Celtics

Pritchard, Nesmith among NBA Summer League standouts

Celtics

The 2021 NBA Summer League wrapped up on Tuesday night with the Sacramento Kings taking down the Boston Celtics in the championship game.

From highly-touted rookies to second-year pros on the rise, some of the game’s brightest young talents were on full display over the last 10 days in Las Vegas.

Of course, the Summer League isn’t the same competition level as the NBA, so all performances need to be taken with a grain of salt. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take anything from strong summer showings.

With that said, here were 10 of the players who stood out the most in Sin City:

 

Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

While Cade Cunningham’s Summer League stats don’t jump off the screen, he certainly passed the eye test. The No. 1 overall pick bounced back from a shaky debut with two 20-plus-point performances (he sat out of Detroit’s last two games with calf soreness). He averaged 18.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals on 42.9% from the field across three games. Cunningham, who was a 40% 3-point shooter at Oklahoma State, had no trouble adjusting to the NBA line, hitting 50% of his 26 attempts from beyond the arc. A majority of his field goal makes came from deep and off strong drives to the rim.

Despite not putting up big assist numbers (2.3 per game), he did flash his playmaking ability as a 6-foot-8 ball-handler. And as good of an offensive player as he could be, Cunningham has real potential on the other end of the floor, too. It’s easy to see why he’s drawn comparisons to Paul George.

The Pistons don’t exactly have a stacked roster, but it will be exciting to see Cunningham surrounded by more established NBA players like Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk.

Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

Jalen Green believes he should have been the No. 1 pick over Cunningham, and he backed that claim up with his performance in Vegas. Green showed signs of a future prolific scorer, pouring in 20.3 points per game on 51.4/52.5/92.9 shooting splits. What makes those numbers even more staggering is the amount of self-created, tough jumpers he knocked down.

Green even outdueled Cunningham with a 25-point effort in their head-to-head matchup, one the Rockets guard was clearly amped up for. Unfortunately, his Summer League came to an end after two-plus games due to a hamstring injury. Nevertheless, the Rockets must be thrilled with what they saw from the No. 2 pick.

Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers

Two games were enough for Tyrese Maxey to show he was overqualified for Summer League. Maxey, who left Vegas early to host a youth basketball camp in his hometown, averaged 26.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game on 50 percent shooting. The 21st pick in the 2020 draft had long stretches where he simply dominated, posting a 19-point first half against Dallas and a 21-point second half/OT against Atlanta.

 

Maxey continued to have success playing downhill but, maybe most notably, displayed a willingness to pull up from beyond the arc, something that was lacking from his game in 2020-21 when he shot 1.7 3s per game at a 30.1% clip. He saw mixed results with his 3-point shot in Vegas (3 of 6 versus Dallas and 1 of 8 versus Atlanta), but it’s clearly a point of emphasis for him this offseason.

After being in and out of the rotation as a rookie, Maxey could be in line for a big role on the 2021-22 Sixers, especially if that 3-point shot develops. (That is, of course, unless he’s included in a potential trade that brings Damian Lillard to Philly).

Payton Pritchard, Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics had two 2020 first-round picks competing in Vegas. Payton Pritchard, the 26th pick, was a consistent part of the C’s rotation as a rookie. And like Maxey, Pritchard quickly proved to be too good for Summer League. The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 16.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 1.8 steals on 47.8% shooting in four games. Pritchard, who did most of his damage from beyond the arc in 2020-21, was unconscious from deep, hitting 46.9% of his 32 attempts.

Pritchard temporarily left Summer League due to a prior engagement, and while he was away, he dropped 92 (yes, ninety-two) points in a Portland Pro-Am game. He returned to Vegas for the championship game, where he had his lone off shooting night (six points on 3 of 9 FG). Following up a 92-point performance isn't easy. Regardless, it was still a great couple weeks of basketball for Fast PP.

 

Aaron Nesmith, Boston Celtics

Aaron Nesmith will be trying to lock down a larger, more permanent role in his second NBA season. And the 14th overall pick in 2020 made a strong first impression in front of his new head coach, Ime Udoka. Nesmith recorded 17.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on 50% shooting over five games. He unsurprisingly got up a ton of 3-point shots, connecting on 36.1% of his 36 attempts. The highlight of his Summer League was when he made 7 of 9 3-point tries in a 33-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets.

The Celtics need to make up for some lost shotmaking after trading Kemba Walker and losing Evan Fournier in free agency. A leap from Nesmith would certainly help to fill that void.

Obi Toppin, New York Knicks

Obi Toppin had an underwhelming rookie season. He was mostly a backend rotation player for a New York Knicks squad that enjoyed a surprising turnaround season. Summer League provided Toppin the opportunity to remind everyone why he was worthy of being a top-10 selection. The high-flying 6-9 forward averaged 21 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 44.5% from the field across six games. Toppin, who shot 30.6% from 3 as a rookie, upped that clip to 34.3% on 35 attempts in Vegas. The former No. 8 overall pick also had success utilizing his athleticism as a roll man and slasher. His best game was a 31-point, nine-rebound effort against the Pistons. 

Toppin’s Summer League performance could be the first step toward claiming more minutes in Tom Thibodeau’s rotation next season.

 

Patrick Williams, Chicago Bulls

Patrick Williams has the makings of an elite role player, with the potential to be even more than that. The 2020-21 All-Rookie Second Team member averaged 21 points and 9.7 rebounds in three Summer League games. After shooting 39.1% from 3 on just under two attempts per game last season, Williams continued to show promise as a 3-point shooter by hitting 7 of 16 tries from deep. His signature performance came when he tallied 30 points in a comeback win over the Spurs.

The former No. 4 overall pick did struggle a bit with an increased offensive role, shooting just 37.9% from the field on 19.3 attempts per game and averaging 4.7 turnovers. But, at this stage, that’s not really a cause for concern -- Williams is only just about to turn 20 and will be playing with playmakers like Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball next season. It’s Williams’ defensive prowess that the revamped Chicago Bulls will be leaning on more.

Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors

Jonathan Kuminga making this list has more to do with flash plays than raw numbers. Yes, Kuminga put up 17.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals over five Summer League games (one of which was at the California Classic Summer League), but he did so with a shooting split of 39.7/27.3/65.7. The tantalizing two-way upside was evident though, as the 6-foot-8 forward put his athleticism and length to use on both ends.

 

The Golden State Warriors’ selection of Kuminga at No. 7 overall seemed more like an asset play than anything else at the time. The Dubs are in win-now mode, and while Kuminga has tremendous potential, he was viewed as a project. Barring a trade for a star, Kuminga appears here to stay. It’s clear he has a lot more development ahead of him, but maybe he can earn a role earlier than expected as a slashing, defensive wing playing off of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Co.

Cam Thomas, Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets’ Big Three has turned into a Big Four after what Cam Thomas did in Las Vegas. Okay, Thomas wasn’t that good, but a Summer League-best 27 points per game from the 27th overall pick is nothing to scoff at. In four games, Thomas consistently got to the free throw line (9.75 attempts per game), shot 36% from deep on 25 total attempts and filled it up in a variety of ways. The 6-4 guard had two 30-plus-point performances and knocked down a wild, double-overtime game-winner.

 

Thomas is a pure bucket-getter, but efficiency will be key for him. He put up 23 points per game as a freshman at LSU but shot 40.6% from the field and 32.25% from deep. Though playing with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving could help Thomas in that department.

Sharife Cooper, Atlanta Hawks

Several general managers were probably kicking themselves while watching Sharife Cooper play. Cooper, the 48th overall pick in the 2021 draft, averaged 14.8 points and 7.2 assists per game on 46.3% shooting over four games. The 6-foot-1 guard was dropping dime after dime, in addition to showcasing his ability to finish through traffic around the rim.

Cooper’s jump shot (22.8% from 3 over 12 games at Auburn) and defense were his biggest question marks as he slid late into the second round. Those concerns are still there (he shot 33.3% on 15 3-point attempts in Vegas), but it’s hard not to come away from Summer League feeling more optimistic about his playmaking potential. And now Cooper gets to learn from a fellow undersized point guard who’s one of the league’s best playmakers in Trae Young.

At least through Summer League, it looks like the Hawks and Nets could have two of the 2021 draft’s biggest steals in Cooper and Thomas.

Honorable mentions: Immanuel Quickley (New York Knicks), Desmond Bane (Memphis Grizzlies), Paul Reed (Philadelphia 76ers), Jalen Johnson (Atlanta Hawks), Chris Duarte (Indiana Pacers), Tre Jones (San Antonio Spurs), Bones Hyland (Denver Nuggets)