MVP, best rookie and others who stood out in Las Vegas

With the Portland Trail Blazers winning the 2022 Las Vegas summer league title over the New York Knicks on Sunday, 85-77, another showcase for rookies, developing young players and free agents is in the books. Who stood out during the NBA’s three summer leagues across California, Utah and Nevada?

This year’s summer games, the first played in the typical July time slot since 2019, featured a number of matchups between the top picks of last month’s NBA draft. Because the top four picks were all big men, they defended each other head-to-head, giving us a good first look at how their games will translate to the NBA.

In addition to the rookies, this year’s summer action saw former No. 2 pick James Wiseman of the Golden State Warriors make his return to the court after recovery from a meniscus repair limited him to a brief rehab stint in the G League during the 2021-22 season.

And, as always, former college stars who haven’t yet found a home in the NBA made their bid for a roster spot with their performances in front of strong crowds in San Francisco, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.

In a matchup between two of the teams with top-four picks, the Magic and Kings played a thriller on the first Saturday of summer league. Down 18 midway through the fourth quarter, Sacramento still appeared hopelessly behind down six with 6.7 seconds remaining before chaos struck. Center Neemias Queta made a 3, one of two all summer, and the Kings stole the ensuing inbound pass. Murray dribbled behind the 3-point line to make a tying 3 and force overtime.

After Devin Cannady made three pressure free throws in the final seconds of OT to tie it again, the two-minute extra session ended with Cannady just missing a heave from beyond half court that would have won it. That sent us to sudden death, where Orlando successfully challenged a shooting foul called on Paolo Banchero and got the ball back. Banchero then found Emanuel Terry for the walk-off layup to the crowd’s delight.

Honorable mention: Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder

Although we saw exciting moments from all of the top picks in this year’s draft, as I broke down on YouTube last week, Holmgren and Murray stood out as two of the four most valuable rookies this summer by my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric. Both played an extended schedule, with Murray’s Kings in the California Classic and Holmgren’s Thunder at the Salt Lake City summer league before arriving in Vegas. That separated them from No. 1 pick Banchero, who played well but was shut down after two games.

Murray (.649) and Holmgren (.631) both scored efficiently. Murray managed that while also finishing plays at a high rate (26.5% usage; Holmgren was at 21%) thanks to 41% 3-point shooting on seven-plus attempts per game. Holmgren hit 42% of his 3s while dominating the paint defensively. An impressive summer debut doesn’t always translate to the regular season, but it’s an encouraging sign for Murray and Holmgren, as well as Banchero.

Honorable mention: Keon Ellis, Sacramento Kings; Jabari Walker, Portland Trail Blazers

Williams, the No. 12 overall pick, proved a nice wing complement to Holmgren and 2021 lottery pick Josh Giddey, doing a little of everything. The bouncy Williams finished strong above the rim but also knocked down five 3-pointers in 13 attempts and looked advanced defensively.

The next-to-last pick by the Blazers, Walker earned a guaranteed contract for this season (per ESPN’s Bobby Marks) by shooting 63% from the field, including 6-of-14 beyond the arc. Walker pulled down an impressive 16.4 rebounds per 40 minutes as Portland won the inaugural summer league championship rings. Ellis, who signed a two-way deal with the Sacramento Kings after going undrafted, went 15-of-34 on 3s and averaged two steals per game.

Honorable mention: Dyson Daniels, New Orleans Pelicans; Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons; Shaedon Sharpe, Portland Trail Blazers

From a scouting standpoint, it was a bummer to see three lottery picks sidelined by injuries early in the schedule. Sharpe suffered a small labral tear in his left shoulder six minutes into his first game action in a year after sitting out at Kentucky, while Daniels and Ivey both dealt with ankle sprains. Ivey’s came after he dominated the first five minutes of his second game following a strong debut.

Still, none of those injuries should affect players for training camp. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for Liddell, the No. 41 pick out of Ohio State. An ACL tear sustained in the Pelicans’ second game will likely cost Liddell, who was unsigned, his first professional campaign. Here’s hoping he’s able to return to the court in time for next year’s summer league.

At Wisconsin, Davis averaged nearly 20 PPG with strong shot-making on a difficult diet of attempts. That skill set hasn’t always carried over well to the NBA and we saw Davis struggle to create easy opportunities in three games in Las Vegas while playing through back tightness. He shot 5-of-20 (25%) on 2-pointers and generated just six total free throws after averaging 6.3 per game in college. Davis may have to prepare to play more of an off-ball role early in his NBA career. Hopefully Davis can get to 100% in time for training camp.

Honorable mention: Quentin Grimes, New York Knicks; Isaiah Joe, Philadelphia 76ers; Cam Thomas, Brooklyn Nets

Murphy played just two games after totaling 53 points on 17-of-34 shooting in two games. By comparison to the other high-usage second-year players, including Grimes and Thomas, Murphy was more efficient and did it without exceptional 3-point accuracy. In fact, he went 1-of-9 from beyond the arc in his first game but compensated with 8-of-8 foul shooting and four steals. When Murphy knocked down the 3 in his second game, he rang up 30 points.

Thomas finished summer league averaging 20 points per game, scoring effortlessly, and showed improved playmaking by handing out 3.8 APG. Grimes excelled at both ends as the leader of a veteran-laden group (including Myles McBride and Jericho Sims) that reached the title game. And Joe, heading into his third year with the Sixers, shot better than 50% from 3-point range (20-of-38).

All eyes were on Wiseman’s return to the court for the Warriors’ second game in Las Vegas. He came out looking like a player eager for game action after playing sparingly in the last 15 months. Wiseman had a dunk, a 3 and a block within the first two minutes he played. After that burst, Wiseman’s inevitable lack of game conditioning played a factor in his up-and-down play. Still, he had 42 points, 22 rebounds and 8 blocks in just 80 minutes, getting valuable development time after so long away from the court.

Honorable mention: Darius Days, San Antonio Spurs; Mfiondu Kabengele, Boston Celtics; Tommy Kuhse, Orlando Magic

Dowtin, who saw action with three teams last season, was impressive playing for the summer Raptors. He averaged 16 PPG and 4.3 APG while shooting 57% from the field. If Dowtin can become a more consistent 3-point threat (he went 4-of-11), there’s a place for him in the league.

Days earned a reported two-way deal with the Miami Heat by starring for the Spurs after going undrafted, putting up 41 points and 30 rebounds in just 66 minutes and making six 3s. Miami’s development program could be ideal for Days. Former first-round pick Kabengele picked up a two-way contract with the Celtics, averaging 14.8 PPG, 8.2 RPG and 2.2 BPG for them. Undrafted Saint Mary’s star Kuhse didn’t play until Orlando’s third game but used his old-school craft to excel thereafter, including a 25-point effort on 11-of-15 shooting against the Knicks.

Honorable mention: Mac McClung, Los Angeles Lakers; Josh Minott, Minnesota Timberwolves

Akin to 1990s center Oliver Miller, Lofton has more skill and creativity than the typical player of his size. Signed to a two-way contract by the Grizzlies after going undrafted, Lofton didn’t back down against friend and former USA Basketball teammate Holmgren in a head-to-head matchup. Playing into Holmgren’s body, Lofton found room to score 19 points.

After finishing last season on a two-way contract with the Lakers and playing for them in the California Classic, McClung joined the Warriors in Las Vegas and dazzled fans with his playmaking and finishing. Minott’s above-the-rim finishes and blocks made him a must-watch and earned him a full NBA deal as a second-round pick.

The Jazz supplemented a home team light on NBA players with the ever-popular 7-foot-6 Fall, which led to disappointment when he was in street clothes for Utah’s second game in Salt Lake City. Hoping to see him play, fans chanted Fall’s name to no avail.

As part of a timeout competition during the opening game in Las Vegas, which featured top-three picks Banchero and Jabari Smith Jr., a fan said he was most excited to see “hook shot guy” — that being the 6-foot Simpson, who actually goes by the nickname “Captain Hook” by virtue of his unorthodox finishing style. Beyond the hooks, Simpson also came up with 10 steals, including multiple times picking Holmgren clean.