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LAS VEGAS — A perfect storm of extenuating circumstances conspired to overshadow the on-court action at this year’s NBA Summer League: Kawhi Leonard signed with the Los Angeles Clippers on opening night; Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul were traded over the past 10 days; and a host of lottery picks were injured or chose not to play. On top of all that, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake shook the Thomas & Mack Center.
Even so, there were plenty of memorable moments for this year’s rookie class:
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans: The top pick played just nine minutes after he took a knee-to-knee blow in his debut. Williamson did what he does best — pack the house and throw down multiple rim-rattling dunks — but otherwise he left observers wanting more. Numerous evaluators agreed that his conditioning needs serious improvement. “There’s no nice way to say he has to lose weight,” one scout said. “But he has to lose weight.”
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Pelicans: With Williamson sidelined, Alexander-Walker emerged as arguably the top performer in Las Vegas. The 6-foot-5 Canadian guard, who was selected with the No. 17 pick and acquired by New Orleans in a trade, scored effortlessly, shot efficiently and mixed in some nice playmaking to boot. Alexander-Walker led all rookies by averaging 24.3 points, showed off deep range and guided New Orleans to the semifinals of the tournament.
Jaxson Hayes, Pelicans: New Orleans executive David Griffin drew some heat for trading down from the No. 4 spot on draft night, but Hayes joined Alexander-Walker in delivering a validating summer session for their new boss. The No. 8 pick averaged 16.3 points and 7.3 rebounds, forming a successful inside/outside duo with his fellow rookie. While Hayes’s offensive game is largely paint-bound, his ferocious poster dunk against the Chicago Bulls was the play of the tournament and he delivered numerous highflying blocks, too. Hayes, like most 19-year-old bigs, needs to improve his strength.
RJ Barrett, New York Knicks: There were some rocky moments for Barrett, the highly touted No. 3 pick who will be thrown to the wolves by the rebuilding Knicks. He shot just 4 for 18 in his debut, struggling to generate separation off the dribble and forcing contested shots in the paint. As the week wore on, Barrett settled in and finished as one of the most productive players in Las Vegas, averaging 15.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists. His best moments came when he altered his pace off the dribble, snaking through traffic in transition or losing his defender with hesitation moves to the basket. Knicks fans should prepare for an inefficient rookie campaign marked by a strong work ethic and admirable self-confidence, with some “wow” moments mixed in along the way.
Iggy Brazdeikis, Knicks: New York’s second-round pick earned kudos for his physical on-ball style, perimeter shooting and late-game assertiveness. Brazdeikis, who was born in Lithuania, raised in Canada and spent one year at Michigan, scored 30 points in an overtime loss to the Phoenix Suns that was one of the better performances of the week. The 6-foot-7 forward showed off some crafty fakes and comfort orchestrating as a pick-and-roll ballhandler.
Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies: The draft dorks who gushed over Clarke’s ultraefficient play at Gonzaga left Las Vegas feeling vindicated. Although the 22-year-old Clarke is older than much of the Las Vegas competition, he made a strong impression all week by averaging 14.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. The Grizzlies advanced to Monday’s championship game thanks in large part to his steady production and relentless energy. Clarke looked ready to play rotation minutes from Day 1 — albeit for a rebuilding Memphis team that is pursuing a youth movement. One rival executive praised the Grizzlies’ summer for its “coherent vision” and said Clarke’s stellar play was “the icing on the cake.”
Coby White, Chicago Bulls: The No. 7 pick turned in a “good, bad and ugly” week. White proved to be a slippery shot-creator, working confidently in isolation situations and regularly finding seams in the defense to average a team-high 15 points per game. But he shot just 34 percent from the field and was often left to fend for himself on a Chicago team that finished 2-3 and endured two blowout losses. The North Carolina product appeared best suited for a bench scoring role as a rookie.
Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers: Thybulle, a well-regarded wing prospect from the University of Washington, lived up to his billing as an elite perimeter defender in the making. The 22-year-old racked up 10 steals and six blocks in five games, while also displaying a better-than-expected three-point stroke. The Sixers will need to turn to some younger players for rotation minutes after remaking their roster this summer, and Thybulle should be in the mix.
Carsen Edwards, Boston Celtics: A pure bucket-getter, Edwards was among the highest-scoring rookies at 19.4 points per game. The 6-foot-1 Purdue product’s small stature, immense confidence and shot-making ability combined to make him a fan favorite, even though his passing instincts leave much to be desired. The Celtics rewarded their second-round pick with a four-year contract and will hope he can add some scoring to their second unit.
Tyler Herro, Miami Heat: Thanks to his tight handle and stop-and-pop shooting, the 19-year-old Herro is a natural for Summer League. After going one and done at Kentucky, he adjusted to the next level without major issues and averaged 19.8 points and 4.3 assists over four games. Herro stretched defenses with his step-back threes, pushed the pace in transition, and effectively used screens to step into midrange jumpers. Given his youth and his polished scoring game, Herro has a strong chance to outperform his No. 13 draft spot.