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Congratulations to anyone in the business of peddling hot takes off NBA exhibition games. Day 5 of the Las Vegas Summer League gave you plenty of job security.
The Brooklyn Nets should trade Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving and rebuild around Cam Thomas. Jaden McDaniels is one of the biggest draft steals in league history. Jalen Green’s right hamstring is the most sadistic movie villan of all time. The over/under on the number of All-NBA teams Tre Jones will make is now at 5.5.
And that’s just to start. We have other rampantly optimistic takeaways to rap about after Thursday’s flurry of summer-league action.
If you haven’t caught the tongue-in-cheekiness yet, this is your smack-you-in-the-face public service announcement: We are not actually here to hyperbolize, and recognize that romanticizing summer-league success is a lot like hanging a division-winner banner. That’s OK. These observations are presented as considerations, for your attention and pleasure, rather than declamatory mandates.
As usual, this exercise will end with the “Breakout Candidate of the Day,” a totally real, not-at-all made-up award given to the player who seems most likely to parlay his summer-league showing into regular-season ascension.
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Patrick Williams followed up Tuesday’s 30-point performance with a more modest 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting in the Chicago Bulls’ Thursday loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Gleaning anything from these outings that can be applied to his normal role is at times difficult. He isn’t going to have the same post-up or pull-up agency within the regular-season offense—not after the Bulls added DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball to a nucleus that already included Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and Coby White.
Chicago has, if anything, nudged Williams in a niche direction. It needs him to assume the exhaustive defensive assignments while playing off pretty much everyone else at the other end.
Spacing the floor figures to be a chief responsibility for the soon-to-be 20-year-old. The Bulls have more than enough ball-handlers, and DeRozan, in particular, is most optimized when surrounded by four shooters.
Williams remains something of an unknown from beyond the arc. His 39.1 percent conversion rate from downtown last year came on a modest 138 attempts, and he unbottled just 50 total threes during his lone season at Florida State.
Upping that volume is important, and it appears to be a focus in Vegas. He’s firing off more than five threes per game, which he’s connecting on at a 43.8 percent clip. Equally paramount: Williams seems to be expanding his range from behind the rainbow. He’s converted a few ultra-deep treys through his first three appearances.
Grooming his on-ball offense should remain a priority. He is the Bulls’ last true swing prospect, depending on how you feel about White. But he won’t be superintending units next season given the personnel around him. His largest impact, as someone slated to spend a ton of time shuttling between the 3 and 4 spots, stands to come as a complementary marksman who dots the arc or screens and pops.
And if Williams’ summer-league volume and efficiency from long distance translate at all, the Bulls can feel more than marginally better about a roster that, for now, looks just as combustible as it is talented.
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This isn’t your run-of-the-mill summer-league exaggeration. Jaden McDaniels is not a novelty to those who paid attention last season. He chiseled out an everyday spot in Minnesota’s rotation by splashing in threes and defending, um, just about everyone.
For him, summer league is more about reiterating his value—and then broadening.
Predominantly deployed at the 4 last season, with the streamlined offensive role to match, McDaniels is playing more like a power wing on offense. He is pushing the ball in transition, dribbling into jumpers, hitting some difficult pull-ups and displaying presence of mind in traffic. His handle is holding beyond straightaway opportunities, and he has the footwork, apparently, to change course and scoot by defenders, plural, after picking up his dribble.
The Timberwolves shouldn’t need to probe the depth of McDaniels’ offensive proficiency on a regular basis. They have Malik Beasley, Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns to tackle a brunt of work. But there should be some on-ball looks to spare following the Ricky Rubio trade—Minnesota doesn’t have a clear backup point guard at the moment—and given the relative lack of faith in Jarrett Culver. Beyond that, teams can always use a 6’9″ combo wing who can put the ball on the deck and make something happen.
When that player can also disrupt on the defensive end? Hubba-hubba. McDaniels has shifty hands when guarding on the ball and can send back shots as both the primary defender and helper. The Timberwolves should not be above experimenting with some small-ball-5 minutes for him.
That sentiment also nods to a larger discussion. Minnesota’s interest in, approximately, every potentially available power forward under the sun originally implied a limit to how good the team felt about McDaniels. Really, it suggests the Timberwolves view him more as of a wing—or, equally likely, someone too imperative to qualify as a singular archetype.
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Nineteen-year-old rookies drafted 27th overall are almost never expected to get regular run on title contenders. And Cam Thomas’ situation, specifically, is even more extreme than that cookie-cutter outline. He is joining the closest team to an inevitable champion the NBA has next season.
It isn’t merely that the Brooklyn Nets have more than enough offensive firepower in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. It’s that they have all of those megastars and then Joe Harris, and then Blake Griffin, and then Patty Mills. The rotation is full up on human buckets, both of the shot-creator and long-range missile varieties.
Thomas’ summer-league numbers don’t necessarily mandate the Nets break the typical rookie-on-a-contender mold, either. It took him 21 shots to drop 25 points, and he missed all of his three-point attempts.
To hell with traditional box-score interpretations, though. Thomas looks the part. The level of difficulty on his jumpers is through the roof—tough enough to make both Harden and Irving proud. Thomas is so comfortable flinging up step-back threes it’s genuinely terrifying, and there’s a suddenness to his pull-up middies that bears the slightest resemblance to the speed at which KD and Kyrie uncork their own.
Oh, Thomas also went boom-boom-pow down the stretch of Thursday’s win over the Washington Wizards. He dropped in some trademark jumpers in the second half, left an imprint at the foul line (9-of-10) and hit not one, but two monstrous shots in crunch time—including the sudden-death game-winner that came off a broken play and should probably be described as a one-footed, running three-pointer.
Fitting Thomas’ play style within Brooklyn’s ecosystem may prove tough. He’ll have to defend his ass off if he wants consistent burn. More than that, he must acclimate to playing more off the ball. That’s fine. He ducked in for a nice cutting basket during the third quarter, and pockets of space won’t be hard to come by in lineups that feature at least two of the Nets megastars.
And lest we forget, Brooklyn’s Big Three isn’t the most durable troika to date. KD missed roughly half of the 2020-21 season. Kyrie sat for 18 games and a chunk of the playoffs and has, historically, battled all sorts of injuries. Harden has so far been an ironman, but that’s sort of a working-on-borrowed-time red flag. A hamstring injury limited him down the stretch of last season and during the playoffs.
There will be nights, by choice or by force, in which the Nets are operating below full strength. Optimism springs eternal at summer league, but dammit if Cam Thomas doesn’t look like he could be an entertaining-as-hell stopgap when Brooklyn is shorthanded.
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Jalen Smith has bordered on an afterthought since the Phoenix Suns selected him at No. 10 in the 2020 draft. What little discourse has been devoted to him spotlights his absence of impact, or how Tyrese Haliburton could’ve been the pick instead of him.
Nothing through his first two summer-league performances suggested this would change. He grabbed a bunch of rebounds and teased a smooth catch-and-shoot jumper while actually only downing three of his first 11 triples. Ty-Shon Alexander is the Suns’ bigger summer-league story—and rightfully so.
Then Thursday happened.
Smith dropped 21 points and 11 rebounds on 6-of-15 shooting, including a 4-of-7 clip from three, during Phoenix’s win over the Denver Nuggets. It is easily the peak of his NBA career. He not only showcased feathery touch off the catch, but he also offered a glimpse into an alluring pump-and-go game. He takes big, long strides when jetting off the three-point line, making him difficult to defend for anyone who closes out too far or doesn’t take away his right hand.
These bright spots could prove fleeting. The Suns need them to be something more. They’ve clearly decided Smith is a 4, not a 5, after signing JaVale McGee and keeping Frank Kaminsky. But that doesn’t exactly close off the sophomore’s path to playing time. Phoenix counts Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson as its primary 4s at the moment, and both will have to pitch in with minutes at the 3 unless general manager James Jones nabs someone other than Abdel Nader to sponge up minutes behind Mikal Bridges.
Smith can also still factor into backup-5 rotation. The Suns don’t have another big who can catch and go off the line. Deandre Ayton has the foot speed, but neither that nor actual three-point shooting is part of his game (yet).
Perhaps this overstates the importance of Smith’s trajectory to a team that just made the Finals. Counterpoint: It doesn’t. He represents the Suns’ last marquee pick for a while, unless something goes terribly wrong. Simply writing him as a bench-warmer has implications down the line, as Phoenix’s payroll mushrooms and its avenues to significant improvement shrink. Even if the Suns don’t plan on keeping Smith long term, any standout performance does wonders for his trade value.
Tenth-overall picks entering their second season are supposed to retain some mystery-box sheen. Phoenix must hope Smith regains some of his. That’s especially important considering Dario Saric probably won’t play next season, Phoenix owes a 2022 first-rounder to Oklahoma City and it doesn’t have any truly dispensable salary filler to step-ladder its way to more expensive acquisitions.
Though Smith may not offer an immediate on-court solution, for better or worse, he is the Suns’ top trade chip. Showing anything at all could be the difference between his headlining a deal that nets them an expiring-contract depth piece who negligibly moves their postseason needle, and a package for a sixth or seventh guy—Larry Nance Jr.? Kyle Anderson?—who genuinely fortifies their title case.
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Tre Jones made just 37 appearances, spanning a grand total of 269 minutes, during his rookie season with the San Antonio Spurs. Something tells me he’ll get more run as a sophomore.
The 21-year-old guard detonated for 34 points, eight rebounds and nine assists on 12-of-20 shooting from the floor against the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday. And because a regular ol’ hyper-efficient, near-triple-double isn’t enough, he put down a heavily contested game-winning runner for good measure.
Summer league is summer league is summer league, blah, blah, blah. I get it. But Jones has verged on mesmerizing in Las Vegas.
He needs to work on his three-ball, and his 6’1″ frame inherently limits some of the shots he can take. Neither curbs his aggression. He is an every-level threat but especially menacing as a pull-up shooter from mid-range and tough-angle finisher around the basket. His 9-of-9 clip at the foul line versus Charlotte is a microcosm of the pressure he puts on defenses. You don’t feel like you’re watching someone who’s “only” 6’1″.
San Antonio’s guard rotation remains crowded, even after losing Patty Mills. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Devin Vassell and Lonnie Walker IV all factor into the equation, and the Spurs just drafted 18-year-old Josh Primo, who they’ve tested out at point, and re-signed Bryn Forbes.
Still, Jones can separate himself with the pace at which he plays. San Antonio’s second units have warmed up to running the floor in recent seasons, and he’s wired to push the ball and slingshot passes ahead of the defense.
Any uptick in dependence on Jones will come with growing pains. He needs to do a better job when trying to dribble through or around size and be more cognizant of defenders trailing him in transition. The Spurs should have the stomach to let him captain some bench mobs. They haven’t committed to rebuilding, per se, but also haven’t cobbled together a roster they can pretend has a prayer of doing anything more than sneaking into the play-in. Jones should have the runway to snag a spot in the rotation.