I've been covering the NBA's summer league in Las Vegas since 2005. As such, I've witnessed the early steps of most of the past two generations of NBA stars and learned how to gain insights into what a player might develop into in fantasy terms. The summer league is always full of young talent who are preparing for the upcoming NBA season, but this year likely marked the most fantasy-worthy NBA talent that I've ever seen in one summer.
One reason is that this was the first summer league in which all 30 NBA teams participated. Another reason is that this year's draft was particularly deep, with several blue-chip prospects and many others who seem likely to contribute at the NBA level. Finally, there were more teams than usual using second- and third-year players, which just increased the number of true NBA-caliber talents on display.
All told, this summer league was special, with an abundance of players whom I expect to make legitimate fantasy-worthy NBA contributions starting this season. Too many, in fact, to fully cover in any one article, but let's go through some of the most interesting cases, as what happens in Vegas ... has ramifications for your fantasy teams.
Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns. In Vegas, Ayton showed all of the physical gifts and power that made him the top overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft while at the same time flashing the weaknesses that give some pause as to whether he'll be able to reach his awesome upside. The three big knocks on Ayton are that his motor doesn't always run high, his defensive impact in college was questionable, and that his offensive game relies upon having good facilitators to set him up. And this is all true.
On the other hand, Ayton flashed a skill set and a level of productivity, especially against top competition, that bodes well for his fantasy output as a rookie. He was particularly impressive in his matchups against Marvin Bagley III and Mohamed Bamba, physically manhandling Bagley and using his nose for the ball to crash the boards on Bamba while averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds in those two games. Ayton was an alley-oop waiting to happen, especially off the pick-and-roll, a play that should be a mainstay for him this season with the Suns.
One of my colleagues pointed out that in recent years, opposing defenses have gotten used to clogging the midrange by sagging off the Suns' lack of 3-point shooting and laying off their lack of a credible interior threat. Newly maxed-out Devin Booker leads the charge to space the court from the perimeter, and Ayton should do his part to stretch the offense to the rim.
With credible point guard play, Ayton should have room to have his way in the middle against a league with few centers of both sufficient size and speed to contain him. With starter's minutes, he looks like a serious threat to average a double-double from Day 1 and poses legitimate 20/10 upside if the Suns decide to feature him.
Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings. Bagley played only one game (versus the Suns) during the Las Vegas summer league after getting mixed (mainly negative) reviews in the California Classic. However, he did flash impressively in that game, as he often found himself matched up against Ayton.
While Ayton is a pure center, Bagley is just as obviously a new-age power forward who is comfortable handling the ball, facing up from the perimeter and knocking down jumpers. Bagley wasn't hot from the field, making just five of his 13 field goal attempts and five of seven free throws, but the smoothness he showed in setting up his shot and the ease of his mechanics suggest that he'll eventually settle into knocking down those shots.
Perhaps the most beneficial part of Bagley's performance, though, was his ability to defend the behemoth Ayton one-on-one. Bagley had to use leverage and angles to work around Ayton's strength, but his ability to do so suggests that Bagley should be able to get consistent minutes as a small-ball center when the Kings want to use him there.
Bagley's role for the Kings and his still developing game lead to questions about just how quickly he should be able to produce in fantasy, but he had the look of a player who could make a mark, even as he learns the ropes at the next level.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies: Jackson was one of the most interesting exhibitions of NBA tools during his summer league experiences in both Utah and Las Vegas. He's a legit 7-footer with a build on the continuum between the girth of Ayton and the litheness of Bagley. On defense, he flashed the ability to hold position against opposing post-ups and also to protect the rim by blocking shots. And he put the entire league on notice in his first summer league game, when he knocked down eight 3-pointers. All told, he looks like the basketball equivalent of a five-tool prospect in baseball.
However, Jackson also showed an inconsistent will to dominate the game. And unlike Ayton's clearly shifting motivation, it wasn't clear that Jackson always had the ability to turn it on when he wants. He was more of a secondary than a primary in college, and he enters the pros on a team led by a pair of veteran All-Stars (Marc Gasol and Mike Conley) that may have playoff aspirations.
If the Grizzlies feature him, Jackson has enough production upside to be a mid/late-round flyer in fantasy drafts, but there is also the potential for him to project as more of a role player, potentially in a part-time assignment, to begin his NBA career.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks: Young was one of the most polarizing performers in the summer league, just as he was one of the most divisive players in the draft. The Hawks traded the highly heralded Luka Doncic for Young on draft night and eventually traded away incumbent Dennis Schroder, firmly tying themselves to Young's upside as the future of their team.
Young's crazy shooting range has inspired Stephen Curry comparisons that would be hard for him to live up to, which causes many to see him as a potential bust. He gave the critics more ammunition with a terrible shooting debut in the Utah summer league, and some of my colleagues noted that he seemed to lack either the size or quickness to create easy separation off the dribble against motivated defense. And these are valid criticisms.
However, Young was a much better floor general and passer than I was anticipating, which should give him enough all-around game to be fantasy productive as a rookie, even if he's not the next Curry. Young looks poised to lead all rookies in assists, and could conceivably find his way into the overall NBA leader board in that category. Pair that with parking-lot shooting range, a likely green light for the Hawks, and what should be starter's minutes from the jump, and Young looks like a viable, borderline fantasy starter with solid upside.
Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls: In Carter's first matchup in Vegas, he struggled a bit with the size and strength of the much taller Ante Zizic of the Cleveland Cavaliers. But despite Zizic's strong game, Carter managed to put up numbers of his own with a stronger-than-advertised face-up game with shooting range out to the 3-point line and nifty moves in the paint. He looked like a polished pro as a scorer, and also flashed strong shot-blocking ability on defense. He appears to be an immediate foundation-piece for the Bulls, and there was a contingent from Vegas who believe that he could be in the running for Rookie of the Year.
Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers: Sexton is a bad-news/good-news case about whom I wrote in detail while in Vegas. The bad news is that, as a score-first lead guard who is good at creating his own shot, Sexton is exactly the kind of player who could produce falsely positive numbers in the summer league that won't translate to the NBA.
He didn't show a consistent 3-point shot in Vegas, nor did he show the ability to consistently set the table as a floor general. However, Sexton did have a clear shooter's mentality and confidence, and he joins a Cavs team that will be desperately looking for a perimeter creator to build their post-LeBron team around.
Sexton may be a low-efficiency volume scorer as a rookie, but if the Cavs feature him, that could be enough to make him fantasy-relevant from the start.
Kevin Knox, New York Knicks: Knox is another player whom I scouted in depth and has a big opportunity this season. Knox was advertised as a combo forward who could score in multiple ways, from the dribble drive to the 3-point line, and he utilized those abilities to consistently volume score throughout the summer league. His shot was streaky, but he was getting looks that he should be able to replicate at the next level for a Knicks team that likely will use him as a go-to option from the start.
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks: Collins is the only second-year player featured here, and he played in only two games during the Las Vegas summer league, but he was consistently lauded as one of the most impressive performers overall. Collins showed the ability to volume score, clean the glass and control the game from the interior. Collins was "too good for summer league," the way promising NBA vets sometimes tend to be, and looks like a player who could realistically be a top-75 fantasy prospect this season.
Mohamed Bamba, Orlando Magic: Bamba, the sixth pick in this draft, joined Jonathan Isaac, the sixth pick in last year's draft, to give their team an impressive defensive twin towers. Bamba exhibited the length and defensive instincts that made him a high-lottery pick and also flashed a 3-point shot and the occasional "dream shake" post move that indicates potential for improvement to his raw offensive game.
He didn't produce much volume, though, and it is unclear whether he'll get big enough minutes from the jump to be a consistent fantasy producer. If he does, he has immediate shot-blocking and rebounding upside. Isaac was the more polished of the two and looks ready to contribute consistently for the Magic this season.
Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets: Bridges rounds out this list, after having flashed an extremely athletic style of play that could pay dividends early in his rookie campaign. Bridges has the NBA body and extraordinary athleticism that has him projected as a defensive threat and rebounder from the wing right away.
He consistently worked on his 3-point shot, and though he was hot from downtown in only one game, that's the shot that will key his ability to contribute on offense as a rookie. If he's knocking it down, it will earn him playing time, and he has the first-step quickness and explosiveness to finish at the rim consistently if opponents close out too hard on his jumper.
He is a fringe fantasy draft candidate due to questions about his role for the Hornets, but when he gets on the court, he could contribute in several 3-and-D categories.