Summer League wasn’t always this popular.
You could barely find footage of LeBron James playing against Dwyane Wade in the summer of 2003, just weeks after they were made the No. 1 and No. 5 picks, respectively, from arguably the best draft class of the century. And when you could, you’d notice that D-Wade is wearing No. 5 instead of the trademark No. 3 that he began wearing prior to the season, and for the rest of his career (save for a weird stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers as No. 9). Wade famously even wore No. 5 in NBA Live 2004, but that’s neither here nor there.
But can you actually remember Summer League being an event then, as it became years later? Probably not.
Last night, rookies Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green headlined a primetime ESPN game between the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets’ Summer League squads, which began at 9 p.m. in the D, and at 8 p.m. in H-Town. Cunningham and Green, in that order, were the top two picks in this year’s NBA Draft, which was held less than two weeks ago. Last night, they squared off at the Las Vegas Summer League, which quickly became the most high-profile of the locations (over Orlando, Salt Lake City, and now, California) after debuting in 2004. Yes, it was an obvious glimpse into the future, and it’s also something that you don’t receive very often. There wasn’t even a Summer League last year for Anthony Edwards (No. 1) and LaMelo Ball (No. 3) to go at it last year due to COVID, and Zion Williamson (No. 1) didn’t face Ja Morant (No. 2) the year prior. Zion did oppose college roommate and No. 3 overall selection R.J. Barrett — at least, until an earthquake caused a stoppage.
But, yes, the whole glimpse into the future thing applies to Cunningham and Green, so let’s talk about it. And, sure, in terms of results, the game doesn’t matter, but it’s August; motherfuckers gon’ talk about something!
Cunningham and Green are both guards, though Cunningham will likely be slotted anywhere from 1 to 3. Still, it means they’ll be inevitably matched up with one another from time to time, especially considering how often the NBA switches on defense. Cunningham used one opportunity, in particular, to cross up Green with the help of a screen by going behind the back and hitting a three in his vicinity. Green didn’t even contest the jumper, so that round went to Cunningham.
A big part of what drew intrigue was not just Cunningham’s listed 6-foot-8, 220-pound frame, but how he uses his size, plays to his strength, literally, and has an uncanny ability to create (and convert) while going downhill compared to the average player at his position(s). Recently turned 19-year-old and No. 16 overall selection Alperen Şengün has garnered a lot of NBA Twitter praise in the early Summer League runs, but Cunningham took it straight to him, drove left, spun right, drew the contact, didn’t get the and-one call, but still hit the contested lay-in underneath.
And because he’s 6-foot-8, the Pistons will toss it to Cunningham in the post where he could back down smaller guards if he wants (though, not exactly a go-to in the modern NBA), but he’s quick enough to face-up and not just overpower, but blow-by guards and others who’ll stand in the way between him and the rim. It’s worth noting how quickly he made his decision once the lane cleared up.
Green can and will create much of his offense off the dribble, but he can also move without the ball and has deep range, which we’ll undoubtedly see showcased in Houston, as seen on this inbound.
And there’s a two-for-one in that Green highlight: That off-the-dribble thing? Yeah, he showed that working off a screen from Kenyon Martin Jr. (grey hairs stand up!!) [Ed. Note: I feel seen — R.O.] deep beyond the three-point line. He gets the screen, uses it for a one-dribble pull-up to his left side, and despite being nearly double-teamed, a slightly decent look at the rim was all he needed. And in the second half of the clip, Green, who is also known for his fearlessness, takes the bounce, occupies four defenders while knifing into the lane, and somehow creates an easy look for the right-handed finish.
Cunningham finished with 20 points on 8-for-18 shooting and 4-for-9 from three, with four rebounds and three steals. Green led the Rockets with 25 points on 6-for-11 shooting, 3-of-5 from three, and 10-for-11 on free throws in a 111-91 victory. Meaningless result? Sure. But the bottom line is, you can already see why many think they’re future All-Stars.