Jabari Smith Jr. is going to be a STAR
Plus, Emoni Bates might start for the Cavs
BY DAVID THORPE
When I was in Vegas, I sat down with a player in a quiet, empty area of a casino at 11pm where the slot machines were shut down. We turned the heavy chairs to face each other and talked for an hour as other NBA players wandered around. This guy is married with a baby; he’s spent a little time in the league in addition to a season overseas. He had a simple question with a complicated answer: “What’s my next step in getting better?”
It’s a legitimate question that all players have, especially at Summer League. There’s always someone with super-high potential who’s withering for lack of touches or understanding or vision. In Vegas, the players have little court time other than games and occasional quick practices, so there is no real chance for off-time work—forget about getting a few hundred shots up daily. (How are there no practice courts?!) All these players are starving for guidance.
Summer League is the NBA’s laboratory, and as we wrote last week, it’s a place where many players made huge impressions. It should be all about potential and getting better. Instead, it’s a travesty of teamwork, a wasteland of practice, and most often glorified AAU ball: talented players watching other talented players chuck. Summer League is getting guys ready to live in the NBA without doing much to get them ready to play in the NBA. The games hardly bear resemblance to what good NBA teams do game after game.
Whereas their NBA teams will employ scheme-driven strategies, here their coaches largely roll the balls out and let the guys play. Teams aren’t taking advantage of a top draft pick’s talent; he’s just another guy hooping. That lack of structure can be frustrating for players (and maddening for player-development-focused coaches).
When players express that frustration to me, I ask a simple question: “What would Kevon Looney do?”
Every team needs high-character guys who understand their roles and make good decisions. The NBA has a true pecking order. No matter how great prospects Dereck Lively II and O-Max Prosper are, playing next to Luka and Kyrie, they could be benched for taking an extra dribble or two, and certainly shouldn’t explore their abilities to make well-contested shots. You have to find other ways to impact the game, and it all begins with making the right decisions.
Here are some second-round picks and returning players who stood out for their on-court decisions—good and bad—in Vegas.
Jabari Smith Jr. (Forward, Rockets)
Smith Jr. would have been my top pick in the 2022 draft. I’m not sure you could have scripted a better run than what Smith Jr. had in Vegas, and it’s a great stepping stone to his season. In his two Summer League appearances, he was on a mission, scoring in every way possible.
I loved Smith Jr. in college because I saw a deeply competitive defender who could shoot with incredible range and make plays both in the second box and the first. There aren’t that many guys in the world who can be a rim protector and score at three levels. Smith Jr. is one of those guys.