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Some NBA Summer League Stars Look ‘Too Good’ To Be There. What Does That Mean For Their Futures?

Year after year, most people in and around the NBA ecosystem — coaches, players, executives, agents, media members, hopefuls, hangers-on and more — descend on Las Vegas for the league’s annual Summer League competition. The basketball, generally, is not of very high quality. For example, the league’s 30 teams collectively shot 41 percent from the field and 31 percent from 3-point range during this year’s Summer League, while committing turnovers on 15.5 percent of possessions. Those numbers pale in comparison to the league averages during the most recent regular season: 46.6 percent from the field, 36.7 percent from deep and a 12.4 percent turnover rate.

It makes sense that a Summer League team’s baseline performance level would be worse than that of a regular-season NBA team. Summer League rosters traditionally consist of the league’s youngest players (rookies and sophomores), plus veterans of all stripes from around the globe who are looking to make the jump to (or back to) the NBA. Players are also often asked to fill unfamiliar roles and play alongside teammates with whom they are largely unfamiliar, all while working under NBA assistant coaches looking to gain experience at the helm.

Because of these realities, it’s difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions based on what actually happens on the floor during Summer League games. Look no further than the list of recent Summer League champions (the Sacramento Kings, who have not made the playoffs since 2006, have won two Summer League titles since 2014), the names of former Summer League MVPs (which includes luminaries such as Josh Selby and Glen Rice Jr.) or the group of players named to the league’s yearly All-Tournament Teams1 to see that performance in Las Vegas — on both a team and individual level — is not necessarily indicative of what will happen once the real games start.2

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Certain statistics have proven to be stickier than others, and there are plenty of players who stood out in Summer League enough to earn themselves a shot on an NBA roster, then later parlayed that shot into meaningful success at the pro level. There is also one specific scenario in which most NBA observers will agree that Summer League performance is somewhat meaningful: When a young player (typically heading into his second NBA season but occasionally his third) shows up and looks “too good to be here” — usually to the point that his team chooses to shut him down rather than risk more exposure to injury or bad basketball because he has nothing left to prove against the watered-down competition.3


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So, we looked at 16 years’ worth of Summer League statistics to see if that’s actually the case. Did second-year players who appeared “too good for Summer League” show meaningful improvement the following season? Did they show more improvement than players who participated in Summer League but weren’t “too good” for it? Did they do better than players who didn’t participate in Summer League at all?

In a word, yes. But there are caveats. The first is that there’s no firm, universal definition of being “too good for Summer League.” Players can also have their Summer League stints cut short due to injury, in addition to performance. And rising second-year players can be held out of Summer League altogether for multiple reasons, including but not limited to their team considering them “too good for Summer League” already.

All of that said, we defined players who were “too good for Summer League” as second-year players who played three or fewer games and recorded an average Game Score4 of 10 or better.5 These players did indeed show meaningful improvement during their second NBA season. Of course, most players improve during their second NBA season. That’s why it was important to compare the jump those players took to the ones taken by other second-year players.

We did this by calculating the minutes-weighted change in RAPTOR for each young NBA player since 2005 between their rookie and sophomore regular seasons, and comparing the change in year-to-year performance among three groups of players: players who were “too good” for Summer League (we also broke that group down into two sub-groups: lottery picks and non-lottery picks); all other Summer League participants; and players who did not participate in Summer League at all prior to their second NBA season.6

Some players really are “too good” for Summer League

Minutes-weighted change in NBA regular-season RAPTOR from Year 1 to Year 2 of a player’s career based on Summer League status

Player group Year 1 Year 2 Change
All “too good to be here” -1.8 -0.4 +1.4
    “Too good to be here” Lottery picks -3.1 -1.2 +2.0
    “Too good to be here” non-Lottery picks +0.3 +0.9 +0.5
All other Summer Leaguers -2.4 -1.2 +1.2
No Summer League -0.7 -0.1 +0.6

A player was considered “too good” for Summer League if he played three or fewer games in a single competition while producing an average Game Score of 10 or higher.

The raw differences between the “Year 1” and “Year 2″ columns may not equal the totals in the “Change” column due to rounding.

Data includes all rising second-year players since the 2004-05 NBA season, excluding players who fit that criteria in years when Summer League was canceled.

Source: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com, RealGM

The difference was especially notable for former lottery picks, who showed substantial improvement from their rookie to sophomore seasons in the NBA after spending a summer (briefly) showing off in Las Vegas. For non-lottery picks, this improvement was less pronounced; they essentially showed the same year-over-year change as any generic young NBA player would have.

But it’s also important to take a look at the Year 1 baselines established by these groups of players. Players who did not play in Summer League prior to their second season started from the highest baseline, so the fact that they showed less Year 2 improvement than the players who did play is not necessarily surprising. And because that baseline was so much higher, they still performed better in Year 2 than their Summer League counterparts. It’s further notable that the group with the lowest Year 1 baseline was that of the lottery picks who appeared “too good” for Summer League prior to Year 2. That group started from a much lower level than their non-lottery peers, but despite showing significantly more Year 2 improvement, they still performed worse in their second seasons than did those non-lottery picks.

All of which brings us to what happened during the 2021-22 NBA Summer League. Throughout the nearly two-week run, a host of players were declared by interested observers to be “too good for Summer League.” We can apply some statistics to those impressions by running this year’s players through the same filters as we did above. (Using a variation on our criteria from previous seasons — i.e., dropping the games-played requirement — because several teams seemed content to let their second-year guys play more games a year after Summer League was canceled entirely due to COVID-19.)7

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Without considering games played, we found 31 second-year players who registered an average Game Score of 10 or better during this year’s Summer League. Among that group, nine of them played three or fewer games, five were lottery picks, nine were non-lottery first-round selections, nine were second-rounders, and eight players went undrafted. It seems doubtful that 31 players were “too good” for Summer League, and part of the reason this group is so much bigger than in past seasons is that regular-seasons have not yet been finalized — meaning we don’t know which of these 31 players will wind up playing a second season in 2021-22. But the group does contain several notable names.

2020 top-10 picks Patrick Williams of the Chicago Bulls and Isaac Okoro of the Cleveland Cavaliers, both of whom had promising rookie NBA seasons, were shut down quickly after putting up strong numbers early in Summer League. The Grizzlies shut down all of the second-year players who were on their roster last season (Desmond Bane, Xavier Tillman Sr. and Killian Tillie) after just two games, and Bane finished with the fifth-highest average Game Score among the group of 31. The Atlantic Division had a strong showing as well, particularly among former non-lottery first-round picks who contributed to varying degrees as rookies. Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey registered the highest average Game Score among the overall group of players, and the Sixers shut him down after just two games; Immanuel Quickley of the Knicks finished with the eighth-highest Game Score; and Boston’s Payton Pritchard finished third in that category.

There are also players who didn’t have much of a role last season but managed to showcase their talents in this year’s Summer League — possibly foretelling good things. Udoka Azubuike of the Jazz and Tre Jones of the Spurs were not part of their respective teams’ rotations last year, but they finished fourth and sixth among this group in average Game Score, and were limited to four games apiece. Phoenix’s Jalen Smith, the No. 10 pick in the 2020 draft, and Philadelphia’s Paul Reed, the No. 58 pick in 2020, also found their way onto the list, and so did several players drafted in between those spots.

But due to the unique nature of this year’s Summer League, it’s tough to say which of these players were actually “too good” to be there. We probably shouldn’t be that surprised if and when any of them take significant steps forward in Year 2 — perhaps even beyond what would otherwise be expected of them.


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Footnotes

  1. Which include players of notoriety like Wade Baldwin IV, Wayne Selden, Tyler Ulis, Alan Williams, Luke Jackson, Jeffery Taylor, Dominique Jones, Malcolm Thomas, Caleb Swanigan, Gani Lawal, Jermaine Taylor, Von Wafer, Larry Drew II, Russ Smith, James Singleton, Maurice Ager, Eddie Basden, Olumide Oyedeji, Gerald Fitch, Alex Acker, Luis Flores and Ron Slay.

  2. In fact, previous research has shown that shooting well from 3-point range during Summer League might even be a predictor of poor shooting performance when the regular season rolls around.

  3. The reverse is also true. If a player nearing the end of his rookie contract is still playing in Summer League and not dominating the competition, it can be a red flag.

  4. A measure of a player’s productivity for a single game, where 10 is an average performance.

  5. This ended up being a sample of 44 players, right around three per year.

  6. The latter group does not include players whose second NBA season was either 2011-12 or 2020-21, because there was no NBA Summer League before either of those regular seasons.

  7. Plus, some teams (like the Grizzlies) shut down all of their second-year players early and others (like the Raptors) had second-year players who could not play the early portion of Summer League because they were part of yet-to-be-completed trades.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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