Why NBA summer league performances don’t matter

August 1

(AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Now that 2014 NBA summer leagues have concluded in Orlando and Las Vegas, and a little time has passed it’s time to take some stock of what various performances mean. The first rule of discussing summer league stats is don’t read much into summer league stats. But the performances of players can probably tell us something

Nathan Walker recently compiled stats from Las Vegas summer league to try and estimate an Adjusted Plus-Minus equivalent for each player’s statistical production and thus measure their overall level of contribution.

It’s not terribly surprising to see some of the standouts from Vegas high atop the list. Glen Rice Jr.’s MVP was well earned, as apparently were the contracts given to relative unknowns Eric Moreland by Sacramento and Eric Griffin by Dallas on the back of their own respective displays.

Of course because of sample size and level of competition, this statistical model should be taken with a grain of salt. In some cases, the results from Walker’s analysis don’t jibe with how onlookers see a summer league performance translate to the NBA. For example, Shane Larkin looked severely undersized and unlikely to be an NBA level point guard for much of his time in Vegas, whereas Dennis Schroeder appeared vastly improved from last season, having learned some of the nuances needed to be a successful operator in the pick-and-roll game. But from a purely box score standpoint, Larkin was the eighth most effective player, and Schroeder the fourth least so among players with 100 or more minutes.

Further, some players, especially second year players, were experimenting with their games in ways which they might not during the regular season to improve their overall skill level. It is doubtful Giannis Antetokuonmpo spends much time at point guard for Milwaukee this upcoming season. But he filled that role for much of summer league, presumably to get him more reps as a ballhandler and playmaker. As a result of pushing his limits in this way, he had a statistically ugly Vegas stint, putting up 4.5 turnovers per contest. On the flipside, Tim Hardaway, Jr. spent much of summer league doing what he he already does at the NBA level, shooting early and often. Somewhat as a result of never leaving his comfort zone and playing against inferior competition, Hardaway put up “impressive” numbers, averaging almost 23 points per game on efficient shooting.

ESPN’s Kevin Pelton has found, presumably somewhat as a result of the different ways in which 2nd year players might be used, there is very little predictive power in “veteran” players’ summer league output. However, for rookies, some information can be gained from summer league. By Pelton’s estimates about 46 percent of the variation in rookie year production can be explained by summer performance. Controlling for a players’ college performance reduces the predictive power of these games to around 15 percent (college and summer league performance tend to correlate pretty well.) So the play in Vegas offers some small preview of the coming season.

That said, some things translate better than others: To some degree turnovers and free throw extent, and to a greater extent defensive rebounding and shot blocking rates seem to carry over very well, a positive sign for players like Moreland, or, higher up the expectations scale, Nerlens Noel. On the flip side, shooting, especially three-point shooting, doesn’t necessarily translate from the summer to the regular season, so Kncks Fans should put a hold on their orders for Cleanthony Early Rookie of the Year memorabilia pre-orders, and Doug McDermott isn’t a guaranteed star just yet.

On the other hand, it’s a ray of hope for a player like Noah Vonleh who struggled mightily shooting the ball, shooting under 30% from the floor including 1-8 from three. Vonleh did clean the glass, averaging 10 boards per contest as well as blocking over a shot per game. Similarly, Jabari Parker showed off a degree of physical dominance in grabbing over 8 rebounds per game from the wing but was underwhelming shooting the ball from deep.

As for what it means for MVP Rice and the Wizards? It depends if we count last year as his rookie season or not. He played almost twice as many minutes in six summer league games (193) as he did all of last season (109). If he is more of a “rookie”, Washington fans can be encouraged. Even if you can’t completely trust his scoring outbursts he also averaged nearly eight rebounds, and 11 free throw attempts per game. On the other hand, if he’s just a second year player using his experience to bully the new kids, he might find himself on the bench or bouncing back and forth to the Development League once again.

Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with his wife, daughter and dog. He blogs about the NBA and related topics at WhereOffenseHappens.com. His work can also be found at Hickory-High.com and ESPN’s ClipperBlog.com, where he is a regular contributor. Seth can be reached on twitter @WhrOffnsHppns.

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