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A starry draft class delivers on the hype at NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/16/2021 Ben Golliver
a man with a football ball: When Jalen Green (left) and Cade Cunningham faced off in an NBA Summer League game, Green scored 25 points with five rebounds and three assists while Cunningham posted 20 points, four rebounds and two assists. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images) © Ethan Miller/Getty Images When Jalen Green (left) and Cade Cunningham faced off in an NBA Summer League game, Green scored 25 points with five rebounds and three assists while Cunningham posted 20 points, four rebounds and two assists. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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LAS VEGAS — The NBA’s Summer League can be hit or miss: Top draft picks don’t always attend, they don’t always get the opportunity to show what they can do, and they don’t always look ready when the lights turn on.

This year was different. The first five players taken in the draft — Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes and Jalen Suggs — trekked to the desert last week and delivered compelling performances. Collectively, they lived up to the considerable pre-draft hype and whetted the appetites of some hard-luck fan bases.

Here’s a snapshot of the week that was for the Summer League’s rookie headliners:

1. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

The 19-year-old generally looked as comfortable and unhurried in Las Vegas as he did during his one-and-done season at Oklahoma State. Thanks to his developed handle, fluidity, size and scoring instincts, Cunningham will instantly step in as the driving force of a Pistons offense that has lagged for years.

In Las Vegas, Cunningham averaged 18.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three appearances, engaging in a memorable head-to-head showdown with Green and hitting seven three-pointers against the New York Knicks. Some of Cunningham’s threes against the Knicks displayed his advanced on-ball game: He set up step-back shots with dribble moves, connecting over close contesting efforts. That shot-making ability opened up his dribble-drive game, which is potent thanks to his balance and strength.

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“I wasn’t too worried about the outside noise,” Cunningham said of his matchup with Green. “I went to college and we had covid going on, so I didn’t get to experience fans being in the gym. It’s been fun to experience the buzz and the excitement in the gym. I take that into account when I’m going into the game. I want to put on a show.”

Few teenagers enter the NBA commanding extra defensive attention, but Cunningham looks to be one of those talents. He struggled with turnovers and didn’t live up to the Luka Doncic comparisons as a playmaker for his teammates in Las Vegas, but the Pistons find themselves where the Mavericks were two or three years ago. The Pistons’ defining question isn’t, “What do they have in Cunningham?” Instead it’s, “How quickly can they get him some real help?”

2. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

Green, 19, held his own against Cunningham, prompting debates on social media and among some NBA personnel about which player will have the better career. Although Cunningham has the edge in polish and feel, Green is a fantastic athlete whose ability to make tough shots and his seasoning with the G League Ignite helped him hit the ground running in Las Vegas.

Talent evaluators and fans alike also have been drawn to his swagger. “I’m betting on Green,” one assistant coach said. “He plays with the biggest chip on his shoulder.”

Green scored with ease in Las Vegas, averaging 20.3 points in just 24.1 minutes. Like Cunningham, he had more turnovers than assists. Whether he ascends to superstardom will be determined by how he fills out physically and how well he develops as a playmaker. Unfortunately, a minor hamstring strain ended his week after three games.

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3. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Predictably, Mobley was the latest in a long line of young big men to be overshadowed at Summer League, which is almost always a guard-dominated event. The 20-year-old center averaged a modest 11.3 points and 7.7 rebounds, but he was heavily involved in Cleveland’s offense as a passer and blocked five shots in his three appearances.

Mobley’s appeal is largely based on his defensive versatility, and he alternated between protecting the rim and stepping out on the perimeter as expected. Offensively, Mobley presents himself as naturally unselfish, more interested in making the right pass than pounding on the block.

“My game is very [much about] playmaking,” he said. “I definitely feel comfortable with the ball in my hands. I see the floor very well. I’m tall. I can see those passes. That’s a big part of my game right now. . . . A lot of bigs nowadays are learning guard skills, learning to shoot. That’s the new-age big.”

Cleveland fans understandably pined for more offensive involvement from Mobley, who shot just 34.9 percent and struggled to finish around the basket and connect from deep.

“Once I get my weight up, it’s going to be crazy,” he said.

a man with a football ball: Toronto Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes (left) has already flashed his defensive potential during Summer League. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images) © Ethan Miller/Getty Images Toronto Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes (left) has already flashed his defensive potential during Summer League. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

4. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

The Raptors’ unexpected decision to take Barnes instead of Suggs drew some criticism at the time, but there was plenty of praise in Las Vegas. While the baby-faced Barnes plays with a youthful glee, he already has a grown man’s physique and could develop into one of the league’s most imposing wings. In four appearances through Sunday, he averaged 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists, plus a steal and two blocks per game.

With good feet, extraordinary length and a strong motor, Barnes projects as an all-league defender. During the second half of a win over the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday, he played himself to exhaustion, picking off a pass in Kawhi Leonard-like fashion, recovering to block a shot from behind on another possession and scoring from inside, outside and in transition. His screwy jumper remains a major issue, but he’s comfortable handling the ball and regularly created offense by attacking off the dribble.

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“We already made some little tweaks, little changes,” Barnes said of his shooting motion. “Get over to the right and [fix] my hand placement. We’re doing a lot of different things to get it right. I’m feeling pretty comfortable. I’ve been working at it. We’re taking steps. It’s going to take a lot of patience.”

The impressive all-around showing against the Hornets led one executive to argue that Barnes, 20, has the highest ceiling of any player in the Class of 2021, including Cunningham and Green.

“Don’t think of him as the next Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby,” he said. “He should be better than both. He’s their highest draft pick since Andrea Bargnani.”

5. Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic

Few point guards manage to be athletic enough to produce highlights, smart and disciplined enough to control the game on both ends, and mature enough to set the tone early in their careers. Even an all-league talent such as Kyrie Irving struggled to check every box coming out of Duke.

Before spraining his thumb, Suggs was doing a little bit of everything for Orlando, posting averages of 15.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists. In a best-case scenario, one front-office executive imagined the Magic building around Suggs as the New Orleans Hornets once did with a young Chris Paul.

Suggs, 20, climbed high for a putback dunk against the Cavaliers, but the subtleties of his game — his ability to recognize mismatches, his quick decisions, his anticipation on defense — drew praise from rival assistant coaches.

“I felt like a little kid on Christmas,” Suggs said after his debut. “[Leadership is] something I’m trying to bring from Day One — being a guy who shows it on the floor and is talking off the floor, picking everybody up, celebrating other teammates.”

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