Summer League in Vegas was quite the spectacle. Record crowd attendance even had Commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA mulling a possible mid-season tournament in Vegas. The two names with the most hype heading into Summer League were number 1 and 2 overall selections from this past draft, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. But Summer League was also a huge opportunity for two of the draftees from 2013. Anthony Bennett, the much maligned top pick last year, and Nerlens Noel, the talented big man who used the 2013-2014 season as a “red-shirt” year, are both looking for fresh starts in 2014. Although Noel is still considered a rookie, both players are noticeably anxious to put the 2013-2014 season behind them, and prove that the promise and ability they showed in Summer League will translate to regular season success.
Bennett had one of the worst rookie campaigns for a number one overall selection. He needed shoulder surgery before the regular season, and unfortunately was never able to play himself into basketball shape. It was important for Bennett to show improvement in his conditioning as well as his game heading into his second season. Thankfully for Cavaliers fans, he showed flashes of exceptional talent in his four summer league games.
Bennett did a lot of little things very well. In the half court, he set strong screens for guards, while making himself available in pick-and-pop situations, as well as finishing at the rim on pick-and-rolls. He showed ball-handling skill in isolation, using his blend of size and foot speed to get into the lane and create shots for himself as well as teammates. He proved that he can consistently hit mid-range jump shots, from the foul line extended all the way to 18+ feet. His rebounding totals are a bit misleading due to his huge 14-rebound game against the Spurs, but his activity on the boards is an encouraging sign.
He was most impressive in transition, both offensively and defensively. His improved conditioning allowed him to run the floor in the open court, and his explosiveness was best on display during his highlight transition dunks. If he did not have a clear path to the rim, Bennett showed his ability to locate mismatches as well. He would often relocate to the perimeter if he were running alongside another big in transition, opening the lanes for guards to attack the basket. More impressively, when Bennett noticed a smaller player was forced to guard him in the full court, he would sprint right to the front of the rim, use his strong body to seal the smaller defender, and call for the ball immediately. His effort on these types of plays often led to either good shots, or him drawing a foul.
Despite Bennett clearly being in better shape, his conditioning can still vastly improve. He starts the game with great energy, but his sprints up and down the court eventually turn into a slow lumber. It is hard to envision Bennett playing close to the 29.75 minutes per game he averaged during the Summer League. Even so, he needs to work on improving his physical conditioning. His position as a hybrid stretch four works to his advantage on offense, but it also creates problems for Bennett defensively. It was not overly exposed during Summer League, mostly due to the lack of elite offensive talent, but Bennett does not have the foot speed to be an above average defender on the wing, nor does he have the size and experience to defend bigs with a decent post game.
As a stretch-four Bennett cannot fall victim to the misconception that all stretch-fours need to shoot three-pointers. A stretch-four’s main responsibility on offense is to add floor spacing and playmaking from the perimeter. Bennett has range out to the three-point line, but beyond it is where his efficiency drops. His field goal percentage without counting his three-point attempts over his four games was 51.6 (16-of-31), when you include his 4-of-16 three-point shooting, his field goal percentage drops to 42.5 (20-47).
It is hard to project a fantasy outlook for Bennett because his role with the team is undefined. He will need dramatically more than the 12.8 minutes he played last season if he wants to have any kind of impact. I can see the front court rotation being a combination of Varejao, Thompson, James and Bennett, but the question becomes how will those minutes be divided? Bennett also failed to contribute in multiple categories during the Vegas Summer League. Although his scoring and rebounding numbers were solid, he made only 1.0 three-pointers per game and had only six combined assists, steals and blocks. Those numbers are not promising when projecting for eight or nine category leagues. A late-round flyer on Bennett is totally defensible, but in smaller leagues it also makes sense to wait to see what kind of role he is asked to play in Cleveland, and keep an eye on the waiver wire for if and when he starts to contribute at a decent clip.
Nerlens Noel is still considered a rookie because he missed the entire 2013-2014 season rehabbing a torn ACL. Much like everyone else who saw Noel play in college, I believe he would have been the easy choice for number one overall had he not suffered a knee injury. Noel has a real shot at redemption, and rookie of the year.
Noel’s extreme athleticism absolutely leaps off the screen. He is an excellent leaper with the ability to make multiple efforts in a very short amount of time. He finds space well in the half-court, moving and cutting without the ball and making hard, decisive rim runs on pick-and-rolls. His unique blend of size and speed make him an absolute nightmare in the full-court. He can fill the wings during fast breaks and can finish at the rim with ease. Despite all the good things he can do on offense, the strongest part of Noel’s game is his commitment to defense. His aggression on defense and on the glass is something that cannot be taught, it’s a skill and an asset very few players have. He is a solid help defender for his age and inexperience, and his combined foot speed and length on defense reminds me of a young KG. His shot blocking will be the strongest part of his game as a rookie. He turns away defenders at the rim, and will even change his defensive approach and take charges in order to keep his opponents hesitant on offense.
Noel needs to continue to improve his conditioning. After taking a year off from competitive basketball, it is clear that he is not used to expending the amount of energy it takes to play a full game. This is easily rectifiable and I expect that his conditioning will be a non-issue early into the regular season. Noel still has to learn how to temper his exceptional defense talents. He is often overzealous in his attempts to block shots and create steals, which could get him into foul trouble during the regular season. On offense, Noel is still very unpolished. His movements in the post are frenetic, and often seem rushed. He also needs to find a comfortable range on offense. He showed the ability to hit jump shots from the foul line extended, but he still needs to improve on his offensive game facing the basket.
Noel will return excellent fantasy value in his rookie season. Barring any unforeseen setbacks with injuries or conditioning, he should see plenty of minutes as the 76ers starting center. He will get his points simply by running the floor, rolling hard on pick-and-rolls, and crashing the offensive boards. His rebounding totals were not overly impressive during Summer League, so he may produce less than expected in the rebounding category. The crux of his fantasy value will definitely be his defensive numbers. Noel has a chance to average 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals in his rookie campaign, something only Serge Ibaka, Anthony Davis and Roy Hibbert accomplished among power forwards and centers last season. Despite his wealth of talent, Noel is still an unknown fantasy commodity, so reaching on him in the early rounds is risky. That said, he could be a steal in standard 9-cat leagues if he lasts till the mid-fifth round.