As we sit and swelter together in this, the second week of July, let us join in trying to hold two opposing thoughts in our heads, simultaneously:
What happens on the court at Summer League doesn’t really matter. The four highest-scoring games in Summer League history belong to Anthony Morrow, Von Wafer, Anthony Randolph and Marcus Banks. Stephen Curry missed 10 of his 14 shots and committed seven fouls in eight minutes in his first Summer League game, while Trae Young missed 16 of 20 attempts and went just 1-for-11 from 3-point range. The former group never really broke through in the big show; the latter group, it’s fair to say, has done all right. This is worth keeping in mind.
What happens on the court at Summer League does matter a little bit. Looking shaky for a game here or there doesn’t necessarily mark you as a burgeoning bust. But showing year-over-year growth in your game and looking like a varsity player surreptitiously scrimmaging with the JV? That, if nothing else, is notable.
Let’s run through a handful of notable performers from the opening week of summer exhibition contests, starting in California’s capital:
The 6-foot-8 forward proved to be a plug-and-play difference-maker as a rookie, coming out of Iowa with the No. 4 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft and stepping almost instantly into Sacramento’s starting lineup. Murray shattered the rookie record for 3-point makes, knocked down more catch-and-shoot triples than anybody but Klay Thompson and Buddy Hield, and bounced back from a quiet start to his first postseason appearance by averaging 14.5 points and eight rebounds over the final four games of the Kings’ heartbreaking seven-game loss to the Warriors in the opening round of the 2023 NBA playoffs.
But after a freshman campaign in which he rarely created his own shot — just under 27% of his buckets were unassisted, according to NBA Advanced Stats — the young King went into the California Classic with a mandate to get greedy, to expand his offensive purview and to try to generate offense for himself. It went pretty well:
In two appearances for the Summer Kings, Murray cooked just about every which way you can, from every area of the floor. He went coast-to-coast for tomahawk dunks and drained pull-up 3s in transition. He came off high ball screens and chiseled his way into midrange pull-ups, and he curled off handoffs to either get downhill for floaters or rise up for quick-trigger triples. He isolated on defenders, shook them off the bounce and then stepped back to cash out. He sought out contact, earning 26 free throws in two games.
After opening up with a 29-point outing against the Warriors and following that up by hanging 41 on the Heat, Sacramento’s braintrust decided that 70 points on 37 shots in 62 minutes was about all they needed to see out of the rising sophomore forward:
“That’s Keegan’s last game for summer league.” -Luke Loucks on Keegan Murray
— James Ham (@James_HamNBA) July 6, 2023
Nobody’s expecting Murray to average 35 a game on .723 true shooting. (Though I’m guessing Kings fans wouldn’t mind it if he did.) But the results matter less than the process; a version of Murray that’s more able and, perhaps most importantly, more willing to use his size, strength and skill to create for himself would add another dangerous wrinkle to an overwhelming Sacramento offense that led the NBA in points scored per possession last season.
“I feel like a lot of the season, I was just a catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter,” Murray told reporters. “I want to be a guy that can get a basket if we need it.”
Through two games in the summer, he looked eminently capable of acting the part — and maybe prompting us to wonder whether his ceiling might not be an awfully lot higher than we’d previously considered.
“It wasn’t that Keegan is Kawhi [Leonard] or Kawhi is Keegan, but the step [Kawhi took] from [his] rookie season — like, ‘Oh, we’ve got a pretty good rookie,’ to, like, ‘Holy smokes, this guy can be exceptional,’” Summer Kings coach Luke Loucks told reporters. “I think we’re all seeing it as an organization, we’re feeling it, but we’re also pushing him to believe in that. I think he’s feeling it and he’s also embracing it — like, ‘OK, if you guys want me to take this next step, I’m going to do it.’”
Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Like Murray, Williams took the court at the California Classic intent on showing off how he’d leveled up after a stellar first season in OKC that earned him a second-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting. And like Murray, it didn’t take him too long to prove his point.
Aggressive drives, stop-and-pop floaters, scoop layups from a variety of angles, 3-pointers splashed in rhythm — Williams showcased his full skill set, scoring 21 points in 22 minutes to go with four rebounds, two assists, a block and attentive defense in OKC’s win over the Jazz in its Summer League opener. The Santa Clara product who carved out a starting role on a Thunder team that made the play-in tournament looked like a man among boys in his lone appearance in Salt Lake City, having evidently made good use of his downtime since the end of Oklahoma City’s season.
“I was able to work on my body and watch a lot of film,” Williams said after his command performance. “See what I can improve on.”
On the “areas of improvement” to-do list, it appears we can put a big ol’ checkmark next to “get brolic,” because our man J-Dub’s looking pretty swole these days:
All the better to bump off opponents and create space on his drives, finish through contact at the cup and hold his own against scorers of all sizes across positions as one of an increasing number of versatile stoppers on a talented young Oklahoma City defense. Healthy again, big man Chet Holmgren drew more eyeballs from pundits and prognosticators, and third-year guard Tre Mann scored more points for the Summer Thunder. That Williams looked like the best player on the floor from the minute he stepped on it to the second he stepped off it, though, might prove more important for a Thunder team with its sights set on becoming a postseason problem sooner rather than later.
Jabari Smith Jr., Houston Rockets
After what might best be described as an uneven rookie season that saw him shoot under 40% from the floor before the All-Star break and average a shade under 15 points and eight rebounds per game on 45% shooting after it, the No. 3 pick in the 2022 draft saw his second Summer League not as an obligation but as an opportunity.
“I’m 20 years old. Why wouldn’t I play Summer League?” Smith told reporters. “We were 22-60 last year. I don’t feel like I’m in a position to just sit out. My rookie year wasn’t perfect, wasn’t great, so why not get out here and get reps?”
Getting reps is great. Actually doing something with them, though, is a hell of a lot better.
Smith opened Summer League with a flourish, capping a 29-point second half with a game-winning buzzer-beater to ice a win over the Trail Blazers. He then picked right up where he left off in his second outing, dominating the Pistons with 38 points on 13-for-25 shooting to go with seven rebounds in 33 minutes in a 113-101 win.
This was the prospect so many had waxed poetic about coming out of Auburn: a smooth shooter with a sweet release, crisp footwork in the post to create space for turnarounds, and enough length and confidence to fire over tight contests. Even more appealing, though, was Smith showing the confidence to put the ball on the deck, attack closeouts and play at his own pace on the drive, using his long strides and improved strength with the ball to get all the way to the rim and finish. If the tighter handle and improved vision he flashed against Detroit sticks around — six assists in the win, a number he matched just once as a rookie — he could be in line for a big leap playing next to new table-setter Fred VanVleet in what Houston hopes will be a revamped, more organized and dramatically improved offense.
Max Christie, Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers profiled as one of the big winners of the NBA’s free agency period, bringing back their own free agents (Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura) while also adding several newcomers (Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince, Jaxson Hayes, Cam Reddish) to add depth and versatility to a roster that just made the Western Conference finals. Cracking such a crowded roster requires the kind of performance that makes a front office and coaching staff stand up and take notice … which certainly appears to be what Christie, a second-round pick out of Michigan State in the 2022 draft who barely cracked 500 minutes as a rookie, aimed to deliver on the summer stage:
Christie has impressed for L.A.’s entries in both the California Classic and Las Vegas Summer League, showing increased comfort operating in the pick-and-roll, knocking down shots off the catch and attacking the paint off the dribble. The 20-year-old swingman is averaging 18.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and four assists through four games across both competitions, shooting 48.9% from the floor, 9-for-15 (60%) from 3-point range and 22-for-23 (95.7%) from the foul line.
“It’s something I was definitely working on this summer — just being able to make plays for myself and others,” Christie told reporters. “Just being comfortable with the ball in my hands.”
Combine that with great length — 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan — and constant activity against a variety of wings on the defensive end, and you’ve got the makings of precisely the kind of complementary perimeter player who could thrive playing between LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
“The goal is to play, like I said at my exit interview, as much basketball as I can in terms of winning on the floor,” Christie told reporters. ”So whatever that takes. Whether that’s defense, shooting, being a leader. Whatever it is, I’m willing to do it because I want to be on that floor and I want to contribute to winning.”
The revamped and reloaded Lakers roster might not need Christie to take a step forward to have enough depth to mount another postseason run. If he’s able to assert himself enough to insert himself into that mix, though? So much the better.
Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio Spurs
Barring a 50-point, 30-rebound, 15-block magnum opus during which he also played a flawless Paganini on a violin the size of a viola while baking a scrumptious soufflé, there was no way Wembanyama was going to live up to the hype at his grand Summer League unveiling. And, as you no doubt know by now, he didn’t — nine points on 2-for-13 shooting, with more airballs, turnovers and posterizations than big-wow positive moments on the ledger.
It wasn’t exactly the first impression that the No. 1 overall pick wanted to make on his new adoring public.
“Honestly, I didn’t really know what I was doing on the court tonight, but I’m trying to learn for the next games,” Wembanyama told reporters after his disappointing debut.
Good thing, then, that the kid seems like a quick study:
Wembanyama bounced back from his introductory dud with a forceful reminder against the Trail Blazers, finding his rhythm in the second quarter and pouring it on to the tune of 27 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in 27 minutes of work. The touch from midrange, the footwork on the box, the flashes into the paint, the aggressiveness on the offensive glass and the solar-eclipse length guarding the paint — it’s all still there. It didn’t vanish after one bad night in Vegas.
And, having seen it, the Spurs decided they’d seen enough, giving the new face of their franchise — who went right from a long playoff run in France’s LNB Pro A into draft night and a whirlwind tour of the States — a long-awaited and much deserved break.
“In the past month, I think basketball wasn’t even 50% of my schedule,” Wembanyama told reporters over the weekend. “I couldn’t stand it. It’s a special moment in my life, but I’m glad it’s over, honestly. I just want to hoop, work out and lift.”
Now that he’s shut down for the remainder of the Summer League slate, he can turn his attention to getting ready for the real thing.
“We’ve got two to three great months that are coming,” Wembanyama told reporters after Sunday’s game. “And they are going to change my life.”
And, with any luck, the lives of a lot of other people in San Antonio, too.
“We’re going to have a lot of fun this season,” Spurs forward Jeremy Sochan told Yahoo Sports’ Krysten Peek with a smile. “I can’t wait to play with him.”