2021 NBA Summer League: Rookie Standouts
The 2021 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas has come to a close. It was great seeing the league’s future stars compete and showcase their skills; especially after Summer League was put on a COVID-induced hiatus in 2020. It was also our first look at the NBA careers for this year’s class of rookies; here are 10 rookies that stood out above the rest with their performances.
2021 NBA Summer League: Rookie Standouts
G-League Ignite guard Jalen Green put on a show in Las Vegas, staking his claim as the most impressive rookie in Summer League. His outstanding offensive abilities were on display, culminating in averages of 20.3 points in 24.1 minutes across three games played. Green’s efficiency was terrific as well, with a 51.4 field goal percentage, 52.6 percent on three-pointers (6.3 per game), and a 92.9 free throw percentage.
Green showcased his excellent arsenal of moves in each of his performances, and his stepback jumper stood out as the most impressive & effective tool in his bag. Much like trademarked stepback assassins Luka Doncic, James Harden, and Bradley Beal; Green uses his stepback at multiple levels and angles to create space and knock down the jumper.
He also excelled in getting to the basket with his quick first step. He also stars in navigating and finishing through traffic at the rim. In the last play of this clip, Green freezes Evan Mobley on the switch with a hop and hesitation move before blowing by him and finishing with his left hand.
A hamstring injury limited him to only three games of Summer League action, but Green should make an immediate impact for the Houston Rockets, who selected him at number two overall. By the season’s end, he should also serve as a strong contender for the Rookie of the Year race.
The number one pick in the draft, Cade Cunningham, lived up to that status during Summer League, showcasing the versatile all-around game that made him a tantalizing prospect at Oklahoma State. Now a member of the Detroit Pistons, Cunningham averaged 18.7 points and 5.7 rebounds with a 42.9 percent field goal percentage and a 50 percent three-point percentage on 8.7 attempts across 3 games. He maintained immense composure throughout, remaining in control and playing within the flow of the game.
At 6’8 and 220lbs, Cunningham fits the physical profile of a premier big guard in today’s NBA; he plays to his size on both ends as well. Offensively, his football background is evident in the way he seeks and finishes through contact in the paint.
And on defense, Cunningham uses his size and length to bother opposing players on the perimeter. He’s not the most athletic player, but he can guard positions one through three and even some smaller fours in the NBA. His leadership qualities stand out on this end as well.
While his turnover numbers were high in college and in the summer league (four per game), better teammates in the NBA will help rectify this flaw in his game. Cunningham is a high-risk passer, constantly throwing into tight windows but with accuracy, his teammates at Oklahoma State and in Las Vegas often could not handle his passes.
Just another off night. Sacramento Kings guard Davion Mitchell earned his “Off Night” nickname during his days at Baylor for his relentless defensive intensity. An intensity that took center stage in Las Vegas.
On the Kings’ path to becoming Summer League Champions, Mitchell’s defensive presence resulted in off nights for James Bouknight (11 pts, 5 TOs on 4/11 shooting) and Payton Pritchard (6 pts, 6 TOs on 3/9 shooting). It also resulted in Mitchell being named Co-MVP of the Summer League.
Mitchell is undersized by NBA standards (6’1, 205lbs), but combines outstanding lateral quickness, terrific instincts, and all-out effort on the defensive end to absolutely smother defenders on and off the ball.
Offensively, Mitchell wasn’t a volume scorer but struck a balance between getting his own and setting his teammates up to score. Mitchell averaged 10.8 points and 5.8 assists while shooting 42.3 percent from the field and a scorching 47.1 three-point percentage on 3.6 attempts per game. He’s terrific at shooting off the dribble and pulling up from range and showcased these abilities frequently in Vegas.
The former Gonzaga superstar, Jalen Suggs, went fifth overall to the Orlando Magic. Although his time in Summer League was cut short due to a thumb injury, Suggs played excellent on both ends of the floor in the two full games he did play.
At 6’4’ and 205lbs, Suggs uses his size and competitiveness to play big on the glass. He grabbed 17 total rebounds in his two full games of action, skying up to snag the ball off the rim and jumpstart the offense in transition. Suggs also displayed great form on his jumper and can shoot off the catch and off the dribble.
What makes Suggs special is his defensive ability. Suggs is a tenacious competitor which shows through in his defense, positioning himself well in order to force timely steals and blocks. He has a very high understanding of where to be on the defensive end; my favorite example of this is how he defends this two-on-one fastbreak in the clutch in his debut game.
Simply put, Suggs is fearless. His drive and all-around play make him an ideal leader for the Magic as they lead their way through the early stages of a rebuild.
The oldest player in the 2021 NBA Draft, Chris Duarte, was selected 13th overall out of Oregon by the Indiana Pacers. Duarte possesses all the skills teams covet as a wing in the modern NBA. His well-rounded game was fully on display in Las Vegas, stuffing the stat sheet with averages of 18.3 points, four rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.5 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game across 4 games. He also shot 45.6 percent from the field and boasted a 48.3 three-point percentage on 7.3 attempts per game.
Duarte is a high-IQ basketball player who constantly made plays in the Summer League. He displayed the ability to make tough shots off the dribble, finish inside, defend at a high level and make plays for others. Duarte can also space the floor well, knocking down the three with deep range. He is a team-first player, willing to accept any role for the betterment of the whole unit.
Teams tend to shy away from four-year college players when picking earlier in the draft because of their advanced age and therefore, lack of significant upside when compared to younger players. However, four-year players often possess intangibles and experience that make them valuable players; helping teams win early in their career whilst playing a major role. Chris Duarte looks to be next in line as the Pacers look to return to the playoffs this season.
One thing certain about Cameron Thomas is that can get himself a bucket any time he wants. As the leading scorer and Co-MVP of the Summer League, Thomas’ tremendous scoring ability was on full display in Vegas. He averaged 27 points in 28.8 minutes per game across four games with a 42.3 percent field goal percentage.
Thomas can score at all three levels and plays at a high pace as well. Extremely quick and athletic, he uses his athleticism to blow past defenders on his way to the rim. Thomas also possesses a crafty handle that breaks defenders down to set up a drive or his ultra-effective stepback jumper.
Thomas is also extremely confident, plays with an enormous chip on his shoulder, and is fearless in high-pressure situations. This was evident in the Nets’ overtime victory over the Washington Wizards; Thomas scored 31 points to go along with the game-tying and game-winning three-pointers.
One of the, if not the best pure scorer in the draft going to the Brooklyn Nets led by a trio of elite pure scorers in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden is downright unfair. Thomas will provide even more offensive firepower in Brooklyn, another case of the rich getting richer.
Trey Murphy III
Forward Trey Murphy III out of Virginia was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans by way of the Memphis Grizzlies as the 17th pick in the draft. Murphy’s outstanding outside shooting (40.1 three-point percentage in college) combined with his size and length (6’9” with a 7’1” wingspan) is what made him a first-round talent. That combination led to great success in the Las Vegas Summer League as well, averaging 16.3 points, seven rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game in four games.
Murphy shot the basketball with elite efficiency both in college and in the Summer League; he was a 50/40/90 shooter at Virginia and shot a 55.8 field goal percentage, 44 percent on three-pointers, and 100 percent on free throws. A great set shooter, Murphy’s size allows him to shoot over the top of smaller defenders with a quick release; making his shot tough to contest. He is adept at putting the ball on the floor as well and driving to the rim on closeouts.
Murphy is a terrific defender as well, using his length to disrupt ball-handlers with the athleticism to challenge and block shots. This athleticism helps him on offense as well, being able to play above the rim and finish strong.
Murphy joins Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram in New Orleans in their quest to make the playoffs. He will help space the floor, open up driving lanes for the aforementioned stars while playing sound defense as well. For a team that lacked these aspects last season, Trey Murphy III should be a great fit in the Big Easy.
The second of four first-round picks by the Houston Rockets, Alperen Sengun is a highly skilled big man who can do a lot of things on the offensive end; the types of bigs we’ve seen have great success in the modern NBA. Sengun was the MVP of the Turkish League before entering the draft, a unique player with very high potential.
What stands out about Sengun is his mobility and ball-handling for a guy his size. He has no problem bringing the ball up in transition after a rebound. He handles the ball well enough to drive into the paint with the skill to finish when he gets there.
Sengun is also a great passer with excellent court vision, allowing him to deliver passes in many different situations and angles. This ability allows him to play on the perimeter or in the post, adding to his versatility.
Sengun averaged 14.5 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks, and 2.8 assists per game in four summer league games for Houston. At only 19 years old, the sky is the limit for Sengun as he develops alongside the uber-talented young core of the Rockets.
The Atlanta Hawks made out like bandits in the 2021 NBA Draft, nabbing the biggest steals in the draft relative to their draft position. First of which is forward Jalen Johnson out of Duke. A combination of a foot injury and Johnson opting out early caused teams to fall wary of him during the pre-draft process. On draft night, Johnson fell all the way to 20th overall before being selected by the Hawks.
In the Summer League, Johnson showed why he was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. He averaged 19 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in four games while shooting 57.4 percent from the field and 41.7 percent on three-pointers (three attempts per game). Johnson was named to the All-Summer League First Team.
Johnson’s combination of great athleticism and ball-handling ability allowed him to wreak havoc in transition and on the glass, functioning as a lob and putback threat any time he’s around the basket.
Johnson can also put the ball on the floor and not only make plays for himself with a solid jumper and post-game, but also for his teammates. He has the solid court vision and passing skills that allow him to make plays in transition and in the half-court. Also playing well defensively, Johnson has the size (6’9’, 220lbs & a 7’0” wingspan) and quickness to be able to guard multiple positions. Johnson oozes potential, and it’s not hard to see him becoming a major contributor for Atlanta down the line.
Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland
The best nickname and arguably the best steal of the draft both belong to Bones Hyland, who the Denver Nuggets selected at #26 overall. A guard out of VCU, Hyland finished third in scoring among rookies in the 2021 Draft, averaging 19.7 points with a 46.4 field goal percentage and 40 percent on three-pointers (8.8 attempts per game) in four games.
Hyland plays with plenty of confidence and is a big-time shot-maker. Similar to Immanuel Quickley, Hyland is a great shooter from range who can get hot in a hurry. While he isn’t as quick, Hyland is a crafty ball-handler who can shake defenders off balance and gain separation. He’s great in transition, and a tough cover in the pick and roll due to his combination of shooting and driving.
Hyland is not just a scorer though; he’s a willing passer both in the open floor and in the half-court. At 6’3’ with a 6’9” wingspan, Hyland has the size and skills to play either guard position; a necessity for Denver’s backcourt depth going forward as they play without Jamal Murray.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images