Cavaliers win title, Cam Whitmore silences critics

The first three days of the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas were sold out as fans from all 30 teams packed UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center to watch the rookies and upcoming stars hit the league. There were 140,000 fans in attendance during the 11-day tournament and the Cleveland Cavaliers took home the championship after defeating the Houston Rockets, 99-78. The No. 1 pick in the draft, 7-foot-4 Victor Wembanyama, played only two games with his second game superseding his debut. Rockets guard Cam Whitmore earned MVP honors, silencing critics after falling to the No. 20 pick in the NBA Draft on June 22.

There were strong performances from rookies and a few second-year players who showed out, as well as disappointing showings from established teams and a couple of teams looking to rebuild. Here’s a look at the winners and losers of the 2023 NBA Summer League.

Winners

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers are the top winners of Summer League, taking home their first title since a tournament format was implemented in 2013. Second-year forward Isaiah Mobley was named the MVP of the game and finished with 28 points (12-for-20 from the field), 11 rebounds and three assists. Mobley is the older brother of Cavs center Evan Mobley and was the 49th pick in the 2022 draft. The 6-8 forward had an incredible tournament and led Cleveland in the closing minutes to the championship game against Brooklyn, netting 27 points and adding seven rebounds, five assists and two blocks. Mobley had a little something extra to prove after being snubbed for Summer League All-Tournament honors.

Mobley’s two teammates, however, were selected to the All-Summer League teams with Sam Merrill taking first-team honors and Emoni Bates named to the second team. Merrill, the former Utah State guard, was the best shooter on the court all tournament long, tallying 25 3-points (the highest for any player since 2017). He finished with 27 points (6-for-12 from 3-point range) and added four rebounds and two assists in the title game.

Bates was the 49th pick in the 2023 draft and looked incredible on the court after a disappointing college career at Memphis and Eastern Michigan. He shot the 3-ball well, defended the perimeter, chased down blocks and made some great passes. Bates averaged 18.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game (his best game coming in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies where he had 21 points (including five 3s) and scored double digits every game he played in Vegas.

Cam Whitmore and the Houston Rockets

The Rockets came up short in the championship, but the organization looks to be heading in the right direction after what fans saw from second-year forward Jabari Smith Jr., and Houston’s two first-round picks from this year, Amen Thompson and Whitmore.

Whitmore was considered a top-five talent all college season during his one year at Villanova and dropped to No. 20 on draft, reportedly after teams saw concerns in his medical report during the pre-draft process.

“I don’t know what happened,” Whitmore told reporters the day after he was drafted. “But I feel fine. It’s my body. If they think it’s something different, they have their own opinions. But at the end of the day, it’s my body.”

The Houston Rockets' Cam Whitmore dunks against the Detroit Pistons during NBA Summer League on July 9, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

The Houston Rockets’ Cam Whitmore dunks against the Detroit Pistons during NBA Summer League on July 9, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Whitmore set aside all question marks during Summer League, putting on an MVP performance, while averaging 19.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists over six games.

Smith was the No. 3 pick in last year’s draft and arguably the best player on the court in Houston’s first two games. He hit the winner at the buzzer in the first game against the Portland Trail Blazers and led all players in the second game with 37 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He scored 71 points in two games on 49% shooting.

“I’m 20 years old, why wouldn’t I play?” Smith told reporters after his first game. “We were 22-60 last year. … My rookie year wasn’t perfect, so why not get out here and get reps? Play with my new teammates, play with my new coaches.”

The Rockets had a ton of ball-dominant playmakers on the court for the first couple of games (Whitmore, Thompson and Tari Eason), and it worked. Players were unselfish and there was fluid ball movement, allowing for open shots. This is a positive sign heading into the upcoming season.

Second-year players

There were a few second-year players outside of Mobley and Smith who shined, including Smith’s teammate, Eason. Eason was the No. 17 pick in the 2022 draft and averaged 23 points, 9.5 rebounds and four assists in a pair of games alongside Smith. The pair looked comfortable in the offensive sets and knew where one another was going to be on the court. In the second game, Eason and Smith combined for 64 out of the 113 points.

The Miami Heat have a niche of finding undrafted gems and Orlando Robinson appears to be the next one up. The former Fresno State center was named to the All-Summer League first team and averaged 25.8 points, connecting on 58% of his attempts, 9.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 steals. He led all Heat players in every game he played in with his best game coming in a win over the Celtics where he put up 36 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.

The No. 2 pick in the 2022 draft, Chet Holmgren, returned to the court for the Oklahoma City Thunder in a pair of games after sitting out the entire 2022-23 season with a foot injury. He looked comfortable, in shape and ran the floor well for taking so much time off. In just two games, Holmgren averaged 20.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. Holmgren’s teammate, Tre Mann, played only one game (the first game) and he needed only one game for the best poster dunk of the entire tournament.

Other rookies who shined

Wembanyama put on a show in his second game, leading all Spurs players with 27 points and added 12 rebounds, three blocks and one steal in the 85-80 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. The sold-out crowd was hanging on every one of Wembanyama’s moves each time touched the ball. He did a little bit of everything on the court, taking players off the dribble, sneaking in for putback dunks, tipped rebounds to push the break and even hit two of his four attempts from 3-point range.

Amen Thompson played only one game after sustaining an ankle injury but twin brother, Ausar Thompson (the No. 5 pick in the draft), got better with each game with the Detroit Pistons. The Overtime Elite alum was the best rebounding guard on the court, averaging 10 rebounds over four games. In the first two games, he was a nice complementary piece to Jaden Ivey on the backcourt, cutting well off the ball and getting into the lane off his first step on the perimeter. Thompson made impressive defensive stops, not allowing opponents to turn the corner and coming over for the weak-side block, and averaged 13.5 points, 3.5 assists and 2.3 steals per game.

Thompson’s teammate, Marcus Sasser, picked up where Ivey and Thompson left off (after being shut down) and put up ridiculous numbers in a win over the Pacers. The former Houston guard scored 40 points (16-for-25 from the field, 5-for-9 from 3) with five assists, three rebounds and zero turnovers in the 100-85 win.

The Utah Jazz selected Keyonte George with the 16th overall pick and the Baylor guard was one of the most offensively productive rookies in his first three games as an NBA players. George put an impressive 33-point, 10-assist performance in his debut with the Jazz and hit shots from all over the court (including six 3-pointers). George tweaked his ankle during the Jazz’s third game and sat out the remainder of the tournament. George’s first two games didn’t go unnoticed as he was named to the All-Summer League first team.

The Orlando Magic didn’t win a single game at Summer League, but the silver lining is that Anthony Black (the No. 6 player in the draft) looked great and showed tremendous upside as a long-term guard in the NBA. His passing is elite and he can see over defenders and get the ball into space with his 6-7 frame. In three games, Black averaged 11 points, 8.7 rebounds and four assists and drew high praise Josh Giddey with the Oklahoma City Thunder guard tweeting, “This kid [Black] is very very good.”

Losers

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets selected one-and-done freshmen with three of their draft picks and acquired 18-year-old James Nnaji, who recently played overseas for FC Barcelona, in a trade on draft night. There was a ton of youth and inexperience on the court and even though both Brandon Miller (No. 2 pick in the draft) and Nick Smith Jr. (No. 27 pick in the draft) played together during AAU basketball two short years ago, they both admitted that the same on-court chemistry isn’t there after playing in different college systems.

“Right now, we’re just trying to figure out how to play together and play as a team,” Miller told Yahoo Sports. “The biggest thing for us is just building as a whole group.”

Charlotte Hornets guard Nick Smith Jr. and forward Brandon Miller during a Summer League game in Sacramento before the annual event in Las Vegas. (Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports)

Charlotte Hornets guard Nick Smith Jr. and forward Brandon Miller during a Summer League game in Sacramento before the annual event in Las Vegas. (Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports)

The Hornets didn’t have a true floor general and facilitator on their Summer League squad and it showed. Charlotte went 1-4 during the tournament with Miller struggling offensively, averaging 17.3 points in three games but shooting only 35.4% from the field and 26% from 3-point range.

A lot can change once the regular season starts and established players (LaMelo Ball) are plugged in alongside Charlotte’s young, talented rookies.

Golden State Warriors

While Warriors star player Stephen Curry was busy on the golf course, winning the American Century Championship and hitting a hole-in-one, his team didn’t exactly put on the same show at Summer League. The Warriors failed to win a single game and lost by an average of 8.2 points. The Warriors’ first-round pick, Brandin Podziemski showed a lot of potential and promise but couldn’t get anything going on offense, going 3-for-10 from the field and 1-for-4 from 3 in his first game and hitting only one of his 10 attempts in a game against the Pelicans. Fans shouldn’t be too concerned since the former Santa Clara guard impacts the game in so many different ways with his high IQ and how hard he plays.

Orlando Magic

The Magic shut down both of their lottery picks (Black and Jett Howard) after three games and outside of Caleb Houstan, who was the No. 32 pick in last year’s draft (Warriors), Orlando didn’t have a single drafted player on its Summer League roster. The squad lost all five games by an average of 14 points with their biggest deficits coming in a 88-71 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers and a 94-77 loss to the Boston Celtics. Howard, a 6-7 shooting guard out of Michigan and the No. 11 overall pick in the draft, averaged 13.3 points (shooting 40% from 3) and 3.3 assists per game. It feels like the Magic’s main objective for Summer League was to get their young players reps (they both looked great) and keep them healthy, shutting them both down halfway through the tournament.

Fans who bought tickets after Day 5

There was still plenty of great basketball left to be played, but the majority of top players shut things down after two or three games. Wembanyama played only two games, Miller, played three games and the No. 3 pick (Scoot Henderson) and No. 4 pick (Amen Thompson) played only one game each after suffering minor injuries in their debuts during opening night on July 7. The main star players on NBA rosters this upcoming season were all sitting the bench, or leaving Las Vegas entirely, by July 12.