The NBA Summer League is filled with illusions. There have been hundreds of players over the years fans got excited about who amounted to nothing after dominating in summer league. But there are still some summer league standouts who earned a roster spot and continue to play productive basketball to this day.
In a similar way, performances in the summer league by second-year players can be a preview for a breakout year, and positive performances by rookie draft picks can only be a taste of what’s to come. Here are five players in this year’s summer league who are worth watching as the regular season draws near.
Tacko Fall, Boston Celtics
It was a bit of a surprise when draft night concluded and no one had taken a chance on the 7’7″ Fall. The Celtics took advantage, signing Fall the next day, and it looks like their bet might pay off. Fall moves extraordinary well for someone that size, and has shown a handful of glimpses here and there that he isn’t just a gadget player to be used defending inbounds. He impacts all shots in the paint simply by standing there, and gets up and down the court quickly enough that it doesn’t hinder the offense.
His free throw shooting will define how much time he can spend on the court. But that’s a long way from how far many believed he’d have to come to earn playing time. It’ll be tough to play him when the minutes matter, but if a 7’7″ giant can give you a solid 10-15 minutes a night, he’s a very valuable asset. Also, he is tall, if you didn’t hear.
Anfernee Simons, Portland Trail Blazers
Simons had a very quiet rookie year after opting to spend a year playing at a prep school over going to college. So far in the summer league, he’s improved immensely, and could very well end up being an important rotation piece for a Portland team that lost a few wings in free agency. He’s put the ball in the basket from all over the floor, highlighted by a 35-point outburst where he shot 13-18.
He has a smooth shooting motion and has exhibited the ability to get to the bucket off the dribble. Simons showed what he could do offensively in the Blazers’ last game of the season when he dropped 37 on the Kings. His summer league shooting isn’t sustainable, but if he can continue to prove he’s an above-average shooter, the Blazers will have an excellent option to turn to this year.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, New Orleans Pelicans
Alexander-Walker has fallen by the wayside a bit, overshadowed by the hype over Zion Williamson and even fellow summer league regular Jaxson Hayes. But he’s been exactly as advertised: a steady hand who can score and switch on defense. He’s averaged 24 points and seven assists a game while running the Pelicans’ offense in Las Vegas.
He won’t be relied upon too much as a rookie with Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday ahead of him in the rotation. But if he can continue to run the point at a similar level coming off the bench, the Pelicans would be ecstatic.
Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
Herro was billed as a shooter heading into the draft in June. He has definitely lived up to that, gunning away from every area of the court and showing why he was a lottery pick. The unexpected development thus far has been Herro’s playmaking ability. He knows how to use the threat of his shooting to draw in the defense, and recognizes when to make the right pass.
Herro probably won’t ever run an offense by himself. But the best 3-and-D players in the league can not only knock down their jumpers, but attack the defense and consistently make the right read when the defense collapses. Herro has done just that so far in Vegas, and if he can carry over to the regular season, he’ll be a perfect fit in Miami.
Daniel Gafford, Chicago Bulls
Gafford was a high second-round pick in this year’s draft who has shown a lot of potential this summer. He’s averaging 13 points, nine rebounds, and nearly three blocks per game as a rim-running center with a feel for protecting the paint. He’s not a world-beater by any means, but a second-round pick carving out playing time as a backup big in his first season is already a valuable asset .
Similar to late first-round pick Robert Williams last season, Gafford has a lot of athletic potential but also has a lot of work to do in terms of his positioning and knowing when to go for the block. But Chicago is in the midst of a youth movement, and there’s no better time to let Gafford work through the kinks than when Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen are resting their laurels on the bench. They might have found something here.