Updated: Oct 9, 2021
Since when has an NBA Summer League matchup been so highly anticipated?
On Tuesday night, no. 1 pick Cade Cunningham and the Detroit Pistons took on no. 2 pick Jalen Green and the Houston Rockets. Both rookies are immensely talented, enough to warrant a top pick in most drafts. For a duo that will be inextricably linked for their entire careers, their first matchup did not disappoint.
Cunningham led the Pistons in scoring with 20 points on 8-for-18 shooting, but it wasn’t enough against Houston’s efficient team performance. The Rockets topped the Pistons 111-91, led by Green’s 25 points and 5 rebounds on 6-for-11 shooting and converting 10 of his 11 free throw attempts. In his postgame interview, the Houston star made it clear that this game held serious significance.
“My chip is super big. It started at draft night when I got drafted no. 2. I felt I was no. 1,” Green said after the game. “I could have turned around and [battled with Cade] for myself, but we end up getting the win, so that’s all that matters.”
The 9 p.m. slot wasn’t the only game that impressed on Tuesday. Though it ended in a 107-82 blowout in favor of Boston, the Celtics and Nuggets featured some excellent individual performances. C’s point guard Payton Pritchard enjoyed one of the best games of his young career, adding 21 points, eight rebounds, and 12 assists with just one turnover. Beside him was fellow sophomore Aaron Nesmith, who dropped 33 points on 13-for-18 shooting from the field and 7-for-9 from deep.
The continued development of Boston’s youngsters like Pritchard and Nesmith will be crucial to contend in Brad Stevens’ first year as an executive. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are an immensely young, talented core, but they’re approaching their primes without a Finals run to their names. Stevens can only hope that their young side of the roster—Pritchard, Nesmith, Romeo Langford, etc—is ready to steadily contribute.
For the Nuggets, Bol Bol—mystical yet oft-deprived of regular season minutes—flaunted what makes him such a unique basketball talent. The 7-foot-2 center was prolific in his foul drawing, getting to the line 10 times and converting seven. Overall, Bol scored 26 points and nabbed nine rebounds on 8-for-12 from the field, including 3-for-4 from behind the arc.
Bol’s improvement will be something to watch in Denver. He has the raw offensive talent (as we saw on Tuesday) and could be yet another scoring weapon with the likes of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. Bol’s spindly 220-lb frame hinders him from grabbing select rebounds each night, but he has certainly shown more consistent defensive effort compared to last season.
Finally, in one of the most thrilling Summer League finishes in recent memory, Sharife Cooper hit a game-winning 3-pointer from the corner to propel the Hawks past the Pacers for a final score of 84-83. The 6-foot-1 Auburn alum finished with 21 points and nine assists on an efficient 8-for-14 shooting. He’ll learn from the similarly undersized Trae Young, who recently signed a 5-year, $207 million maximum extension after leading Atlanta to the no. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference last season. Cooper is currently the third point guard on the Hawks’ depth chart, behind Young and Delon Wright. With more efficient, unselfish play in the future, he should nab the backup role in no time.
Rookie Jalen Johnson also added 18 points and 10 rebounds for Atlanta. Coming off of a strange freshman season at Duke that ended with an unceremonious mid-season exit, Johnson was seen as one of the first round’s biggest risks. The Hawks pounced on him at 20th overall as he kept sliding down the draft board, disregarding the warning signs attached to the 19-year-old forward. So far, their investment has paid dividends and will hopefully look even better in coming years.
The Pacers had solid showings from their two draft picks: Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson. At 24 years old, Duarte was far and away the oldest prospect in this year’s class. In other words, Indiana needed to be extremely confident in his league-ready scoring ability to use the 13th pick on the Dominican guard. He had a veteran’s statline on Tuesday, adding 21 points, seven rebounds, and two steals on 8-for-19 shooting from the field and hitting five of 10 attempts from deep.
Jackson didn’t play until the second quarter, as he was awaiting formal approval of his draft-night trade from the Lakers. He scored 13 points and grabbed 12 rebounds (six offensive, six defensive) in just 17 minutes. Early in his career, the bouncy Jackson will make the most of his minutes as a high-energy big that provides an immediate defensive jolt.
Action in the Summer League comes and goes in a flash, as the season just lasts for two weeks. But combing through box scores for each game highlights a lasting, impactful takeaway for every team. That’s the magic of the NBA in the summer—young players get to prove themselves in a more intimate situation that is just as important to their coaching staffs. And as we’ve seen, just one day in the Summer League can showcase a brilliant amount of nascent talent.