Here’s a story about how boatloads of fans and media members annually exaggerate offseason performances as if they’re indicators of what basketball players will and won’t be for the duration of their careers. We’ve reached that moment now as the No. 2 overall pick in last month’s draft had a good game against a dude that’s averaged 2 points in 37 career games in the NBA.
Chet Holmgren, one of the most intriguing prospects basketball has ever seen, played well in his NBA Summer League debut on Tuesday night in Salt Lake City going for 23 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and six blocks. According to ESPN and their research, Holmgren became the first player in Summer League history to record at least five blocks and hit four 3-pointers.
A really good basketball player had a good performance in an exhibition game against other players that he was drafted higher than, and people are acting like he did this against Dennis Rodman or Draymond Green instead of [checks notes] maybe the worst perimeter defender in the history of basketball — Tacko Fall.
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For those that didn’t know who Holmgren was until his lone season at Gonzaga, or until they started paying attention to draft analysts, I’m here to inform you that he’s been really good at basketball for a while now, and he’ll continue to be. The kid is a bucket, and he’s been a bucket, which is why it was so surprising to see people act like him getting buckets was out of the norm. The same thing happened — on a less intense level — to Miami Heat rookie Nikola Jović, a 19-year-old Serbian prospect, after he dropped 25 points and 9 rebounds, though teams and fans in the know have been drooling over him for years.
There are all types of variables that come into play during Summer League, from coaching and teammates to injuries and minute restrictions — it’s a gamble. There’s a reason why most of the games are played in Las Vegas. Some guys do well and others don’t. But a player’s production is never a guaranteed indication of what they will or won’t be despite all the chatter that’s currently taking place about how good someone plays while wearing a glorified practice jersey.
Sean Beckwith, my colleague at Deadspin, would like me to remind people that he’s a diehard Portland Trail Blazers fan and that in 2008 Jerryd Bayless averaged 29.8 points over four games for the Blazers en route to being named Summer League MVP. It was the peak of Bayless’ NBA career. Guys like Randy Foye, Josh Selby, and Glen Rice Jr. have also been Summer League MVPs, but so have household names like John Wall, Damian Lillard, and Blake Griffin. Sometimes that trophy means you’re destined for a max contract and shoe deals, sometimes it means that you might not be heard from again, and sometimes it means you’re gonna be a really good role player for a decade. Nobody knows, but what we do know is that every summer people act like one good game in Las Vegas means you’re going to be on the cover of NBA2K one day. Sadly, because of that, too many people overlook the importance of these games and the career-changing opportunities it annually provides.
“I think, yes, I would be the guy that people can look at and say, ‘He was in his third year in the NBA, he probably shouldn’t have played Summer League, but he went and did it. And it was the best thing for him. And now look where he is.” That’s what Miami Heat guard Max Strus told ESPN in a recent story about the importance of Summer League and how it helped him become a starter for a team that made it to the Eastern Conference finals after the 26-year-old went undrafted in 2019.
Take Memphis Grizzlies guard Demond Bane for example, who is one of the centerpieces of one of the league’s most exciting young teams. After being taken 30th overall in the 2020 draft out of TCU, Bane wasn’t thought to be one of the better young players in the coming years, especially after Sports Illustrated named him on their Honorable Mention list after the 2021 Summer League. Fast forward a few years later and Bane will be offered a huge contract, in the same way that Strus has cemented his place in this league. The future is impossible to anticipate. So everybody needs to put their crystal balls down and just enjoy summer basketball. Besides, watching the unpredictable take place is what makes basketball so amazing. It’s like Kevin Garnett told us, “anything is possible!”