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7 NBA sophomores way too good for Summer League

These seven players were way too good for Summer League.

NBA: Summer League-Portland Trail Blazers at Houston Rockets Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

Be careful not to overreact too much to what you see at NBA Summer League. The performances at the NBA’s annual introduction to rookies and large-scale audition for young players trying to break into the league doesn’t exactly translate cleanly to the games that count, but history has taught us a few things about former first round picks entering their sophomore seasons.

If a player entering their second season struggles in Summer League after an underwhelming rookie year, it’s a major red flag. While you can’t exactly stamp an All-Star selection for second-year players who look much improved in Summer League, it is an encouraging sign for their future.

In a perfect world, teams want to pull their second-year players after just a game or two in Las Vegas because it’s clear they are way too good for the level of competition at Summer League. Here’s seven players who met that threshold in 2023. Note: we’re not including rookies in this list, but will have more coverage of how first-year players performed in Vegas at the conclusion of play.

Jabari Smith Jr., F, Houston Rockets

Jabari Smith Jr. was reportedly set to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft until the Orlando Magic changed their mind at the last second and made the right pick in Paolo Banchero. Smith fell to the Houston Rockets at No. 3, where he mostly had a trying rookie season. Smith was supposed to be an elite three-point shooter at 6’10, but he hit only 30 percent of his attempts from deep. The fact that the Rockets didn’t have a point guard who could set him up for easy looks certainly didn’t help.

Smith said he decided to play in Summer League this year because his rookie season wasn’t all that great. If his play in Las Vegas is any indication, he’s due for a serious jump in year two. Smith averaged a Vegas-best 35.5 points per game with seven rebounds, four assists, and one block while shooting 48.8 percent from the floor until the Rockets decided he was too good to keep going. He only shot 6-of-18 from three-point range, but he showed he can still be successful even if his shot isn’t falling at a high clip. Smith capped off his Summer League run with one of the wildest buzzer-beaters you will ever see.

Things are looking up in Houston. The Rockets had the best draft in the league outside of San Antonio by adding Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore. They gave out huge free agent contracts to Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks to add some veteran skill and savvy. There’s also a new head coach in Ime Udoka, who should be able to get the best out of Smith defensively. After an up-and-down rookie year, Smith looks primed to make the sophomore leap.

Tari Eason, F, Houston Rockets

Eason somehow slipped to No. 17 overall in the 2022 draft, and immediately looked like a steal for the Rockets as an athletic forward with a motor that never stops running at full blast. Eason joined Smith in Las Vegas, and spent two games physically overwhelming opponents on both ends of the floor. He averaged 23 points, 9.5 rebounds, four assists, three blocks, and one steal per game on 48.7 percent shooting from the floor before calling it quits.

Eason is a strong and long forward who never stops attacking on either end. His recovery and block against Jaden Ivey in the video above is a wonderful showcase of his closing speed and agility. While his potential lockdown defense is his biggest calling card, Eason’s offense is intriguing in its own right. He’s a skilled ball handler and driver for someone with his size, and he can finish over or through opponents when he gets to the rim. Even his three-point shot fell at a 36 percent clip in Vegas. The Rockets are suddenly a bit crowded on the wing with Smith, Brooks, and Whitmore also in the mix, but there’s simply no way to keep Eason off the floor with his skill set and motor. Udoka should love him.

Jalen Duren, C, Detroit Pistons

We had Duren as a top-five prospect in the 2022 class because of his fantastic blend of physicality and youth, but he still slipped to No. 13 on draft night. After a promising rookie season full of big dunks, Duren showed off an increased skill level in his two games in Las Vegas, attacking opposing defenses off the bounce and taking pull-up jumpers. He finished his two-game run by averaging 20 points and nine rebounds per game while shooting 68.2 percent from the field.

Duren’s man-child strength and 7’5 wingspan give him an easy translation as a power finisher around the basket in the league. What we saw in Summer League were the flashes of perimeter skill that once dotted his tape at the high school level as a top recruit. Duren is still learning the nuances of rim protection defensively, but he has every physical tool a center needs to thrive in that role. I’m a little concerned about a spacing crunch in Detroit with Duren, Jaden Ivey, and Ausar Thompson all sharing the court, but if he gets space inside, you can count on the young center to slam it home for two points.

Jalen Williams, G, Oklahoma City Thunder

Jalen Williams needed exactly one game in Salt Lake City Summer League to prove he had no business playing at this level. Williams was one of the very best rookies in the league last year as the former No. 12 pick out of Santa Clara, and he looks poised for even bigger things in year two. Williams scored 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting in his debut, taking control of the offense without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander around and showed off his driving ability and one-and-one scoring touch.

Williams has everything you want for a secondary creator: he can run pick-and-roll, stroke spot-up threes, and attack tilted defenses by using his long arms to pressure the rim. Chet Holmgren looked good too even as he’s just starting to shake the cobwebs off after missing last season with injury. With SGA and Williams leading the offense on the perimeter, OKC seems poised for huge jump up the standings this year if Holmgren can stay healthy.

MarJon Beauchamp, F, Milwaukee Bucks

Beauchamp didn’t get on the floor much as a rookie for a Bucks team with championship aspirations (whoops), but the No. 24 overall pick in the 2022 draft looks like he could be poised for bigger things this year. Beauchamp, a former G League Ignite player, is an athletic 6’6 forward who can make plays in transition, defend bigger forwards, and is just starting to tap into his skill as a shot-maker. His two games in Las Vegas: 21.5 points and seven rebounds per game on 51.6 percent shooting from the floor.

Beauchamp could really use an improved jump shot to help him earn his spot in the Bucks’ rotation next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. He was a willing shooter in Vegas — taking five threes per game — but he only knocked down 30 percent of them. Even if he isn’t shooting, Beauchamp’s ability to play with force and two-way explosiveness would make him a nice addition to an aging Bucks core. Here’s hoping new coach Adrian Griffin can find him some playing time.

Keegan Murray, F, Sacramento Kings

Murray played two games in the California Classic and looked like the best player on the floor by a comical margin. That shouldn’t be a surprise for a player who was one of the league’s very best rookies last season — and logged valuable playoff minutes for the No. 3 seed in the West — but it’s still exactly what the Kings want to see.

Murray is a deadly shooter with real versatility. He can sprint around screens and quickly square himself to the basket for a good look. He can create extra separation with a stepback. He isn’t afraid to let them fly in transition. The Kings forward also showed the transition scoring punch evident in his game since his college days at Iowa, and even flashed his supplemental rim protection skills. The Kings also know they got a good one in Murray. Now they want to see if he can level up again.

Jaden Ivey, G, Detroit Pistons

Ivey’s final numbers at Summer League left a bit to be desired in terms of offensive efficiency, but he gets the final spot on this list for his flashes of brilliance over similarly inefficient scoring guards like Bennedict Mathurin, Jaden Hardy, and Ochai Agbaji.

Ivey rebounded from a tough opener to have a brilliant second game for the Pistons, finishing with 22 points, 10 assists, and two steals on 9-of-15 shooting from the floor vs. Houston. When he gets a runway to the basket, it’s over.

Ivey is one of the league’s fastest guards, and one of its most explosive leapers. His body moves faster than his mind right now, but he does some things with the ball that can’t be taught. He’s a walking paint touch with a wicked first step, and a crafty finisher around the rim when he has a sliver of space. The game needs to slow down for Ivey, but the return of Cade Cunningham to Detroit’s lineup should help that. The glimpses of starpower that made him a top-five pick are still all over his tape.