Summer League Superlatives

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With the NBA2K Summer League reaching its conclusion on Monday, now is a good time to discuss some of the best performers over the last 11 days in Las Vegas. While Victor Wembanyama was the subject of a considerable amount of hype heading into the event, there were other rookies who served notice to NBA teams and fantasy managers alike. Raphielle Johnson and Noah Rubin make their picks for Summer League MVP and answer a few other questions in relation to the event.

1. Who was your Summer League MVP?

Noah Rubin: Javon Freeman-Liberty

Admittedly, I didn’t know who Freeman-Liberty was before this summer began. He went undrafted out of DePaul in 2022 and spent his rookie season with the Windy City Bulls. He wasn’t much of a factor for Chicago last summer, but he exploded during his second Summer League appearance. Since he went undrafted last year and never made an NBA appearance in his first season, his production is underappreciated by those who only watch Summer League to see the top picks. He may be a longshot, but add Freeman-Liberty into the mix of players that could help make up for Lonzo Ball’s absence this season. He averaged 21.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.0 blocks, and 2.4 threes per game in five appearances this summer.

Raphielle Johnson: Orlando Robinson

The Heat didn't qualify for the four-team playoffs in Las Vegas, but that shouldn't be used to discredit Robinson. He was outstanding, averaging 25.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks, and 1.5 3-pointers in four games, shooting 57.8% from the field and 82.1% from the foul line. Of course, his playing time next season stands to be limited due to the presence of Bam Adebayo. But Robinson played well enough in Vegas to give the Heat some comfort regarding the backup center role. And he was an effective streamer last season when the Heat were shorthanded in the frontcourt.

2. Which rookie impressed you the most (Chet Holmgren can be included)?

Rubin: Cam Whitmore

I thought there was a chance that Whitmore slid in the draft, but I expected that slide to be towards the 8-10 range, not to 20. He certainly had some added motivation this summer, and he likely has many teams regretting passing on him already. He did well alongside Tari Eason and Jabari Smith during their first two games, but Whitmore took over after those two hung it up for the summer. When teams passed on Whitmore, I thought there was something I didn’t know that many teams did. Now, I’m confident that he should’ve been taken much, much higher. He averaged 20.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 3.0 steals, and 2.4 threes this summer.

Johnson: Hunter Tyson

Due to the upcoming changes to the league's salary cap and luxury tax rules, contending teams may be more inclined to draft experienced players in the years to come. Denver went that route, selecting Julian Strawther, Hunter Tyson, and Jalen Pickett in last month's draft. While all three played well in Las Vegas, Tyson was the most impressive of the bunch. And he has the look of a player who could earn rotation minutes immediately, which is key with the Nuggets losing Bruce Brown and Jeff Green in free agency. Tyson played in all five games for the Nuggets, averaging 20.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.6 blocks, and 3.6 3-pointers, while shooting 54.1% from the field and 87.0% from the foul line.

3. Was there a rookie that may have surprised you with how well they performed?

Rubin: Ausar Thompson

My expectations for Thompson were low for this summer, mostly because of his situation. I knew he was a talented player, but I didn’t know how well he’d play in his first NBA experience after previously playing in Overtime Elite. I also wasn’t sure how much of an opportunity he’d get to shine alongside Jaden Ivey, who is a ball-dominant player. While Ausar did get a few games without Ivey to showcase what he can do with the ball, he was still able to make a huge impact without the ball in his hands as a rebounder and defender. He may not dominate as a rookie, but I feel confident that Detroit can make it work with Cade Cunningham, Ivey, and Ausar. He averaged 13.5 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.3 steals, 1.8 blocks, and 0.8 threes per game this summer.

Johnson: Keyonte George

The Jazz are still looking for their point guard of the future, and while there was optimism regarding George, it felt like he was more of a long-term play for the franchise. His production in Las Vegas (and even Utah's final two games in Salt Lake City) could be viewed as a sign that the future is closer than most imagined. In three games in Las Vegas, George averaged 21.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 2.3 turnovers, and 4.0 3-pointers, while shooting 52.3% from the field and 63.6% from the foul line. You'd certainly like to see a higher free-throw percentage but keep in mind that George was a 79.3% shooter during his lone season at Baylor. Not sure if George wins the starting point guard job in training camp, but it shouldn't be long before that role is his, and that would boost his fantasy potential considerably.

4. Which second-year player excited you the most regarding their fantasy potential?

Rubin: Jabari Smith Jr.

I have been notoriously low on Smith. Not that I don’t believe he can be good, but I had a lot of concerns about his rookie season. He shot just 40.8% from the floor and didn’t contribute many defensive stats despite being a good defender. Through the first half of his first game, I thought all of my concerns were valid. However, his final six quarters were incredible, and he showcased what he can be as a scorer. Now he has Amen Thompson and Fred VanVleet to set him up for better looks than he got last season. Smith should be much better in year two than he was in year one, for more reasons than just your typical second-year leap.

Johnson: Smith

While the NBA's official vote for MVP was won by Smith's Rockets teammate, Cam Whitmore, Smith was excellent in his two games in Las Vegas. A switch seemed to flip at halftime of Houston's opener in Las Vegas, with Smith scoring 29 points in the second half and nailing the game-winning three as time expired. After scoring 33 points in that game, he followed that up with another 38 in game two before the Rockets decided to shut him down. MVP awards, especially in Summer League, tend to favor the guys with more games under their belts, so it's understandable why the voters went with Whitmore instead of Smith. But there is a lot to like about what he showed in Vegas, and the additions of head coach Ime Udoka and VanVleet should only speed up Smith's development as a pro.

5. Who makes the cut for your All-Summer League team?

Rubin: Javon Freeman-Liberty
Keyonte George
Cam Whitmore
Lester Quinones
Hunter Tyson

Quinones makes my team for a strange reason. If he did exactly what he did for a different team, he may not have stood out as much as he did. That’s not a knock on him as a player. He just moves and plays like Jordan Poole, and he played well right after the Warriors moved on from Poole. It would be crazy if lightning struck twice, but nobody would be surprised if Golden State was the team that it happened for. He averaged 21.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 3.1 triples across seven games.

Tyson was the third pick that Denver made in the draft, and they selected him at pick 37. They only took older rookies that should be able to contribute if needed in year one, and Tyson showcased his talent this summer. He averaged 20.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.6 threes per game with impressive efficiency. With the departure of Jeff Green, Michael Malone could call on Tyson a good bit this season.

George had some good games, averaging 18.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.8 threes per game, but it was his performance against the Clippers that stood out. He scored 17 of his 33 points and added 10 assists in that game. He hit some insane shots and truly took over that game in the fourth. He now is one of the few rookies that have a decent shot at starting opening night for their team, and his Summer League performance is a big reason for that.

Johnson: Keyonte George
Sam Merrill
Hunter Tyson
Jabari Smith Jr.
Orlando Robinson

Notes on George, Tyson, Smith, and Robinson can be found above. Merrill, whose contract for next season still isn't guaranteed, was very good in helping to lead the Cavaliers to Monday's championship game. He shot the ball well from the perimeter (43.2% from three on 11 attempts per game), and that's an area where the Cavaliers can certainly use a boost. Adding Max Strus and Georges Niang to the roster should help, but Merrill has the potential to provide some shooting off the bench next season.