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The Whiteboard: Ranking rookie performances from the start of NBA Summer League

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NBA Summer League is our first real look at rookies against NBA-level(ish) competition, and there are a lot of ways they can impress. Some rookies generate buzz simply by reaffirming the readiness of the most obvious parts of their predraft profiles — shooters who actually make shots, perimeter pests who actually create steals with pressure. Some rookies impress by demonstrating their athletic advantages in real-time — watching someone close for an absurd chase-down block is much more visceral than hearing Jay Bilas talk about their wingspan or explosiveness from behind a desk. And some reveal previously unseen aspects to their games, leveraging the new context to succeed at things are weren’t sure they’d ever really be able to do.

Lumping those three groups together, here are the rookies have who have been most impressive in their first few games of NBA Summer League.

6. Trey Murphy, New Orleans Pelicans, No. 17 pick

Murphy’s pre-draft appeal was all about his combination of size (6-foot-9, 7-foot-1 wingspan), defensive versatility and spot-up shooting. He doesn’t look like an individual stopper but his length and mobility mean he should be able to defend at least three positions and he made 40.1 percent of nearly 500 3-point attempts across three college seasons. Murphy has played just one game so far but finished with 26 points and 9 rebounds on 9-of-15 from the field, including 6-of-9 from beyond the arc. He hit a variety of spot-up shots, both in transition and in the halfcourt, and showed the ability to relocate around closeouts. Even if this performance was just him proving he is who the Pelicans that he was, it was meaningful enough to catch Zion Williamson’s eye.

5. Jalen Johnson, Atlanta Hawks, No. 20 pick

Johnson was a lottery prospect on a lot of big boards but ultimately slid to the Hawks at No. 20. His first Summer League game hasn’t drawn as much attention as some others but it certainly looks like he’s determined to make himself into the steal of the draft. In 25 minutes, Johnson finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal and a block, on 8-of-12 from the field. He bullied smaller players with his strength, but also showed the touch and finesse to finish through contact. Johnson also flashed his vision, hit some jumpers and came up with one spectacular chase-down block. The performance is a little bit misleading in that it’s unlikely he gets many opportunities this season to play with this kind of offensive primacy. But it let him show off the full range of his tools and if he can figure out how to use them in a complementary role, he’s going to be a huge asset for the Atlanta Hawks.

4. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors, No. 4 pick

The Raptors drafted Barnes for his versatility and defensive upside and they got to see plenty of both in his first game. He finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and a block. It was the kind of box-score stuffing performance his pre-draft profile hinted at (right down to the 7-of-18 shooting). His development as a shooter is what will ultimately set his ceiling but Barnes showed immediate pathway(s) to contributing on offense, even if he’s not knocking down 3s. First, Barnes looked comfortable working against smaller players in the post. If he’s a remotely threatening scoring threat down there it makes it easier for the Raptors to give him touches in that area, where his real weapon is his passing. He also did a solid job finding space off the ball and if the Raptors can get enough other shooters on the floor, he can still aid spacing with smart cuts and gravity closer to the basket. He also finished the game with 5 offensive rebounds, showing he can pick up easy points with energy. The conventionally optimistic assessment of Barnes was that he could develop into a Draymond Green-type player. But watching his debut, thinking about him playing up the positional scale and being more of a Bam Adebayo seems just as intriguing (at the combine, he measured out nearly two inches shorter and 15 pounds lighter than Adebayo, but with an identical wingspan).

3. Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets, No. 2 and No. 16 picks

It may be a bit of a stretch to lump Green and Sengun together, given how different they are and how different their first performances were. But they’re a package deal for the Rockets and the team’s long-term future is indelibly tied to both right now. For Green, the athletic tools were a given in his pre-draft profile, with skill and efficiency as the biggest question marks. Sengun was the exact opposite, a high-floor prospect with significant skill level who might not be able to muster the same impact against NBA-level athletes. Green look unexpectedly polished in his first game, scoring 23 points on 18 shots (and 4-of-9 from beyond the arc) with just a single turnover. He easily created space and drilled plenty of step-back and pull-up jumpers. He’ll have to keep doing it but this was a great start. Sengun, meanwhile, piled up 15 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal and 4 blocks. He was just 3-of-10 from the field but got himself to the line 14 times and had no problem getting himself to the rim with the ball in his hands, keeping his man in front of him, or matching the verticality of longer, bouncier players.

2. Moses Moody, Golden State Warriors, No. 14 pick

While Jonathan Kuminga has made a few more highlights, Moody’s two Summer League games (one in Sacramento and one in Las Vegas) have underlined how much more likely he is to be able to contribute this year. Across those two games, Moody is averaging 17 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists in around 25 minutes per game. He’s only shooting 13-of-31 (41.9 percent) from the field but has hit 4-of-9 from beyond the arc. Moody has flashed all the things the Warriors would want to see from him, playing with and around Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson this season — plenty of vision, some strong defense and, of course, the spot-up shooting. Kuminga may generate more blind optimism this season but Moody is going to play more meaningful minutes.

1. Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic, No. 5 pick

Jalen Suggs showed the whole package in his Summer League debut — 24 points, 9 rebounds, an assist, 2 steals and 3 blocks. A single assist from what is likely to be Orlando’s starting point guard this season might seem like a problem, as is him needing 22 shots to get his 24 points, but he also made 3-of-6 from beyond the arc and generated perhaps the most impressive defensive highlight in the history of NBA Summer League. Whatever he lacked in efficiency and exploitative skill, he more than made up for it with energy, effort and leadership. Basically, Suggs showed just how high and impactful his floor can be. The Magic can worry about his ceiling later.

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