Thanks for the amazing amount of time you put into the Summer League Manifesto. The effort alone deserves a ton of credit, regardless of whether you foolishly thought D’Angelo Russell was ever going to be a Top 25 from the Last Three Drafts.
I think the biggest thing about NBA talent is decision making. If I see a young guy do something wise beyond his years, I take notice. That’s why I was so impressed with Carter and Sexton.
The second thing I look for is footwork. Guys that can slide their feet on defense, or create offense from almost any position are guys that I will keep an eye on. (Once again, Carter and Sexton excelled in these areas).
With regard to Kuzma, not only was he #4 on the all-Rookie NBA first team, if you only look at the 2017–2018 regular season, Kuzma was the best offensive rookie of the year based on his production, the fact that he was the Lakers’ top scoring option for most of the year, and because he had the best offensive games of the year against quality opponents.
He didn’t get the same recognition as the top three because they played on winning teams. I would argue that his ability to do what he did without being surrounded by All-Stars (or at least guys who could shoot 3-pointers the entire year) and beat winning teams is even more an indication of future greatness.
Like everyone, Kuzma hit the rookie wall, but claims that his play tailed off after a fantastic first two months are ridiculous as his March was just as good, if not better than Mitchell or Tatum:
Kuzma (14.4 shots per game): 18.7/8.5/2.4, shooting .387 3P%, .480 FG%, .744 FT%
Mitchell (19.5 shots per game): 23.0/4.1/4.3, shooting .291 3P%, .425 FG%, .759 FT%
Tatum (12.7 shots per game): 16.8/5.8/2.4, shooting .442 3P%, .497 FG%, .814 FT%
As I wrote back in February, Kuzma was the best offensive player based on two tie breakers:
#1: Are you the #1 option on your team?
This is where I had to eliminate Simmons and Tatum, in spite of their efficiency. Simmons gets the edge because he is a cornerstone of the team, but he shares the #1 option with an All-Star center and is surrounded by three very good 3-point shooters. Tatum has Al Horford drawing centers out outside the paint, and Kyrie Irving on offense to penetrate and feed him for open 3’s. (I’m probably guilty of recency bias, but he looked terrible against the Lakers and basically disappeared against the Warriors. His best game against an elite team came in a win over Houston where he scored 19 points.)
#2: Can you put your team on your back and pull off a win in the most pressurized situations?
To me, this is the ultimate test of future greatness. (Is it any surprise that I view the greatest moment in the history of basketball as being Game 6 of the NBA Finals in 1980, when Kareem Abdul Jabbar was sidelined with a bad ankle? Rookie Magic Johnson revolutionized basketball by being the first point-center in history and went on to a 42–15–7 performance that won the championship.)
Donovan Mitchell: In Utah’s best win of the season over Boston, Mitchell had 17 points, 5 rebounds and 9 assists and scored 8 points in the 4th quarter. But Utah had three other guys who scored 17 or more, and they had 24 more rebounds than the Celtics. Mitchell scored 41 points in a win over New Orleans, and had four other 30+ point games against mostly mediocre teams.
Kyle Kuzma: Besides two 30-point games against mediocre teams, Kuzma exploded for 38 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in a huge win over Houston, where James Harden scored 51.
But the game that elevates him above everyone was a nationally televised game against Boston where he had 28 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists. Kuzma scored 17 points in the 4th quarter, outdueling Kyrie Irving to preserve a nail-biting win for the Lakers.
Kuzma also put the team on his back to win a game against Denver in March that had the intensity of a playoff game, in spite of spraining his ankle during the game. And he killed the Spurs in April while they were fighting for their playoff lives.
Rookie play in Summer League is about as predictive as fortune cookies
My whole issue with rating rookies after Summer League is how significant the drop off in play can be once they play against NBA level defense.
Case in point: Kevin Knox
The Lakers took a 25-point 3rd quarter lead and let the reserves take over. Knox went absolutely crazy during a 5-minute stretch, hitting at least four 3-pointers, and the Knicks went on a 28–3 run to tie the game. They even took a 3-point lead. The Lakers sent back in Alex Caruso and Josh Hart, and they made Knox look like he should have stayed another year in Kentucky, as they harassed him into turnovers and missed shots, while immediately building a double digit lead.
I would say that Summer League does more to show who has almost no chance of becoming a great NBA player, which means Josh Jackson, Malik Monk, and Dennis Smith. Being a one-trick pony in this league is no longer an option, at least at the playoff level.
Guys who can only play one side of the ball become unplayable as the stakes increase. 3-and-D wings with no 3 like Jackson are useless. And score first point guards who don’t defend or pass well show a lack of hoops IQ that may never develop.
As for the bigs, given the way the NBA has changed, Wendell Carter, Jr is the only guy I would trust to play big minutes in the playoffs at this point. The other guys will need a lot of work.