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11 best NBA rookies in 2023 Summer League, ranked

Let’s rank the best rookies at 2023 NBA Summer League.

NBA Summer League is mostly for the sickos. Every year, basketball diehards flock to Las Vegas (as well as other leagues in Salt Lake City and California) to watch young players on the periphery of the NBA audition for a final roster spot. Summer League teams typically feature a wide mix of talent, including rising second-year players, G League mainstays, and career-long journeymen. But the real reason Summer League offers intrigue every year is because it gives both teams and fans their first look at the rookies who were drafted into the league only a few weeks earlier.

Summer League feels like the official end of a draft cycle. We offered our first projection for the 2023 draft class the day after the 2022 draft. We published big boards and player features, and gave out immediate pick grades and final team grades. With our Summer League rookie rankings, it’s officially time to turn the page to the 2024 NBA Draft.

These rankings were determined by nothing more than who impressed us the most in Summer League. There were a lot of great players who didn’t make this list, including Nets forward Jalen Wilson, Pistons guard Marcus Sasser, Cavs wing Emoni Bates, Hornets duo Brandon Miller and Nick Smith Jr., Thunder guard Cason Wallace, Lakers guard Jalen Hood-Schifino, Nuggets wing Julian Strawther, and more. Here are the best rookies at 2023 NBA Summer League, ranked.

11. Colin Castleton, C, Los Angeles Lakers

Castleton went undrafted after a five-year college career at Michigan and Florida, but the Lakers were sharp enough to immediately sign him to a two-way deal. Castleton is a older for a rookie (he’ll turn 24 years old before the end of the season) and lacks vertical explosion around the rim, but he proved in Summer League that he has plenty of legitimate NBA skills. His final line — 13.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4 assists. 1.2 blocks per game on 60 percent shooting from the floor — is evident of how well-rounded his game is for a 6’11, 230-pound center.

Castleton is a crafty one-on-one scorer when he gets the ball inside. He has a nice mid-range jumper. He positions himself well as a rim protection even if he can’t jump. And when he gets the chance to facilitate, Castleton can be a phenomenal passer. The Lakers have done excellent on the margins in recent years, and it’s totally possible Castleton can be their next success story if Summer League is any indication.

10. Kobe Brown, F, Los Angeles Clippers

Brown turned himself into a first round pick by vastly improving his shooting stroke as a senior at Missouri. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a four-year college player who turns 24 years old Jan. 1 looked good against Summer League competition, but it was how Brown got his buckets that was so impressive. He stroked spot-up threes, scored in the post, finished big dunks in transition, and attacked defenses off the dribble all as a 6’10, 250-pound matchup nightmare.

The fact that Brown’s shooting improvement held up so well in Summer League might be the most encouraging thing — he knocked down 40.7 percent of his threes on 6.8 attempts per game from deep. The Clippers have plenty of big forwards in a similar mold as Brown, but don’t be surprised if he breaks into Ty Lue’s rotation earlier than expected.

9. Leonard Miller, F, Minnesota Timberwolves

Miller’s game is simply too funky to fit into a box — which might be why he somehow slipped to the second round. The Timberwolves were thrilled to select the versatile forward at No. 33, and what felt like a steal on draft night continued to look like one in Summer League. The 6’10 forward showed his unique mix of skills, handling and passing the ball on the perimeter like a guard, crashing the glass like a big man, and exhibiting deft touch in the paint. The biggest surprise of all is that Miller’s three-point shot was actually falling at a decent clip: he hit 7-of-19 attempts for a 36.8 percent rate.

The outside shot will continue to be the biggest area of improvement for Miller. Even when it’s falling, it doesn’t exactly look smooth coming out of his hands. At the same time, Miller is so big, so skilled as a handler and passer, and so off-beat in the way he attacks the basket that he can still be an effective forward even if the shot never fully comes around. It’s still hard to believe he slipped to round two after a standout year for the G League Ignite.

8. Hunter Tyson, F, Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets moved into the late first and early second round of the draft in an attempt to grab multiple cost-controlled contributors who can play roles during the team’s championship window. Clemson forward Hunter Tyson was the last of Denver’s three selections, but he was the best player on the floor throughout Summer League. The No. 37 overall pick is a 6’8, 215-pound wing who can hit spot-up threes, make connective passes, and offer some bounce around the rim. He was incredibly efficient throughout his run in Las Vegas, averaging 21.8 points per game on 58.3 percent shooting from the floor, 51.7 percent shooting from three (on 7.3 attempts per game), and 88.9 percent shooting from the foul line.

Tyson is a 23-year-old rookie, but that won’t bother the Nuggets. They need players who can play off the bench right now. The Nuggets’ other young guns looked good as well — including last year’s first round pick, Peyton Watson, who was essentially redshirted during Denver’s run to the championship this past season. The Nuggets’ ability to maintain as a championship-level team after Bruce Brown left will require at least one of these young players to pop. Tyson’s run in Vegas was an encouraging sign for that.

7. Ausar Thompson, G/F, Detroit Pistons

Ausar Thompson is a blinding athlete, a suffocating defender, a terror in transition, a skilled passer, an able rebounder, and a tight ball handler. More than anything, Ausar is a playmaker on both ends of the court. His Summer League tape was dotted with so many moments that showcase all the ways he can swing a game without needing to hold the ball.

With Thompson on the floor, the Pistons have a lockdown defender who might be even better off-the-ball than he is at the point of attack. They have someone who will help them get out and run in transition, and someone who can run a second-side pick-and-roll when the ball moves away from Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey’s hands. Ausar’s three-point shot is very much still a work in progress, but his impact will be felt regardless. Detroit can only benefit from leaning into Thompson’s special gifts by letting him fill in every crack in the team’s foundation. Forget the two-big lineups, Detroit: pair the Thompson-Cunningham-Ivey-Jalen Duren quartet with another shooter, and let them run. With Ausar as the glue guy, the Pistons are a big play machine waiting to happen.

6. Amen Thompson, G, Houston Rockets

Amen Thompson’s Summer League-ending ankle injury suffered during his first game felt especially cruel given how tantalizing he looked in his 28 minutes on the floor. The entire package of tools that made Thompson the No. 4 overall pick were there for all to see: overwhelming speed, incredible leaping, creative passing, and absurd defensive playmaking for a point guard with three steals and four blocks.

Thompson even hit his only three-point attempt. It was a thrill to watch Amen sling outlet passes to kickstart transition, and throw jump passes to open cutters in the halfcourt. He’ll have to figure out ways to score against a set defense without a reliable pull-up or spot-up jumper, but the fact that he can collapse an entire defense with his standstill burst and long strides is a great start. The NBA translation of the Thompson twins will be captivating to watch, but this was a good start.

5. Jordan Walsh, F, Boston Celtics

Walsh’s combination of size and defense helped make him a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American out of Link Academy, but his lack of offensive development as a freshman at Arkansas pushed him down to the No. 38 pick in the draft. The big surprise in Las Vegas was how much better his offense already looks at this level. Walsh will still make his money on the defensive end, where he’s quick enough to guard guards, strong enough to defend forwards, and long enough (7’2 wingspan) to contest shots regardless of the matchup. The offense was more surprising: Walsh was taking and making three-pointers, attacking without fear, and finding ways to make shots from floater range. Just adding a decent jump shot would take Walsh’s game to the next level, and he might already be there.

4. Scoot Henderson, G, Portland Trail Blazers

Henderson only played 21 minutes before a shoulder injury ended his run in Las Vegas, but that’s all he needed to show his gamebreaking talent. The No. 3 overall pick put up 15 points, six assists, five rebounds, and a steal in his one game against the Rockets, in the process reminding the world why so many evaluators believed he would have been talented enough to go No. 1 overall in many other draft classes.

Henderson’s jarring combination of speed and power were on full display. The 6’2 guard is also a gifted playmaker who will use the threat of his own scoring to set up teammates for easy buckets. The concerns about his shooting may be a tad overblown, too: while his three-point shot is a work in progress, Henderson is already very good as a mid-range shooter and should be able to stretch out his range eventually.

The ultimate testament to Henderson’s talent is the simple fact that the Blazers believed picking him at No. 3 was worth pissing off the best player in franchise history. The Blazers are Scoot’s team now, and if his Summer League debut was any indication, the franchise is going to be just fine long-term in his hands.

3. Cam Whitmore, F, Houston Rockets

Whitmore’s stunning fall to the No. 20 pick was the biggest story of draft night. The Rockets, who reportedly gave serious consideration to drafting him at No. 4, were thrilled to end his slide. At his best, Whitmore is a 6’7 forward with an elite combination of speed, power, and leaping, and he it all on display during his run in Summer League. The former Villanova wing can ferociously attack the rim and finish either over or through contact. He’s a terror in the open court, and deadly on cuts when he sees a path to the basket. Whitmore’s jump shot is also developing, and while his accuracy wasn’t great, his volume was impressive in its own right. Reading the floor and making smart passes remains the biggest area of improvement for Whitmore, but if the shot comes around he’s going to be a load to deal with as a scorer.

2. Victor Wembanyama, C/F, San Antonio Spurs

Wembanyama looked human in his Summer League debut, shooting only 2-of-13 from the field to help usher in some of the worst takes you will ever see. Fortunately, Wemby reminded everyone why he’s such a historic prospect in his second game, dominating both ends of the floor vs. Portland to finish with 27 points in 27 minutes, to go along with 12 rebounds, three blocks, and a couple three-pointers. The young Frenchman is arriving in the league with a suffocating amount of hype, but it wasn’t manufactured out of thin air. His talent really is that unprecedented.

The easiest translation for Wembanyama early in his career will come on the defensive end. At 7’5 with an 8-foot wingspan, he has all the tools to be the best shot blocker in the league. The Spurs are already using him as a “roamer” who will dart in to protect the rim as a help defender, which feels like the best role for him for now. His offense will be full of both breathtaking plays and trying moments, and that’s all part of the plan. I’d expect him to take a lot of mid-range jumpers as a rookie, and plenty of those one-legged threes that will look amazing when they go in and frustrating when they don’t.

While his run in Vegas was brief, Wembanyama’s motor and desire to win were still apparent. It won’t always be pretty as a rookie, but that doesn’t mean he’s overrated or overhyped. Wembanyama is going to be a great player as long as he stays healthy. We can’t wait to watch his journey.

1. Keyonte George, G, Utah Jazz

George was hyped as a top-10 pick for most of his freshman year at Baylor, but ultimately fell out of the lottery to No. 16 on draft night. If his run in Summer League is any indication, it sure feels like teams suffered from overthinking his evaluation. No rookie in Summer League was more impressive than George, who showcased his ability to play on- or off-the-ball, hit tough shots, a sweet stroke from three-point range, and his ability to compete defensively. Before his run ended with a sprained ankle vs. the Nuggets, George had put up 21.2 points per game on impressive scoring efficiency (60 percent true shooting) across six games in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. His masterpiece came in a 33-point, 10-assist game vs. the Clippers in Vegas.

George’s lack of top-end athletic burst often made it feel like every bucket he got at Baylor was a tough one. That didn’t look like a problem in Las Vegas: he was able to get to the cup with ease, and could always fall back on his pull-up jumper when he needed to. George still gets a bit of tunnel vision as a scorer at times, but his comfort running offense with the ball in his hands boosts his ceiling, while his effortless spot-up stroke from deep gives him a high floor. The Jazz must feel like they got a good one at No. 16.