What do you make of Summer League?
In one sense it feels vastly important. It is the first look most fans have of the players the team has just selected in the Draft. It is those players’ first exposure to the NBA game in a very real way.
It feels significant not just because of the attention it garners in the dead spot of the NBA season. It feels important just because it is data to log and think about.
Then again, these games are not important. Players are playing roles they will not be asked to play in the regularseason. They are playing with teammates that are not going to be on the team when they gather again in October.
So how do you find out what is real? What can history teach us about what ultimately matters from this week in Las Vegas?
Summer League can be difficult to decipher and read. The stats matter only to a point. The eye test matters only with a careful understanding of the context in which that play is coming.
Summer League can be difficult to decipher and figure out what is important. For the Orlando Magic, though, they likely saw the core of who their players in Anthony Black and Jett Howard will be.
Still, some truths have to emerge. Ideas of who these players are have to emerge within the course of Summer League.
There is no hiding who a player truly is. And that might be what Summer League really reveals. You find out the core of who these players are and the one thing they might be able to do successfully once they get into the league. Something that typically goes beyond the numbers.
Anthony Black and Jett Howard both were solid but they did not put up the stellar numbers that would seemingly make everyone believe their success is assured. That would only come from watching them play.
Black averaged 11.0 points per game while shooting 13 for 32 from the floor. He averaged a team-high 8.7 rebounds per game. He hit only 6 of his 11 free throws to go with making only 1 of his 6 3-point attempts.
In many ways, Black struggled in the ways everyone expected him to struggle. He was not a great shoote rin college and his shooting struggles persisted.
Yet, Black still was successful in his time on the floor. He was an ace defensively, causing chaos against both Jaden Ivey and Bennedict Mathurin in those matchups.
The most important thing for a player like him was to look like he belonged. And Black seemed in control of the tempo of the game — even with fairly few assists with 12 total against 12 turnovers (albeit with seven in one game and five in the other).
At Black’s core then, he looked like a player who could control the pace of a game, not get bothered by defenses and run the team at his pace. That is what the Magic are most likely going to ask him to do in addition to his versatile defensive abilities.
And this is ultimately what will matter for him from Summer League. The team did not really need to see him as a dominant scorer, they needed to see him manage the game and defend at a high level.
This is the core of who he is and what the Magic ultimately need from him.
They could say the same thing of what they saw from Jett Howard and perhaps a bit more.
Howard averaged 13.3 point sper game, making 8 of 20 3-pointers. What perhaps impressed most about Howard was his added energy and attention defensively and even working off the dribble. He showed at least some ability to attack off the bounce but often got himself stuck with weird off-balance shots when he did.
But at his core, Howard was drafted as a shooter. And the Magic likely made the shocking pick because at 6-foot-8, he has more size and a potential to fit the team’s overall versatility kick than the other shooters who were available. Those were the hints he showed in Las Vegas.
What the Magic must have really liked was his shooting performance against the New York Knicks. There he showed his quick release and his ability to create some space off the dribble. The Magic need a spurt shooter who is a constant threat to catch fire and that iswhat Howard appeared to show.
The Magic certainly drafted Howard as something of a specialist. And his success this season — and really for his career — will likely come down to the gravity he creates as a shooter and his ability to hit shots.
Those might be the two biggest takeaways from the Magic’s rookies.
The question that will linger until they step onto the actual NBA court in preseason and then again in the regular season is just what will translate. Are those core skills really what matters or is there something else we missed from Summer League.
Looking back at the team’s history, it is clear what stood out and what translated at times. And then at other times, nobody really knew what to expect. Summer League can be that much of a mixed bag.
In 2017, Jonathan Isaac had an impressive 14.3 points per game and 7.0 rebound spe rgame in Summer league action to go with 2.7 blocks per game. From there, it was obvious he would be a dynamic defensive presence. And even though he struggled with injuries his rookie year, that is still the core of who he is.
In 2018, Mo Bamba averaged 10.3 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game and 1.8 blocks per game. He displayed all the size and potential to be a force on the perimeter as a big man. But he also looked a bit overwhelmed on the interior. That was certainly a preview of where he might struggle in the NBA.
In 2021, Franz Wagner struggled in his Summer League appearance, averaging only 8.0 points per game. But his connectivity and ability to fit in with the team quickly became enhanced. There were hints from scouts in Las Vegas that everyone believed Wagner would perform better with the main roster than as the featured player in Summer League.
In 2021 too, Jalen Suggs had a standout Summer League showing, averaging 15.3 points per game and 2.3 assists per game. He was solid despite his injuries in his rookie season. But his shooting enver quite came around. And the ineffeicincies (he shot 41.5 percent overall and 35.7 percent from deep) and his turnovers (2.3 tunovers per game in Summer League with 3.0 turnovers per game in the regular season) came to the front.
And, of course, last year, Paolo Banchero looked like a star from the start with his ability to create space, get to the line and score in bunches as he averaged 20.0 points per game, 5.0 rebounds per game and 6.0 assists per game. Banchero’s complete game indeed translated to the regular season.
Hindsight of course is 20/20. It is easy to see now where a player’s flaws were and what really mattered from those initial Summer League showings.
It can be hard to see. But there are elements that are core to a player that come out in Summer League. We do not yet know what those core attributes are for Black and Howard. But they will reveal themselves soon.