Summer League Sleepers, Studs, and Duds

As somebody who only pays attention to college basketball when March Madness is on, I’m always excited for Summer League. I have zero preconceived notions of any players picked outside the top three or four in the draft, and this is my first chance to see what the rookies are made of. It’s also always interesting to see how older players have developed in the offseason.

I watched at least part of roughly twenty games in person and have studied many more on TV, so I’m starting to develop opinions on these guys. That’s always dangerous since, as we’ve covered extensively, Summer League play doesn’t always translate, but there are always things to take away from the 2022-2023 season’s hors d’oeuvres.

Here’s a grab bag of players who caught my eye, from the completely predictable top pick to the guys who had me scrambling to Google their names.

Jaden Hardy, Rookie, Dallas Mavericks

I watched the entirety of Hardy’s first game from the fifteenth row of the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. He looked far, far too good to be there.

Hardy rampaged his way to the rim at will, finishing with 28 points. He also impressed me with his willingness to make functional, unsexy passes to the strongside corner for open shots or hockey assists, a skill that doesn’t always shine in the shoot-first ethos of Summer League. His athleticism and burst are already at NBA-elite levels, and he was trying on defense (we’ll see if that carries over, but it was a good start). His shot wasn’t falling in the last two games, which continues a worrying trend from last season, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

A highly-touted recruit who played for the G-League Ignite last season, Hardy fell all the way to the second round in the draft due to concerns about his shot selection and jumper. Both of those warts may still reveal themselves in the NBA. Still, Hardy was an excellent catch-and-shoot player for the Ignite and should excel at attacking the creases in a Doncic-focused defense as a secondary ballhandler. Dallas should be a perfect fit for him, as Luka will handle most of the playmaking and should be able to get Hardy open looks whenever he wants.

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RJ Nembhard Jr., 2nd year, Cleveland Cavaliers

Nembhard played 14 games for the Cavs last year on a two-way contract, which he also holds this season. He has scored well in two of his three summer league games and dropped five dimes twice (assists in Summer League are quite rare). He also showcased some great defense, shutting down Josh Primo in isolation on a handful of possessions against the Spurs. Nembhard showed excellent strength and agility for a combo guard.

He won’t have much room for playing time behind Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Ricky Rubio, Caris LeVert, first-round pick Ochai Agbaji, and others on the Cavs roster, but Nembhard could be a surprise end-of-bench play if the injury mosquito again chomps on Cleveland’s exposed ankle.

Blake Wesley, Rookie / Darius Days, Rookie, San Antonio Spurs

One of the Spurs’ several first-round picks this year, Wesley desperately needs to improve his court vision, as he missed numerous open teammates and had trouble with ball security in his games. He’s shown an ability to make some challenging shots, but he’s shooting just 30% from the field through three summer league games. If someone only watches the highlights, they’d think this was the best guy in the league; further viewing suggests a young player who will benefit significantly from time on the bench under Coach Pop.

Days excelled as a vocal leader. Sitting in the bleachers, the undrafted rookie was the only player I saw across pieces of 20 games whom I could consistently hear screaming defensive instructions and communicating with teammates. He’s been an extremely active presence on the boards and has even showed off his touch from deep, a must for someone who projects as an undersized four (6’7”, 240 lbs). He was one of my favorite players to watch, and with two Summer League games remaining, he seems likely to earn a two-way contract with someone.

Bennedict Mathurin, Rookie, Indiana Pacers

Mathurin never stops talking, which shouldn’t have been a surprise. He scored bunches of buckets and let defenders know about it each time. His smooth jumper nicely complemented an aggressive mentality that led to oodles of free throws. He’s a little smaller than I expected (no way he’s 6’6”), but he’s quick, strong, and decisive.

Mathurin should quickly become an Indiana favorite and will bring an edge to an Indiana team that has lacked sharpness since prime Lance Stephenson wore the pinstripes.

Feron Hunt, 2nd Year, New York Knicks

My other favorite watch at Summer League. Hunt is a big, athletic forward who gets after it defensively and soars above the rim. He had seven (!!) steals in 29 minutes in his third Summer League game, put several people on posters, and even had a couple of nice dishes.

Hunt might not have the offensive talent to play big minutes, but the Knicks have a lot of players who will be hunting for their shot this season (especially if they trade for Donovan Mitchell). Nobody on the roster has this combination of physical makeup and mentality, and he could be the kind of grinder bench player Thibs loves.

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Neemias Queta, 2nd Year / Keegan Murray, Rookie, Sacramento Kings

Queta looked like he was having fun out there before he was shut down for Summer League with a minor injury. The giant Portuguese center swatted everything in sight like a kraken playing volleyball, altering countless other attempts. He had several assists and even hit a huge clutch three in the Kings’ frantic (and ultimately doomed) comeback against the Magic. He looked like a guy who deserves real backup minutes this season for the Kings.

We’ve already talked about Keegan, and everything I said is still valid. He’s bigger in person than I expected, a legitimate 6’8”, and his shotmaking is top-notch. He’s also had more crunchtime moments this Summer League than anyone, including this breathtaking double-clutch three to tie the game against Orlando as time ran out:

Kings fans should be excited about what he can bring offensively next to Fox and Sabonis.

Finally, I couldn’t make an entire post about this in good conscience, but the Kings’ starting point guard in Summer League is named Frankie Ferrari. I hope he makes a roster so I can talk about him as much as possible.

Paolo Banchero, Rookie, Orlando Magic

It sure looks like the Magic made the right choice at number one.

Before he was shut down, Banchero’s performance was everything the Magic could have asked for. He struggled with turnovers, as is to be expected for a rookie suddenly assuming primary ballhandling duties on a team that had very little practice time together. But his court vision was evident, and he threw some of Las Vegas’ best passes (non-Josh Giddey category). Paolo has a Pascal Siakam-like spin move to finish in the lane, and his midrange was clicking across his two SL performances.

Even his maligned defense looked solid. Although not particularly quick, Paolo is roughly the same size as LeBron James, which lets him make up for a lot of other shortcomings:

With good health, Banchero seems like a near-lock to win Rookie of the Year. The offense feels like a sure thing, and if the defense can be respectable, Banchero’s ceiling is as high as anyone’s.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.