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Does Summer League success generally translate to NBA success?

How much stock should we put into standout performances in Vegas?

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Chet Holmgren dominated in game one but looked human in game two. How will he fare long term in the NBA?
Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Ahh, yes. The time of year where we miss the NBA immensely and need something – anything – to help fill the void.

We’re genuinely thrilled to get outside, go the beach and soak up the sun, but a small part of us craves those long winter nights filled with never-ending hoops, the nights when we look at the clock and it’s approaching midnight, Nikola Jokic and Devin Booker are trading buckets, and we’re waffling internally about whether it’s worth it to stay up. Our mental Magic 8 ball inevitably tells us “signs point to yes,” and we’re glad we did if the finish delivers.

When The NBA Finals end, that “what do we do now?” feeling lingers. Fortunately, the NBA has us covered. Enter the Summer League. It’s not the same, but it’ll do.

Perhaps the most entertaining (and ludicrous) part of the Summer League is overreacting to every performance from every game. It’s a July tradition unlike any other.

When Chet Holmgren dominated in his first game, people pegged him as some sort of Kevin Durant-Dirk Nowitzki-Anthony Davis combo. When he struggled in the next game, people quickly changed their opinions and said he’s not strong enough to compete in the NBA.

The reality, of course, is that it’s likely he’ll end up somewhere in the middle, but the hot takes are part of the fun, right? That raises the question, though: does Summer League success generally translate to NBA success? What are the odds that the stars of this summer end up lasting? Here’s a closer look.

Let’s take a peek at the top five scorers each year from 2005-2021. How often do they end up having solid NBA careers or better? Let’s modestly say a solid NBA career is five-plus years in the league and 5 points per game or higher. Of course there are other measures for success, but this is a relatively telling baseline.

Going back to 2005, Nikoloz Tskitishvili dropped 25.7 a night in Summer League, then he averaged 2.9 in his NBA career. Keith Bogans is a yes, Casey Jacobsen is a no, Leandro Barbosa is a (hell) yes and old friend Al Jefferson is a definitive yes. So that’s three out of five.

The next year, J.R. Smith, Chris Kaman, Kevin Martin, Dwight Howard and Sebastian Telfair all did their thing (low-key would be a pretty solid starting five in their primes). That’s five out of five.

In 2007, it was 3/5 (looking at you, Maurice Ager), 2008 4/5 (congrats to Marcus Banks and Von Wafer) and 2009 3/5 (sorry, Quincy Douby). 2010 was 4/5 (poor Adam Morrison), 2011 3/5 (John, Wall, DeMar Derozan and JaVale McGee – pretty good) and 2013 4/5 (poor Josh Selby, surrounded by Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler).

Summer League success rate

Year Top-5 Scorers
Year Top-5 Scorers
2005 3/5
2006 5/5
2007 3/5
2008 4/5
2009 3/5
2010 4/5
2011 3/5
2013 4/5
2014 3/5
2015 3/5
2016 3/5
2017 4/5
2018 3/5
2019 4/5
2020 4/5
2021 5/5
Total: 58/80

2014 was a fun one, as C.J. McCollum and Jonas Valanciunas made it but Jeff Taylor, Andrew Goudelock weren’t as fortunate. Mike Scott barely makes the cut and swings it to 3/5. 2015 was 3/5, as Glen Rice dominated, and Tony Snell found a way. Seth Curry, Zach LaVine and Kyle Anderson lit it up in 2016, but Oleksiy Pecherov and Alan Williams weren’t as fortunate long term.

2017 was 4/5 (yes, Kris Dunn counts), 2018 3/5 (Donovan Mitchell turned out OK) and 2019 (with the five-year requirement now gone) 4/5 (sorry, Antonio Blakeney).

In 2020 (4/5), Lonnie Walker and Nickeil Alexander-Walker were the leading scorers, but next was Kevin McClain at 24 points per game. He’s now playing in Europe, but regardless of how his career shakes out, he’ll always have that.

Last year, the top five leading scorers in Summer League all had breakout NBA seasons. Cam Thomas showcased his potential for the Nets and backed it up in the regular season. Tyrese Maxey exploded for 26 per game in the Summer League and upped his scoring average from 8 as a rookie to 17.5 in his second year. Celtics fans already know what happened to Desmond Bane, and Tre Jones and Jaylen Nowell both took significant leaps as well.

So in total, that’s 58 out of 80 who stuck around in the NBA. Seventy-two-point-five percent is a pretty high number, so chances are you’ll be seeing this year’s leading scorers for a while.

How many ended up as steady and reliable NBA role players or better? 2005: 1/5, 2006: 4/5. 2007: 3/5. 2008: 3/5. 2009: 3/5. 2010: 3/5. 2011: 3/5. 2013: 4/5. 2014: 3/5. 2015: 3/5. 2016: 3/5. 2017: 4/5. 2018: 3/5. 2019: 4/5. 2020: 4/5. 2021: 5/5. That’s 53/80 (66.3 percent).

How many became well-known, highly successful NBA players? Al Jefferson, Dwight Howard, Amar’e Stoudemire, Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, John Wall, DeMar DeRozan, JaVale McGee, Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, C.J. McCollum, Jonas Valanciunas, Seth Curry, Zach LaVine, Kyle Anderson, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Brandon Ingram, John Collins, Lonnie Walker (he’s well on his way), Tyrese Maxey and Desmond Bane. That’s 24/80 for 30 percent.

How do Summer League stars fare long term?

Outcome Players Percentage
Outcome Players Percentage
Stuck around: 58/80 72.5 percent
Solid or better: 53/80 66.3 percent
Well known: 24/80 30 percent
Stars: 14/80 17.5 percent
2022 Expected: 1 star, 1-2 well known and successful, 1-2 solid role players, 1-2 out of the league

Howard, Stoudemire, Wall, DeRozan, Lillard, Leonard, Harris, Butler, McCollum, LaVine, Booker, Mitchell, Ingram and Collins (so far) became stars, so that’s 14/78 (17.5) percent.

While it’s possible multiple top-five scorers from this year’s Summer League will end up becoming household names, odds are that one will become a star, one or two will become highly successful players, one or two will become solid role players and one or two will be out of the league within the next few years. So yes, you can put stock into these performances and have fun analyzing who you think will end up where, but no, summer stardom doesn’t always translate. It did for the guy below.

How about the opposite, where a player struggled in Summer League but ended up finding NBA success? Mikal Bridges averaged just 6.2 points and 2.6 rebounds in five Summer League games in 2019. Dejounte Murray put up 6.5 a night and shot 31.6 percent in 2018. Dorian Finney-Smith scored just 2.8 a night and shot 16 percent in six games in 2017. In 2009, Nicolas Tatum averaged just 6.8 points and shot 34.3 percent in five games. In 2006, Kendrick Perkins and Brandon Bass both struggled. It happens, but it’s not as common as you might think. Generally, if a player is going to have a successful NBA career, they’ll find a way to ball out in Summer League – particularly in their second attempt.

As for the Celtics, here’s a similar breakdown for how their top five Summer League scorers each year fared long term:

True stars: Rajon Rondo, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum.

Highly successful: Al Jefferson, Tony Allen, Terry Rozier.

Steady: Marcus Banks, Delonte West, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, E’Twaun Moore, Jared Sullinger (he counts), Abdel Nader (he counts, too), Grant Williams (could be on the highly successful track), Javonte Green (he’s making a name for himself), Max Strus (oh boy), Payton Pritchard (bucket).

Struggled to make it: Thomas Mobley, Justin Reed, Allan Ray, Dionte Christmas, Jamar Smith, Craig Brackins, R.J. Hunter, Jordan Mickey (still convinced he was pretty good), James Young (oh, what could have been), Jonathan Holmes, Semi Ojeleye (he’s borderline, but he goes here), Jabari Bird, Guerschon Yabusele (he’s pretty good at basketball now), Trey Davis, Pierria Henry (fairly certain this person doesn’t actually exist, but will report back), Carsen Edwards (oh, Carsen), Tremont Waters, Aaron Nesmith (we’ll give him time, but he’s here for now), Romeo Langford (hmm), Bruno Fernando (still young, may last).

Out of 38 players, 8 percent are true stars, 8 percent are highly successful, 32.5 percent are steady and 52.5 percent struggled to make it. Naturally, the numbers dwindle on a team-by-team basis. However, it’s not out of the question that a few players from the Summer Celtics will end up blossoming into solid NBA role players or better. While there are almost certainly no Tatums or Browns this year, there may be a hidden gem or two who emerge as reliable options. Sam Hauser, JD Davison and Trevion Williams are prime candidates, and A.J Reeves and Juhann Begarin are dark horses.

How about the Celtics?

Outcome Percentage
Outcome Percentage
True stars: 8 percent
Successful: 8 percent
Steady: 32.5 percent
Didn't last: 52.5 percent

It’s nearly impossible to predict, though. Summer League squads are put together quickly, and players have very little time to mesh, so the results aren't always indicative of what’s to come. Last year, Nesmith averaged 17.4 and shot 50 percent from the field, but it didn’t translate at the pro level. Pritchard averaged 16.8 and shot 47.8 percent and it did translate. Hauser shot 46.2 percent from 3, and it’s beginning to look like that wasn’t a fluke.

As for players who struggled in summer ball but went on to thrive in the NBA, Royce O’Neale averaged just 3.5 points per game on 38.9 percent shooting for the Summer Celtics in 2016. Marcus Smart shot 26.5 percent and Rozier 33.3 percent that year, and Hunter led the team in scoring.

Brown shot 32.8 percent in 2017 and 30.3 percent in 2018, and now he’s the second-best player on one of the best teams in the NBA. Rozier bounced back and averaged 21 while shooting 62 percent the next year. Tremont Waters outscored Max Strus in 2020. A basketball journey is never truly finished.

Let’s remember this is just a sample of what could potentially come in the future. My dad and I saw LeBron James look shockingly human in the Summer League in Boston in 2003. He turned out OK (side note: I approached a bald and friendly stranger asking if he was Jeff Van Gundy. It wasn’t Jeff Van Gundy.) While it’s fun to watch one game and predict the future, the reality is that we have no idea what will happen. That’s part of the fun of it.

For now, sit back and enjoy the present, because it may be the start of something brilliant – or it may be the last time you ever see them play. Regardless, we’re watching basketball again, and that’s enough for me.

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