The NBA summer league is the best teaser to what to expect from the incoming rookie class. As expected, the top lottery picks didn’t disappoint, while others have obvious weaknesses that need to be corrected.
The Las Vegas summer league was the main event of the NBA offseason. All 30 teams, armed with their first-round picks from the 2023 NBA draft, showed up to The Strip to showcase the potential stars of tomorrow. The main attraction was 7-foot-4 center Victor Wembanyama, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
Wembanyama had quite the roller-coaster ride in Vegas, and we’re not referring to his games on the hardwood. Wembanyama had strange encounter with pop star Britney Spears at Aria, which resulted in a wild 48 hours in which the San Antonio Spurs star’s security detail was accused of slapping Spears in the face. The claim was investigated by Las Vegas police and no charges were filed. No harm, no foul.
Wembanyama was literally and figuratively the biggest attraction in the Vegas summer league. There was a palpable buzz around UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center as a massive crowd that snaked around the arena were there to catch a glimpse of the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
His summer league debut was a major event. Thomas & Mack Center was sold out for the whole day to watch the 19-year-old human Eiffel Tower. When Wembanyama took the court, it was like watching Usher or Adele hit the stage.
His first game was dud as he went 2-for-13 from the floor with just nine points.
His second game was worth the price of admission.
He scored 27 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, had three blocks, and threw down a couple of crowd-pleasing dunks. But just as Wemby was starting to get on a roll, the Spurs inexplicably shut him down for the rest of the summer league after two games. Two games! Fans who were hoping to catch Wemby after the weekend must have felt like they got slapped in the face by Wemby’s security team.
We shouldn’t be surprised by now that a Gregg Popovich-run organization is unnecessarily load managing Wemby. Pop did it with Tim Duncan. He did it with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. And he did with with Kawhi Leonard.
Wembanyama wasn’t the only NBA rookie who put on a show in Vegas. Here are the studs — and duds — from the Las Vegas summer league:
STUDS: Cam Whitmore, Keyonte George, Scoot Henderson, Amen Thompson, Ausar Thompson
Cam Whitmore, forward, Houston Rockets — For whatever strange reason, Whitmore dropped to 20th in the draft. The 19-year-old former Villanova standout is now using his draft night disappointment as motivation. Whitmore silenced his doubters with his outstanding performance in summer league. He was arguably the best two-way player in Vegas, leading the Rockets to a 5-1 record and winning the MVP of the Vegas summer league. He averaged 19.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.5 steals. He tied a summer league record with eight steals in a win over Golden State. When we revisit the 2023 draft, we’re all going to wonder how in the world did Whitmore fall out of the lottery. He looks like the steal of the draft and could be an absolute stud.
Keyonte George, guard, Utah Jazz — The 16th pick in the draft put on a show in his first two games before a sprained ankle in his third game ended his summer session. George, 19, dropped a cool 33 points and 10 assists the first time he hit the Vegas stage, and followed that up with 26 points and seven assists for an encore. The former Baylor Bears guard shot 44% from 3-point range. It’s safe to say, Jazz general manager Danny Ainge hit another home run in the draft.
Scoot Henderson, guard, Portland Trail Blazers — Henderson, the No. 3 overall pick, looked the most NBA-ready player from his draft class. The 19-year-old prodigy had the advantage of playing in Vegas where he has been training for the past two years under the G League Ignite program. Henderson was comfortable in the spotlight. He met the moment during his summer league debut, making his first four shots and finishing with 15 points, five rebounds and six assists. He went head-to-head with fellow rookie point guard Amen Thompson and both of them made a strong first impression.
Amen Thompson, guard-forward, Houston Rockets — Amen and Ausar Thompson were the first set of twins to be drafted in the top-5 in the draft. Amen, 20, was seen as the slightly better prospect than his brother and that scouting report proved to be accurate. He posted 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting with four rebounds, five assists, three steals and four blocks in 28 minutes before leaving the game with a sprained ankle. The Rockets shut him down the rest of the summer league.
Ausar Thompson, guard-forward, Detroit Pistons — After somewhat of a slow start, Ausar really got going once the Pistons sat second-year players Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren. The fifth overall pick in the draft saved his best for last when he had 18 points and 14 rebounds against the Spurs, including a spectacular one-handed, putback dunk over Dominick Barlow.
DUDS: Brandon Miller, Jett Howard, Bilal Coulibaly, Jordan Hawkins, Kobe Bufkin
Brandon Miller, forward, Charlotte Hornets — Miller has had an up-and-down summer season. He struggled in his pro debut during the California Classic in Sacramento, and it carried over in his first two games in Vegas as he went 9-for-33 from the field. He finally shook off the cobwebs in his third game against the Blazers scoring 26 points in a loss. There’s a stain that has followed past No. 2 overall picks in the last 23 years. Some might even say it’s cursed. From Stromile Swift to Darko Milicic to Hasheem Thabeet to Marvin Bagley, being selected No. 2 has not worked out for a host of much-hyped prospects. Miller is hoping he can avoid the curse.
Jett Howard, forward, Orlando Magic — Howard, the son of former NBA player and Michigan Fab Five member Juwan Howard, is one of Orlando’s two lottery picks. The other was point guard Anthony Black, the sixth overall pick. Howard was the 11th player selected. In other words, the Magic passed on Cam Whitmore twice. Howard couldn’t find his shooting stroke in a bumpy Vegas run. The 6-8 former Michigan forward shot just 38% from the field in three games and looked unsure at times on both ends.
Bilal Coulibaly, forward, Washington Wizards — Coulibaly has the biggest boom-or-bust potential among all the rookies in his draft class. The French teenager — a teammate of Wembanyama’s with Metropolitans 92 — rocketed to the top of many draft boards because of his high ceiling and vast potential. But potential could get coaches fired. Coulibaly has all the physical tools, but he’s far from being a finished product. His defense is way ahead of his offense. If he turns into Nic Batum, then the Wizards made the right call to take him at No. 7 overall. But if his offensive game doesn’t improve, we could be looking at another Frank Ntilikina.
Jordan Hawkins, guard, New Orleans Pelicans — Hawkins had a reputation of being a sharpshooter in college, flashing those skills in the Connecticut Huskies’ NCAA championship run in 2023. Some scouts compared him to former UConn great and basketball Hall of Famer Ray Allen. Based on how Hawkins played during the Vegas summer league, let’s put those Ray Allen comparisons to bed. He’s definitely not Ray Allen. After a solid first game, Hawkins progressively got worse the more games he played in Vegas. He shot just 29% from the field and 21% from 3-point range. Hawkins (who’s already 21) doesn’t do much else outside of being a shooter, so if he doesn’t fix his shot he might have a hard time cracking the Pelicans’ rotation.
Kobe Bufkin, guard, Atlanta Hawks — Bufkin was a popular player to watch on many mock drafts, and he rose in the draft in part because of his potential as a scorer. The transition from college to pro is not a smooth one so far for the left-handed shooting guard, who primarily played point guard on the Hawks summer league team. Bufkin, 19, struggled when he was tasked as the primary playmaker, turning the ball over at alarming rate (4.6 per game). He also struggled with consistency on his shooting, especially from 3-point range as he made just 13% of his shots. Bufkin did finish strong with 18 points in his final game, but he’s got a long ways to go before he can crack the rotation in a very crowded Hawks backcourt.