vegas with an ankle injury and No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum of Boston was drawing comparisons to Paul Pierce while dominating both in Utah and Nevada.
The competition these rookies will face will increase exponentially when training camps open in October. And there is a long list of summer league standouts — Nikoloz Tskitishvili, anyone? — who never amounted to anything in the NBA. But for struggling franchises like the Lakers, Sixers, Suns and Kings, seeing some real promise from their youngsters the first time they step on the court is encouraging.
“We’re actually excited, because now passing is fashionable on our team,” Lakers president Magic Johnson said on NBATV. “Everybody is looking to make the pass now, because of Lonzo Ball.”
Winning a summer league title certainly doesn’t mean the suffering of the last four years is over for the Lakers. Far from it. The real test comes in a couple of months.
But for several franchises that are in the business of selling hope right now, business is good.
Here are some other takeaways from summer league action:
PACKED HOUSE: Buoyed by Ball and the Lakers, nearly 128,000 fans attended the Vegas Summer League this year.
What started as a gathering of a few teams 13 years ago has turned into a full-fledged event under the guidance of coaching agent Warren LeGarie and Albert Hall. Sponsors are lining up to get in on the action, fans crowd the concourses looking for autographs of the next big things and established stars like LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas and John Wall sit courtside to watch the games.
ESPN and NBATV televise the games and over 500 media credentials were given out for the Las Vegas site alone.
“I told Mayor Goodman that we should get a commission for the NFL and the NHL following in our footsteps,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last week. “We were here when some leagues weren’t even taking advertising in Las Vegas, and we’re proud to be here. I feel our Summer League has become a fixture in Las Vegas, part of the permanent summer calendar.”
OTHER STANDOUTS: Dennis Smith Jr., the No. 9 pick by Dallas, may have been the best player in Las Vegas, averaging 17.3 points and 4.2 assists per game for the Mavericks and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell averaged 28 points per game in just two games for the Jazz.
Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox, the fifth overall pick out of Kentucky, displayed his athleticism and defensive instincts for the Kings. Josh Jackson, the No. 4 overall pick by Phoenix, averaged 17.4 points and 9.2 rebounds in Vegas and played with a competitive fire that intrigued many scouts leading up to the draft.
Swanigan was consistent throughout and San Antonio’s Bryn Forbes had a pair of 35-point games to give the Spurs another promising young talent in the pipeline as they wait to hear from Manu Ginobili on his future.
FLIP SIDE: Just as we shouldn’t read too much into the successes of summer league, so to should the struggles be taken with a grain of salt. But Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls’ No. 7 overall pick who came over in the draft-night trade that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, shot just 24 percent (6 for 25 on 3-pointers) in Las Vegas, not a great sign for a 7-footer billed as the best shooter in the draft.
Sacramento’s Buddy Hield, the centerpiece of the trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans in February, shot just 35 percent in three games in Las Vegas, a mark was aided by a binge of six 3s in his final game against the Lakers. Not what you want to see from a second-year player who will turn 24 in December.