There’s always plenty of debate when it comes to the NBA Summer League. Every year we see certain mid-to-low first round picks who shine and several top draft picks who really struggle. And there’s always debate as to what it all means.
In general, I would argue that for top draft picks, the Summer League doesn’t tell us a whole lot. It provides us with our first glimpse and you know what they say about first impressions, but when it’s all said and done, these are glorified practices/scrimmages. There’s not a lot of structure, full offensive and defensive sets aren’t installed. It’s a lot of isolation and one-on-one.
Now, if you’re an elite basketball player, you should thrive on this. This freestyle form of basketball should play to your strengths. It’s why we saw Michael Kidd-Gilchrist come out and dominate the game until his injury. It’s why Bradley Beal looked solid in averaging 17.5 points per game for Washington. It reaffirms why so many Cavalier fans were hoping one of those guys would fall to Cleveland.
So as the Cavaliers are now halfway through their Summer League season, it’s only natural to want to talk about what we’ve seen so far. But everything needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Both positives and negatives. But especially the negatives. The way I look at it is, the Summer League shows us who can shine and excel in individual basketball. So the positives matter perhaps more than the negatives. All the negatives tell us are what the struggling players will need to work on in training camp.
None of this is to make excuses, but obviously I am setting this up to start with Dion Waiters. Look, Waiters is struggling and has not looked good at all. You want to know how bad he has been? A lot of people were raving over how he played in Tuesday night’s victory over Phoenix. They were raving about his play on a night in which he scored 16 points on 5-15 shooting.
Now, to be fair, this was without question his best Summer League performance by a mile. He was 6-7 from the FT line, he was +14 in the game, only turned the ball over twice despite handling PG duties for much of the game. He was aggressive in attacking the rim and he had some really nice passes coming out of his drives to the lane. You could start to see why the Cavaliers liked him so much.
But still, he was 5-15 from the floor, he looks completely disinterested in rebounding, doesn’t work when the ball is not in his hands, and on defense he looks like he’s still trying to play zone as his man routinely gets away from him. These are all things that Byron Scott can fix. So please don’t take this as saying the Cavaliers made a mistake drafting him. I’m just saying, right now, Dion Waiters does not look like a good NBA player to me. Samardo Samuels and Donald Sloan are averaging more points than Waiters in the Summer League. He has work to do.
So let’s talk about some positives with Waiters. To begin with, I want to make a point about shooting guards drafted in the top 5 of the NBA draft in recent years. I went back and looked at the previous 5 drafts, and examined the positional breakdowns and the average efficiency ratings of those taken in the top 5 in their rookie seasons. The results:
Position (# of players drafted in top 5 in last 5 years): Average Efficiency Rating
PG (7): 16.30
SG (4): 12.34
SF (2): 16.58
PF (7): 15.02
C (4): 15.10
So in the last 5 years, only four SGs have been taken in the top 5 of the draft, and all four of them have struggled mightily in their rookie seasons. In fact, not a single one had an efficiency rating of 14.30 or above. Bear in mind, an efficiency rating of 15.0 means you are an average player. So not a single SG taken in the top 5 of the draft in the last 5 years has been even an average NBA player in their rookie year. Every other position has seen their rookies average an efficiency rating above average. The disparity for SGs is enormous.
So obviously it would appear that SGs taken at the top of the draft seem to struggle to adapt to the NBA more than any other position. If you’re wondering who those 4 SGs are, they are Wesley Johnson, OJ Mayo, Evan Turner, and James Harden. Obviously James Harden has seen his career blossom and he has developed into an elite SG in the league. So even if Waiters struggles in his rookie year, the hope will be that his career follows the Harden trajectory more so than his fellow Syracuse alum Wes Johnson.
And let’s talk real quick about the player Waiters has been so unfairly compared to, Dwyane Wade. Really, Wade is the last SG taken in the top 5 of the draft to really have a strong impact his rookie season. Wade had an efficiency rating of 17.61 his rookie season and has been above 20.00 every season since. But in his Summer League season his rookie year, Wade averaged 13.3 points per game. Waiters is at 12.3 with two games to go.
So what does all this mean? Is Waiters destined to struggle this season? Is he going to be like Dwyane Wade? Who knows. The point is just to be careful to not define Waiters by his Summer League performance. Lets wait and see how he plays with Kyrie Irving and how he reacts to Byron Scott’s coaching before we write the guy off just because he doesn’t look good in Summer League play. He is definitely showing some red flags out there right now, and of course we’d all prefer he be lighting things up. But none of this will matter. All that matters is how he plays in real NBA games.
In listening to some post game interviews with Waiters, I’m impressed with his accountability. He’s not making excuses for his play. He knows his shot is off right now and he is accepting blame and saying all the right things about working harder to fix them. His confidence is still high, which I like as well. I’m rooting for the guy, and there’s a lot to love about the way he plays with so much passion, confidence, and aggression. It’s just a matter of getting him to settle down a bit, feel more comfortable in the flow of the offense, and get his body under a little better control at times.
Some other thoughts about the Cavaliers in the Summer League:
- I cannot say enough good things about Tyler Zeller. As some of you who read this site routinely may know, I’m a UNC guy. Ohio State is my alma mater and is in my blood, but after OSU, the school I follow next closest is UNC. So I was always biased, but I was ecstatic when the Cavaliers trade up to get Zeller. So far, he has not disappointed one bit. Tuesday night against Phoenix, Zeller had by far his worst game of the Summer League….and he had a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. We’ve seen Zeller showcase his open floor ability, we’ve seen him demonstrate his strong footwork and his ability to rebound. He has good hands and is a very good passer out of the post. I don’t really care how low some people think Zeller’s ceiling is. The guy is a basketball player. He is as solid and dependable of a rookie center as I have seen in a while. The Cavaliers are really going to like this guy a lot.
- Wins and losses don’t mean a thing in Summer League. But one thing I was encouraged by in Tuesday’s game was how in the 4th quarter when the Suns closed the gap to within 10, the Cavaliers brought Waiters and Zeller back into the game. I was really eager to see how they would do in this type of situation. They didn’t disappoint, either, as they both played contributing roles in making key plays on both ends of the court to help the Cavaliers put the game away again. To reiterate, winning that game doesn’t mean anything, but it’s still nice to see the young bucks rise to the challenge of putting away the game.
- If you think I’m disappointed in Waiters, let me tell you something, I’m a million times more disappointed in Tristan Thompson. In his sophomore season, he should be dominating Summer League opponents. Getting by on your athleticism is fine and dandy, but at some point you should be able to use it to take control of inferior opponents. Unfortunately, Tristan has instead melted into the background in these games, content to allow D-Leaguers and future European league players hold him completely in check. Where’s the development in his game? What exactly has he been working on this summer? It’s a great quality that Thompson can use his athleticism to find scoring on breakdowns in set plays and it’s peachy that he doesn’t need plays run for him. But wouldn’t it be nice to actually be able to run some plays for him and have him deliver? That’s not happening right now, and I’m quite concerned that we’re not seeing more out of Tristan in the two games he has played in so far. I realize the Cavs are only giving him limited minutes, but still, I see so many sophomores just killing Summer League opponents right now. Tristan looks no different than the likes of Michael Eric right now.
- Donald Sloan has had himself a nice little Summer League. Auditioning for the role of Kyrie’s Backup, Sloan has continued to show that he can handle the job. He’s never going to be a starter-level PG in the NBA, but with Dion Waiters showing some comfort and ability in handling PG duties as well, the need for the Cavaliers to go out and waste some free agent dollars on someone like Jonny Flynn or Derek Fisher is diminishing. I’m actually quite comfortable with the idea of using a Kyrie/Sloan/Waiters rotation at PG. Remember, Daniel Gibson is capable of logging limited minutes at the point as well if needed. The Cavaliers have some versatility in their backcourt, and I think Sloan is showing enough to warrant keeping his job as backup PG.
- None of the other Summer League signees are really impressing me much. Justin Holliday has his moments, I suppose, and I know the Cavaliers kind of like Michael Eric, but I’ve not seen enough from those guys to say I support the Cavaliers giving them a roster spot. It’s a shame we couldn’t see Kevin Jones to get a grasp of what he might be able to bring to the team. The Cavaliers aren’t afraid of going outside their Summer League roster to find players. Remember, they poached Samardo Samuels off Chicago’s Summer League roster when the Bulls declined to give Samardo a roster spot. If the Cavaliers are as unimpressed with their Summer League roster as I am, they very well could look at some other rosters to try to find some hidden talent.