As the NBA world awaits Kawhi Leonard’s decision, the league’s annual summer exhibition season has arrived with, understandably, less fanfare than usual.
Which is too bad, because the 2019 Las Vegas Summer League is shaping up to be an exciting week of ugly basketball featuring more than a handful of must-watch players — from star rookies to and established NBA up-and-comers.
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Summer League will undoubtedly be the Zion show. First-overall pick Zion Williamson’s games are sure to be sold out as the New Orleans Pelicans will be the team to watch in Vegas.
This marks Williamson’s unofficial debut and the first view of him in anything resembling an NBA jersey. Why is this important? Because, in case you needed reminding (it’s been a busy stretch in the NBA) Zion is the single most anticipated prospect since LeBron James, and must-see-TV.
So it’s no surprise that Summer League tips off by showcasing Zion and the Pelicans on Friday night in a fun matchup against the New York Knicks and Zion’s former teammate, third-overall pick RJ Barrett.
Given Williamson’s combination of size, power, speed, basketball acumen, and the kind of natural athletic ability that only comes around once every couple of decades, here’s betting that, even with a sizeable target on his back, he demolishes the competition in Vegas. He’s already getting started by feasting on his own teammates.
RJ Barrett, New York Knicks
As mentioned, Barrett will square off against Zion and the Pelicans on Friday night (9:30 pm ET), but the Canadian phenom enters Summer League with more to prove amid several questions heading into draft night of his true potential.
The Knicks are hoping Barrett will be a superstar and a player to build a roster around, and that questions surrounding his shot selection and playmaking ability down the stretch in the collegiate season will be erased at the next level, where the NBA’s spacing and pace should benefit Barrett.
After striking out on every major free agent this summer, the Knicks are taking a detour on their road back to relevancy, and Barrett is a major centrepiece in those plans. No pressure.
Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn Nets
Allen is extremely overqualified to play at Summer League. After a sophomore season with the Nets in which he started 80 games for a playoff team and posted averages of 11 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game, Allen, a long-limbed seven-foot centre, should be able to dominate on both ends of the floor in Vegas.
A bit of a surprising roster selection in the first place, given that the Summer League is normally a training ground for the raw and inexperienced. But the Nets coaching staff is likely looking to give Allen opportunities to develop offensively where his game could use the most refinement, especially given the new expectations in Brooklyn with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the fold.
Allen has the makings of an elite shot-blocker, and should be in the running to lead all players in Vegas in blocks. If he can do this to the NBA’s best, imagine what he’ll do to those poor summer leaguers.
Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
Another promising NBA centre, Robinson joins Barrett as a bastion of hope for Knicks fans. One of the more surprising breakout players last season, Robinson had a strong rookie season for an otherwise lousy Knicks team.
A bouncy seven-footer who rebounds, protects the rim, and finishes with a ton of power at the hoop, Robinson opted not to go to college and therefore was a major unknown heading into the 2018 draft, where the Knicks took a chance and drafted the talented teen in the second round.
He rewarded the team by averaging 2.4 blocks in just 20 minutes per game as a rookie last season.
For an indication of what we’re in store for from Robinson, here’s what he did in Vegas this time last year:
Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies
The Canadian forward and Gonzaga alum was projected to be a lottery pick at the recent 2019 NBA Draft, but fell to No. 21. You can expect a sizeable chip on his broad shoulders as he looks to prove league execs wrong for passing on him.
Clarke is an interesting case in that he doesn’t project to be a star player like his peers from the ’19 rookie class on this list, yet is coming off a junior NCAA season in which he was arguably the best player in college basketball. After transferring from San Jose State before the start of last season, with a bigger spotlight on him Clarke quickly made the most of it and earned a name for himself, averaging 17 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game while shooting over 68 per cent from the field.
He’s most effective on the defensive end, where he covers the court well and is incredibly active around the basket, skills that should translate effortlessly to the next level.
The Grizzlies are a long way from being a contender in the NBA, but after selecting Clarke and second-overall pick Ja Morant at the draft, and with last year’s fourth-overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. poised for a breakout season, Memphis has one of the most intriguing young cores.
How big a role will Clarke play in the Grizzlies’ rebuild? We may start to get a clearer picture after his Summer League performance.