Welcome to the Weekend Read. This week we delve into the most impressive second-year players at the NBA Summer League and pick out our favorite stories of the week. Enjoy.
• With the target on its back, outside pressures and attention raising the stakes even higher, this unflappable, unapologetic and unequaled USWNT could go down as the best women’s soccer team ever. (By Grant Wahl)
• While the NFL is on vacation right now, Anthony Lynn has spent his break in Tanzania, where he recently helped to open a school. (By Jenny Vrentas)
• The brightest lights in basketball’s biggest city—suddenly, shockingly—belong to Brooklyn, with the additions of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. All that new shine, however, does not come without risk. (By Chris Mannix)
• There’s no consensus among MLB players about what changes want and how they’ll get them in the next CBA, putting them at a serious disadvantage in negotiations with the owners. (By Stephanie Apstein)
• The Apollo 11 mission also marked the moment of liftoff for Gaylord and Jim Perry’s family connection with the moon. (By S.L. Price)
• Sure, the 2020 NFL draft is still nine months away but it’s never too early for a mock draft. Here are the likely top 10 picks based on what we know now. (By Albert Breer)
Evaluating NBA Sophomores at the Summer League
By Jeremy Woo
Other than being subject to long hours of below-average basketball while trying to survive an extended stay in Las Vegas, the hardest part of navigating summer league every year is figuring out what’s real and what isn’t. There are breakout performances that take place at this particular rung of NBA basketball annually; like many things, what happens on the court in Vegas often ends up staying here. So, trying to parse what’s what in terms of re-evaluating young guys can be tough.
While the rookies here face the biggest adjustment and often deserve the benefit of the doubt if they struggle, the more fascinating development cases are often the second-year guys. You’d hope, in theory, to see more from them after a year of NBA seasoning, and teams view it the same way. It’s a reasonable litmus test.
With that in mind, here are five sophomores who have impressed over the past week here in Vegas.
I was on hand for an absolutely electric 35-point Simons performance on Tuesday, in which he hit all five of his first-quarter threes, shot 13-18 from the field and was flying around the court all game. The 20-year-old combo guard was the 24th pick in last year’s draft after making the leap directly from a postgraduate year, but it’s safe to say right now that had he waited a year (and assuming steady progression), he’d likely have ended up in the 2019 lottery had he chosen to go to college. Simons’ quickness off the dribble, clean trigger from outside and knack for shot-making has been that evident.
The bigger question in my mind isn’t whether Simons will be a good NBA player—I think he’s well on his way—but whether he can really help Portland this season. He’s still skinny, and surely, he’ll face stiffer tests than the Jazz’s summer league team. His best long-term role may still be as a scoring-oriented second-unit guard. Fortunately for him, that’s a job the Blazers are looking to fill. If Simons can hand in productive minutes behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum (and he’s tall enough to play alongside either), he could give Portland an extra gear off the bench. It might be too much to ask this soon, but at some point down the line, he could be a major factor. Color me impressed.
Robinson is one of those athletes who jumps out at you after just a few seconds up close, and he’s continuing to establish himself as perhaps the most valuable young player on the Knicks. New York’s summer league team hasn’t been especially good, but it’s no surprise that he’s averaging a double-double, and the 21-year-old center looks logically poised for a big season, provided the Knicks don’t overthink things and hand too many minutes to all the power forwards they signed this summer. If New York is truly thinking big-picture, Robinson should get all the run he can handle.
While the relative value of the center position continues to be rightfully debated, Robinson’s elastic athleticism more than clears the bar to make him a useful non-shooting five—the three-pointer may never be part of his game, but he can accomplish so much in mid-air as a dunker and shot-altering presence, and he’s been able to get away with quite a lot while still learning what’s what. After averaging a double-double with 4.3 blocks on a per-36 basis as a rookie, Robinson looks like the primary bright spot on a young, iffy-looking Knicks roster. His play here has affirmed that.
Lonnie Walker, San Antonio Spurs
Between two games in Vegas and two in the Utah Summer League, Walker has looked healthy and put up a ton of points, showcasing his strength, explosiveness and ability to score at all three levels. There have been some injury and durability concerns with him, and he spent the majority of his active time in the G League last season with Austin, but the returns have been encouraging, and it’s starting to look like that pick (No. 18 in 2018) should soon pay out for San Antonio. Walker has always been an outstanding athlete, but he’s looked improved playing off the dribble and has shot the ball exceedingly well. The Spurs may be approaching up on something of a logjam when it comes to finding time for Derrick White, Dejounte Murray and Walker next season, but it’s certainly a good problem to have.
Kenrich Williams, New Orleans Pelicans
After going undrafted last season out of TCU, Williams had some nice moments as a rookie for the Pelicans, and he’s looked like one of the best unheralded players in Vegas. On some level, that’s to be expected given the circumstances, but given the philosophical overhaul and personnel changes that have taken place in New Orleans over the past few months, Williams might be in line for a big step forward at some point this season. He’s looked extremely at home in an uptempo system, and his unselfishness, smarts, and ability to contribute without needing to score make him a pretty ideal fit with what the Pelicans are putting together. Williams is an outstanding passer and has been empowered to grab-and-go in transition and even initiate some offense. He’s always been a good fit for positionless basketball, and he’s a fascinating sleeper to watch going into the fall. It may be hard to carve out a role on what looks like a surprisingly deep roster, but what’s clear is that recent events have created a pretty strong opportunity for Williams to prove he belongs.
Bruce Brown, Detroit Pistons
Brown isn’t particularly flashy, nor is his upside immense, but he’s been a large part of a successful Pistons summer league team, grabbing a triple-double on Wednesday and leading the competition with 8.3 assists per game entering Thursday. Brown wasn’t spectacular by any means as a rookie, but he did make 56 starts, and that seasoning has obviously helped him based on the returns. He’s physical, an above-average athlete, and if he can make any real strides as a jump shooter going forward, his value on the defensive end and as a complementary player should be substantive. I’m still in on what he brings to the table.
Best of the Rest
Editor's note: Below are some of our favorite stories of the week not published by SI. This week's list is curated by Matt Martell.
• Here’s a take I hadn’t considered until I read this piece by Charlie Warzel in The New York Times. The USWNT mastered the craft of commanding the public's attention and using that power to its advantage.
• Mike Trout has never been flashy and he isn’t concerned with promoting his brand. But Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic details how “at a time of almost undbearable sadness” baseball's best player is finding his voice.
• I most likely wouldn’t have read this Vogue cover story on Ariana Grande if SI’s Charlotte Carroll and Emily Caron hadn't both recommended it to me. I’ve long been indifferent about Grande, but this incredible profile on the popstar dealing with the grief and trauma will resonate even with “those for whom she barely registers (yet).”
• This is fascinating. A month ago SI had an issue on the power dynamics in sports, with S.L. Price’s superb profile on Rich Paul (yes, I know this is “best of the rest”) and the increasing influence the players have in the NBA. Now, William C Rhoden of The Undefeated asked an important question in this feature story: When the teams and league try and reclaim their power, how will the superstar players respond?
• An excerpt from Sam Kean’s new book, The Bastard Brigade, which came out on Tuesday, caught my eye because of the wildly absurd, Tarantino-esque premise: The Allies sent Moe Berg, a former catcher who Casey Stengel once called the “strangest person to ever play professional baseball,” to assassinate Germany’s top nuclear scientist in World War II (via Deadspin).
Editor’s note: What kind of stories and content would you like to see in the Weekend Read? Let's chat at SIWeekendRead@gmail.com.