LAS VEGAS — There was a lot of impressive action at the 2021 NBA Summer League after not having an event last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 draft class is one of the deepest and most talented classes in recent memory, and there were high expectations coming into the nine days of games.
Some teams have a lot to look forward to next season. There was no shortage of talent on the courts at Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion. Here’s a look at 10 rookies who performed well during summer league and some who completely played above their draft stock.
Thomas was a late first-rounder, going No. 27 to the Brooklyn Nets, after leading the SEC in scoring, averaging 23 points per game. The former LSU guard led all players in scoring at summer league with 27 ppg. He dropped 36 points in a win over the San Antonio Spurs, the most points scored in a Vegas summer league game since 2018.
Thomas also hit the game-winner against the Washington Wizards in double overtime with a 3-pointer off one foot and has been a prolific scorer in every game. His minutes might be limited next season playing alongside Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, but when he gets in the game, expect him to put the ball in the hoop.
The Kings got the steal of the draft last year with Rookie of the Year finalist Tyrese Haliburton and might have done it again this year with Mitchell as the No. 9 pick. He is the best defender in the rookie class and created havoc all over the court. He’s averaging a +10 in the plus-minus category and shooting 50% from 3-point range, while averaging 11.3 points and 5.5 assists per game. Mitchell is a huge reason why the undefeated Kings are headed to the championship game.
Cunningham, the No. 1 pick in the draft, backed his status in three games. He averaged 18.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, while shooting 43% from the field and 50% from three. The 6-foot-8 point guard out of Oklahoma State finished with 24 points, including seven 3-pointers, in a win over the New York Knicks.
Even though the Pistons lost the head-to-head matchup with Jalen Green and the Houston Rockets, he still posted 20 points. Cunningham looked confident on the court and read the defense well off the pick-and-roll. Both Killian Hayes and he looked comfortable in the backcourt, and with Saddiq Bey on the wing, the Pistons could be a young, dangerous team coming up in the Eastern Conference.
The Houston Rockets might have lost James Harden and won only 17 games last season, but they were the big winners of the NBA draft, landing Green, Sengun, Josh Christopher and Usman Garuba. Green played 15 games in the G League bubble season, and everything came easy to the 6-foot-6 shooting guard out of Fresno, California. His shot selection was better, and he showed better body control around the rim. Green played only three games and averaged 20.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
“I feel like I’m the best player in this draft, but obviously Detroit didn’t feel that way,” Green told Yahoo Sports on draft night. “If you look back at it, all the GOATs didn’t go No. 1 like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and that’s what I’m trying to be, on that type of level.”
While a lot of hype has been centered around Green, Sengun made a lot of noise at summer league. The No. 16 pick posted a 15-point, 15-rebound game in his debut against Evan Mobley and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sengun was the difference-maker in the Cunningham vs. Green show, knocking down 21 points and adding four blocks. The 19-year-old out of Turkey has great size at 6-foot-11 and shoots the ball with ease, even knocking down a hook shot from halfcourt after a practice. Green might be the missing piece in the backcourt with Kevin Porter Jr., but it’s Sengun who is definitely a player to watch this upcoming season.
Duarte flew up draft boards late and is the most plug-and-play ready rookie coming into the season. Duarte, 24, played all four years at Oregon, has great instincts on the court and shoots the ball well. He led all rookies in plus-minus with a +13 and averaged 18.3 points, 3.8 assists and 2.5 steals per game. A lot of players are drafted for their youth and upside, but the Pacers can feel good about taking the experienced wing from the Dominican Republic.
There were mixed emotions when Golden State opted to keep both the No. 7 and No. 14 picks and draft these two young players. Whatever reservations fans had for the two newcomers have been virtually wiped away after summer league.
Kuminga has been a walking highlight reel with one of the most impressive dunks of the event against Oklahoma City and looks more relaxed and fluid off the dribble. There was a lot of criticism surrounding his shooting coming out of the G League, but his mechanics look visibly better. He could see early minutes this upcoming season.
Moody lived up to his reputation as a 3-point shooter. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard averaged 17 points and shot 40% from 3-point range. He put up a game-high 22 points in 23 minutes in a win over the Thunder and showed some variety in his shot selection. “I’m ready to develop and do whatever my team needs me to do,” Moody told Yahoo Sports. “I’m in a win-now mode, too.”
Johnson and Cooper were considered two of the riskiest draft picks, but Atlanta might have hit the jackpot. Johnson played nearly every position, sometimes dropping down to the five in a small-ball situation and was even comfortable bringing the ball up in a grab-and-go transition.
“Sharife trusts me, and it’s just a natural connection that we have,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports. “We’re both playmakers, so it makes it easier for that trust factor. He’s probably one of the best playmakers I’ve ever played with.” Johnson averaged 19 points and 9.5 rebounds in four games.
Cooper was the 48th pick in the draft. After his summer league performance, it’s hard to imagine that many teams passing on him.
Cooper is undersized at 6-foot, but he is a phenomenal playmaker and passer. He led all players in assists, averaging an impressive nine per game. He shot the ball well from the outside, shooting nearly 40% from 3-point range, after shooting only 23% during his one season at Auburn.
“I always felt like I could shoot, but in college, I had a bit of a narrative change,” Cooper told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve worked so hard and people don’t see the work I put in to get to this point. Whatever they tell me I can’t do, you better believe I’m working on it and being able to see the work come to fruition and pay off is a great feeling.”
Cooper capped off his summer league performance averaging 17.7 points, including five 3-pointers (and the game-winner) in his second game against the Indiana Pacers.
Trey Murphy, New Orleans Pelicans
James Bouknight, Charlotte Hornets
Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets
Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
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