Like their big-league counterpart, the Brooklyn Nets’ Summer League outfit failed to win a playoff game, falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers in their fifth and final contest in Las Vegas. Of course, the Summer League playoffs comprise just four teams. Surely, Brooklyn, who started two draft picks from this year’s class, had a successful trip out west beyond just their record, right? Here are the takeaways from their week-and-a-half in the (brutal) Las Vegas Sun.
Noah Clowney was one of two first-round picks for the Nets in the 2023 NBA Draft, but with Dariq Whitehead still recovering from a second foot surgery, Clowney, measured at 6’10” without shoes, was the only first-rounder representing the Nets in Vegas, and thus, the player with the most eyes on him.
With all the usual caveats applicable to Clowney’s five games at Sumer League — he turned 19 while in Vegas, it’s his first taste of professional basketball, the Nets didn’t have many, if any, table-setters on the roster, etc. — he was not impactful. The potential stretch-big averaged 4.8 points per game on 22.6% from the floor and 23.5% from deep. He committed four fouls a night next to 1.4 blocked shots. Ultimately, Clowney played just 14 seconds in the second half and overtime of Brooklyn’s semi-final loss to Cleveland.
Do the 99 minutes Clowney played in Vegas really matter in projecting his long-term future? Not really; recall how many times you heard the word “project” to describe him in the days before and after Brooklyn selected him just three weeks ago. But there are lessons to be learned from his performance. In fact, some of them are truly positive.
The long-term hope for Clowney is that he grows into a true stretch-5, a real rim protector than can nail 3-pointers or occasionally dive to the rim for dunks. In other words, the archetype that every fan convinces themself is the missing piece to transform their team into a contender at the trade deadline. (It’s not just you, NetsDaily!)
In his lone season at Alabama, Clowney took quite a few 3-pointers (3.3 per game), but only made a few (28.3%). Despite that trend continuing in Vegas (23.5% on 3.4 attempts per game), there were promising shooting signs. He wasn’t afraid to fire — a quality Sean Marks said his scouts admired when watching Clowney — and some of the makes were not on your average standstill, uncontested attempts:
Brief thread on Noah Clowney's first two SL games, starting with the three-point shooting - as confident as advertised: pic.twitter.com/Wr49aLGwrw— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) July 10, 2023
In Vegas, Clowney was a completely perimeter-oriented offensive player. The young big making some nice extra/swing passes and even drawing aggressive closeouts were pleasant sights to see, though encouraging moments like those don’t show up in the box score. While we’ll see screen-and-roll opportunities for Clowney in a more refined offensive system in both Brooklyn and Long Island this upcoming season, I’m also going to be interested in what he does when/if defenders do fly by him on the perimeter:
I just hope he doesn't forget to attack the rim on plays like this, he's living proof of the Marcus Smart Theorem (your confidence, not your #'s, determine how hard defenders close out): pic.twitter.com/9gIEPYEC7Z— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) July 10, 2023
(Yeah, eager to shoot the rock.)
Defensively, there was a bit more to be gauged from Clowney’s Summer League appearances. Not in the way of long-term projection, again, but areas he’ll need to work on to be come a rotation-grade NBA player (or better). For one, I was a bit underwhelmed by the (lack of) vertical pop. His max vertical was not measured at the Combine. There were some possessions where he got bodied by physical drivers, but that was to be expected. Newsflash: Skinny 19-year-old needs to grow into an NBA frame. But plays like these, where he couldn’t or didn’t were...well, “worrisome” would be an overreaction, but maybe mildly troubling...
It’s not that Clowney who has 7’2” wingspan can’t get up high enough to become the rim protector the Nets envision him as, but rather, right now at least, it takes him a while to load up. Take this play, perhaps his most encouraging of his stint in Vegas, where he makes a nice read in help to break up a lob attempt..
probably Clowney's best play of SL here, considering both the recognition and leap: pic.twitter.com/jKLqZOFnSV— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) July 12, 2023
It takes him a while to gather his feet and explode off the ground, although it’s an encouraging play nonetheless, given his processing and reaction to what’s in front of him. His defensive processing overall was solid for a 19-year-old rookie; he repeatedly showed not just a nose for the ball but an ability to put himself in impactful positions. What he did when he got there was a mixed bag, evidenced by the aforementioned lack of verticality, but 1.4 blocks a game is nothing to scoff at either:
Elsewhere, Clowney had some solid moments sliding his feet with nimble drivers, whether on switches or when closing out to shooters. This was a common theme on his pre-draft tape, but while the young big man is exceptional when flipping his hips and changing direction, his technique prior to that is often poor. In other words, he’s fearsome once he gets moving, but getting caught flat-footed, for example, means he is often slow out of the gates.
Overall, Clowney didn’t show us too much in Las Vegas — nobody really can in less than 100 minutes — but his short-term goals are now in focus for fans as well as coaches. Other than building muscle, of course, the shooting numbers, rim protection instincts, and defensive technique on the perimeter will be areas to watch for in his rookie year, which will surely be split between Brooklyn and Long Island.
Meanwhile, Jalen Wilson starred in Las Vegas as Brooklyn’s best player, even making the All-Summer League Second Team after averaging 17.6/7.8/2.6 on, most importantly 45.8% shooting from deep. For a second-round pick whose potential depends primarily, but not solely, on raising a concerning 31.6% career mark from deep at the NCAA level, those are some enticing early returns.
It’s not just the raw percentages that stood out from Wilson’s long-range attempts, it was the confidence to pull from real deep, with a hand in his face or not:
Jalen Wilson with another deeeeep three. This does not look like a 32% shooter pic.twitter.com/bEr4qniQZW— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) July 16, 2023
The 6’8” Wilson has a decent chance to stick if he’s a passable shooter, but a real solid chance if he’s a good shooter, and anybody watching him play for the first time in Las Vegas would’ve been shocked to learn he’s not already considered a sniper. How surprised should we be by this brief, small sample size development? Perhaps not too much. The optimist’s view of Wilson’s shooting as a Kansas Jayhawk would be that his percentages were harmed by a gargantuan role on offense as the guy, a role he certainly won’t be playing at the NBA level. Could an easier shot diet lead him closer to the golden 40% mark from deep?
Quieted by all the 3-point makes, Wilson shot just 41.8% from two at Summer League. On his drives to the paint, we saw why his scoring rests so heavily on an ability to knock down threes: There’s simply not much else there. While he averaged over seven FTAs a game in Vegas thanks to relentlessly seeking out contact inside the arc, Wilson simply doesn’t have a ton of ball-handling creativity or burst in his games. Notice how all these drives, successful or not, follow the same pattern, with Wilson picking the ball up early and jumping off one foot before getting all the way to the rim:
But that’s not to say Wilson has no utility when bringing the ball inside the arc. The floor-reading for the four-year Jayhawk is further along than the scoring, and can certainly be a tool for him when attacking closeouts:
Wilson has more burst with the ball in his hand and is more comfortable dribbling it than, say, Dorian Finney-Smith, more closely resembling Cam Johnson in this regard. Wilson will never be a violent rim-pressurer off closeouts, and defenses will certainly be okay with him going 1-on-1, but the Nets coaching staff can trust in his ability to make passing reads that, at worst, will keep the offense flowing.
Defensively, there wasn’t much to be gleaned from Wilson’s performance at Summer League. He turns 23 toward the start of the upcoming NBA regular season, and is coming off a four-year career at KU where he was a First Team All-American in his final season. He is supposed to show out against competition his age or younger, especially before they’ve all had an off-season of NBA work. Wilson didn’t have ample opportunity to defend NBA-caliber guards and forwards, which will be his defensive swing skill at the next level. Yes, he’s physical and will have a solid baseline of team defensive concepts, but how quick will his feet be when guarding the world’s best?
That’s not to say his impressive performances out west weren’t nice to see, or didn’t earn him any credit from a Nets organization that has loudly raved about his character. Wilson did everything you’d expect from a four-year college star: He communicated on defense, wasn’t afraid to shoot (and make) the ball, and crashed the glass mercilessly, averaging three offensive boards a game. If he brings those skills to training camp, which he assuredly will, we may see Wilson get NBA minutes sooner rather than later. If he brings those skills to an NBA court, he may stick around a while. As one insider say, consistency is going to be the name of the game for Wilson.
- Kennedy Chandler was nearly a first-rounder in the 2022 NBA Draft. The San Antonio Spurs selected him at No. 38, and a day later, the former Tennessee Volunteer was traded to the state’s pro team, the Memphis Grizzlies, who gave up a second-round pick and $1 million in cash to get him. Then, the Grizz went further into their wallet and signed him to a four-year, $7.1 million contract, the most for a second round pick in the 2022 draft class. He even got three years and $4.9 million guaranteed! Fast-forward a year, after appearing in 36 NBA regular-season games, and the Grizzlies waived him. You can see why the Nets were excited to bring him aboard for Summer League. Unfortunately, Chandler did not live up to the hype, and while he was considered a prime suspect to get a two-way contract from Brooklyn, that may no longer be the case. It’s always possible he winds up as an affiliate player in Long Island, his ego buffered by the $3.7 million Memphis still owes him.
Chandler shot under 36% from the floor, including 14.3% from deep, a bug-a-boo throughout his (very) young career thus far. Worse yet, he more closely resembled a shot-chucker than a floor general, taking 14 attempts from the floor per game without consistently getting his teammates involved. He often touched the paint, but his decision-making from there was subpar. I’m not sure the ball-handling and athleticism will be enough to earn him that two-way contract.
- Armoni Brooks, on the other hand, seemingly made every 3-pointer he took in the desert. While Brooks is already 25 years old, every NBA team needs shooting, and making 47.6% of your 8.4 long-range attempts a game, no matter how small the sample size is, is sure to turn heads. Shooting is why the 6’3” Brooks has already seen two brief NBA stints in Houston and Toronto totaling 74 games, and it’s the clear key to a potential third. Look out for Brooks to secure that coveted two-way spot.
- Brooks and the 6’0” Chandler were assumed to have been battling for the final two-way contract because Jalen Wilson and 6’8” RaiQuan Gray have the other two. But Gray, the 59th overall pick in 2021, has been a Long Island Net for two seasons already, and did not have the most impressive showing at Summer League.
Occasionally, you see flashes of a burly forward with guard skills, a guy who can stretch the floor and drive it to the paint, who has decent size and solid hands. Other times, you see a player without an NBA-level skill whose decision-making on both ends of the floor just doesn’t cut it. Summer League was more of the same, a true mixed bag. Gray may be headed for a promising overseas career, but he may get one more season in the Nets organization to prove he belongs.
- Speaking of a promising overseas career, that may be what David Duke Jr. is headed for. Often resembling the NBA version of a Quadruple-A player, just missing out on real rotation minutes, we didn’t see much from him in Las Vegas. Sure, there was the occasional flashy drive to the bucket, but he was too often a black hole with the rock, totaling just two more assists than turnovers over the five games. He shot just 25% from three, and while Duke Jr. remains a tenacious on-ball defender at a muscular 6’5”, it's likely not enough to overcome his offensive shortcomings. Duke Jr. is still an unrestricted free agent after Brooklyn declined to extend him a qualifying offer to open free agency. While it may hurt some fans to see the Providence product has likely played his last game as a Net, it might just be time.
NBA Summer League must be held in Las Vegas annually because it’s for the true basketball addicts. It’s for those who see the game played at its highest level in the NBA Finals and not a month later, seek out what just barely qualifies as professional basketball played in the sinful oasis of the Nevada desert by swaths of guys who will never see NBA minutes.
Maybe it’s because Summer League represents the basketball oasis of an off-season otherwise exclusively filled with the same five rumors and debates, rehashed every day. Maybe we force meaning onto the least meaningful action of the NBA calendar because there’s nothing else to do. Paul George averaged a hair under five turnovers a game in his debut Summer League. Trae Young shot 38% from the floor while Tyler Dorsey outscored him in his.
But just maybe, we saw the first glimpses of the players Noah Clowney and Jalen Wilson will eventually turn into at this year’s Summer League. If that’s the case, the Brooklyn Nets may have just pulled off the rare, successful trip to Las Vegas.