I love summer league. My longstanding view on the importance of summer league is that it’s both more important than a lot of people give it credit for, and not nearly the end of the world if a player doesn’t perform as well as you’d like them to. The Vegas Kings had a rough summer league this year, in large part due to injuries, so this feels like a significantly less important summer league than we may have watched in years past. I just didn’t come away from it with that many strong opinions, but we should talk about it. Let’s talk about it.
De’Aaron Fox: Fox’s minor ankle injury was a big reason why the summer Kings weren’t nearly as interesting to watch as they could have been. He’s fine, but the Kings didn’t want to push him. It’s the right call.
From the little we did see of De’Aaron Fox, he looked as advertised. For someone who is just 19 years old, I thought he showed a lot of poise and confidence. At no point did he look nervous, or uncomfortable leading this team, despite the fact that the Kings had so many returning summer league players this year. He easily could have deferred leadership to Buddy Hield, or Skal Labissiere, or Georgios Papagiannis, but he didn’t. This felt like his squad.
I thought his defense looked awesome. He has a knack for disrupting plays on defense that he isn’t directly involved in. He looks like a guy with defensive playmaking potential, something we haven’t seen on the perimeter in Sacramento for quite some time.
His mid-range jumper looked solid. His speed was excellent.
If there was anywhere that I’d knock is game, it was in his playmaking. I’m not necessarily talking about assists here, but with Fox as the point guard, the young Kings really struggled to find good shots on offense. That isn’t entirely his fault, and it is the summer league, after all, but just about everyone on the court struggled offensively when he was the primary ball handler. Skal and Papagiannas rarely got easy looks, rarely got the ball in positions that were advantageous for them offensively, Buddy was borderline chucking, etc. It was an ugly, ugly offense, and while I’m not blaming that on Fox necessarily, I have to mention it somewhere, so I’ll mention it here. I would have liked to have seen him find the Kings more buckets than he did. No bid deal.
Buddy Hield: Buddy didn’t need to play in Vegas this summer, but he certainly didn’t perform as if that was the case. I don’t have a lot of positive things to say here. Again, it’s only summer league, but we can only talk about what happened. Hield only played in a handful of games, and he sure got his shots up! I didn’t enjoy his shot selection in Vegas, but I thought he showed a much-improved handle and willingness to go to the rim. If he can add that to his offensive repertoire, look out.
Skal Labissiere: Skal is another player that had a difficult time finding his role on the summer Kings. He wasn’t bad, he was just kind of invisible for a lot of it. He showed you those flashes, though. He had a couple of moves that reassure your idea that the sky is the limit for this kid. Truthfully, I don’t think his game is built for Vegas. He rarely takes bad shots, he rarely forces the issue on offense, and in Vegas, if you’re not aggressive, you’re not putting up big numbers. The NBA has much more structure, it’s less one-on-one, it’s more team offense and sets, and that is where Skal performs best. I wish Skal was involved more offensively, but I’m not sure that’s his fault.
Justin Jackson: Justin Jackson was the best King this summer, and I don’t think it was particularly close. We probably should have saw this coming. Jackson played three years of high-level college ball at North Carolina. He’s coming off a National Championship. If anyone was going to be ready for summer league, it’s him.
Jackson showed you everything in Vegas. His offense wasn’t particularly efficient, but he was playing without De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Frank Mason for a majority of summer league. He had to go get buckets. His creativity finishing below the rim is a real unique characteristic of Jackson’s game. He’s 6’8” and he’s taking (and making!) floaters, and flip shots, and scooping layups. He moves well off the ball, and he just looked like a polished offensive player out there. Like Fox, at no point did he seem nervous, or like he didn’t know exactly what he was capable of out there. He’s got a real strong sense of his strengths and weaknesses, what he can and cannot do, and that’s why I think we’re going to see quite a bit of him on the NBA court this season. He knows who he is.
Jackson even showed a lot more defensive potential than I gave him credit for. He’s not the most athletic player in the world, but he uses his length well was able to stick with players I didn’t think he’d be able to match up with athletically. The Kings put him on Dennis Smith Jr. on purpose. It didn’t work, mind you, because Smith is very good, but the fact that the Kings would intentionally make that matchup tells you all you need to know about what they thought of his defense this summer.
Georgios Papagiannis: I’m going to keep this short, because I don’t want to start making sweeping judgements based on a handful of summer league games, but Papagiannis struggled. His rebounding was good, his interior defense was OK, but his offense showed little improvement from last season, and that’ll be a problem for his playing time this year. He’s big, so he’ll get you some garbage buckets inside, but anytime the Kings intentionally ran something for him offensively, it never looked right.
The good news is, Papagiannis is still really young. His biggest improvement over last season was in his body. He no longer looked like the lumbering novelty giant out there. He looks and moves like a professional athlete now. He just really, really needs to find a couple of go-to offensive moves, a jumper, something, anything to make him playable on that end.
Frank Mason: I feel bad for Frank Mason. As soon as Fox went down with an ankle injury and more playing time opened up for Mason, he went down with his own ankle injury. Like Fox, this is nothing serious, but he did miss a significant portion of summer league which doesn’t leave us with a whole lot to talk about. Mason was OK when he did play. The one thing you couldn’t help but notice was just how small he is. No duh, right?
I only mention that here because for Mason, it actually looked like it could be a problem. Isaiah Thomas is the comparison everyone loves to make, but Thomas has a lot more muscle on his frame, and is able to absorb contact, bounce off much bigger players, and finish inside. I don’t know if Mason can do that just yet. He might have a hard time adjusting to the size in the NBA. His speed is there. His shot is there. His toughness is there, and if NBA length doesn’t bother him, the Kings may have found another diamond in the rough. We need to see more.
Jack Cooley: If Justin Jackson was the Kings’ summer league MVP, Jack Cooley was the runner up. Cooley was a rebounding wizard in Vegas, pulling down 6.6 boards in just 17.8 minutes per game. He averaged more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds! The good news for Cooley is that rebounding usually translates to some degree from league-to-league, and I thought he showed just enough offensive game to warrant an NBA look by either the Kings, or somebody else.
Cooley was your quintessential fun summer league player. His board work was a sight to behold, his energy and effort was through the roof, and anytime the Kings played well, odds were Cooley was on the court for that run. He made the team noticeably better anytime he was out there. He may not have all the skill needed for an NBA rotation player, but in this setting, he was excellent.
Malachi Richardson: Malachi Richardson only played 25 minutes of summer league basketball before suffering another hamstring injury. It’s not supposed to be serious, but considering Richardson lost a lot of last season to a hamstring injury, this certainly isn’t good news. Hopefully he can really figure out what is going on there, and return to the court this season without anymore issues.
Harry Giles: Giles didn’t play in Vegas this summer because the Kings are trying to take it slow with him considering his injury history, whatever that actually means. I understand why the Kings are being cautious, but by all accounts Giles was healthy. I can’t recall another situation where a player was a healthy scratch in his rookie year of summer league, but aside from that being just a little odd, that’s all we’ve got here. I would have liked to have seen him on the court, but the Kings didn’t want to risk anything. That doesn’t make me feel particularly good about where his health is at, but I’m not going to get too worked up over it.
JaKarr Sampson: Cooley and Sampson were the only non-roster Kings that really stood out to me in Vegas. Sampson actually brought a lot of the same energy and effort and board work to the summer Kings that Cooley brought, with a slightly more versatile offensive game and a lot more athleticism. He looked good in limited minutes, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get another NBA opportunity after his performance in Vegas.
What were your takeaways from the Summer Kings?