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Does NBA summer league matter? What can history tell us about Johnny Davis?

The early returns from the Wizards rookie haven’t been great. Should that be cause for concern?

NBA: Summer League-Washington Wizards at Phoenix Suns Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

What’s the common denominator of every NBA lottery pick? The team behind the selection hopes the player turns into a star.

The word lottery is apt because every NBA franchise hopes they hit jackpot on their pick...and it’s far from certain they will. Where the lottery metaphor starts breaking down is that where a lottery is purely luck, the NBA draft involves the skill and expertise of the decision makers.

It’s fair to say that through the years, the skill and expertise of Washington’s decision makers has been somewhat lacking. And, the early returns on this year’s pick — Johnny Davis — haven’t generated much confidence that the Wizards are holding one of the winning tickets.

The team will turn to the standard consolation every team uses when their prized rookie disappoints in July — it’s only summer league.

But is it?

There are players who looked pedestrian in these showcases who turned into productive NBA talents. Conversely, we’ve seen players (looking at you, 2014 SL MVP Glen Rice Jr.) seem like superstars in the summer and be out of the league within the same year.

How often does a bad summer league performer change the narrative and become the star of their teams’ dreams? That’s the question we’ll try to answer here by revisiting the first summer league runs for standout guards and wings from recent drafts


  • Five-year sample size of rookies from the 2015 to 2019 NBA drafts. 2020 didn’t have a summer league and the jury’s still out on 2021.
  • Only draftees outside the top five. Talent level and expectations are greater at the top of the draft.
  • Sample of three high-level players from each draft that loosely share similarities to Davis. For example, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is similar to Davis in terms of build and college midrange game while Miles Bridges is a bulky, highflying penetrator.
  • Data includes stats from all summer leagues, including Las Vegas, Orlando, Salt Lake City, and the California Classic.

Johnny Davis - Final Line

Age 20 | 3 GP | 8.3 PPG | 9.7 FGA | 27.6 FG% | 33.3 3P% | 4.0 RPG | 1.7 APG

Davis played just three of the five Wizards summer league games, missing the final two due to a minor back injury.

He was dead last among 2022 lottery picks in per game scoring, being the only one among the 11 who played to average less than double-figures. He was 71st overall in scoring among all qualified rookies. And he was 185th out of 196 in field goal percentage.

He finished eighth on his own team in scoring and ranked 14th out of 15 in field goal percentage, just beating Pierria Henry’s 27.3%.

Davis led the team in turnovers with 2.7 per game. While that could be a product of playing the most minutes per contest, the playing time gap wasn’t as wide as the turnover margin.

Does any of this matter? Let’s take a look.

All-Star Caliber

Devin Booker 13th, Phoenix Suns

Age 18 | 7 GP | 15.3 PPG | 13.1 FGA | 40.2 FG% | 40.0 3P% | 4.9 RPG | 1.7 APG

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 11th, LA Clippers

Age 19 | 4 GP | 19.0 PPG | 18.0 FGA | 45.8 FG% | 25.0 3P% | 4.8 RPG | 4.0 APG

Donovan Mitchell 13th, Utah Jazz

Age 20 | 5 GP | 20.4 PPG | 18.2 FGA | 39.6 FG% | 31.4 3P% | 2.4 RPG | 2.6 APG

Dejounte Murray 29th, San Antonio Spurs

Age 19 | 6 GP | 12.5 PPG | 13.5 FGA | 37.0 FG% | 29.4 3P% | 5.8 RPG | 2.3 APG

*Jamal Murray 7th, Denver Nuggets

Age 19 | 5 GP | 19.6 PPG | 17.4 FGA | 42.5 FG% | 27.6 3P% | 5.0 RPG | 2.4 APG

One thing that stands out is that elite guys made their presence felt in NBA Summer League from the get-go. They took a lot of shots and guzzled possessions like it was their birthright. All five of these players who went on to be All-Star caliber were among the leaders in summer league field goal attempts per game.

Davis didn’t even average double-digit attempts, ranking much closer to 100th than the top 20. His poor shooting percentage probably dissuaded him from taking more shots, but he didn’t act as alpha on a team without a star sophomore or even another NBA rotation player. That doesn’t evoke confidence that he has the makings of a future All-Star.

Davis was touted as a creative shot-maker from the midrange, but that was non-existent when he took the court. Compare that to Booker, a lower lottery pick who flexed his full bag of tricks as a teenager younger than Davis during these games.

Is this comparison definitive? Obviously not. But the confidence eye test does matter to some degree — especially when it comes to projecting stars — and it’s just not there thus far.

*Not the closest comps, but Caris LeVert and Malik Beasley didn’t play summer league in 2016.

High Impact, High Upside

Tyler Herro 13th, Miami Heat

Age 19 | 6 GP | 22.8 PPG | 16.0 FGA | 39.6 FG% | 33.3 3P% | 4.3 RPG | 3.8 APG

Jordan Poole 28th, Golden State Warriors

Age 20 | 6 GP | 14.5 PPG | 13.3 FGA | 35.0 FG% | 22.0 3P% | 3.0 RPG | 1.7 APG

Keldon Johnson 29th, San Antonio Spurs

Age 19 | 5 GP | 12.2 PPG | 9.2 FGA | 45.7 FG% | 33.3 3P% | 4.0 RPG | 0.4 APG

Mikal Bridges 10th, Phoenix Suns

Age 21 | 5 GP | 6.2 PPG | 4.4 FGA | 45.5 FG% | 43.8 3P% | 2.6 RPG | 0.6 APG

Jalen Brunson 33rd, Dallas Mavericks

Age 21 | 5 GP | 6.8 PPG | 8.8 F GA | 22.7 FG% | 30.0 3P% | 2.8 RPG | 4.4 APG

The variance is much greater when it comes to the next tier down — which is a tier fans can more realistically hope Davis reaches. He had the opposite summer league experience as Tyler Herro, who set summer league on fire during his rookie season. He burst into the NBA consciousness as a rookie in the Orlando bubble. The man never lacked confidence.

Keldon Johnson had a relatively nondescript stat line, but it’s arguable that his volatility was more preferable to Davis’ consistently ho hum displays. Johnson had a worse first game than Davis, with just four points and two rebounds in his debut. But he bounced back with 29 points on 10-for-17 shooting in his next game. It’s the glimpses of potential you’re after in these meaningless affairs. Johnson also sank a one-footed buzzer-beater from beyond half court. Couldn’t we have had even just one flukey Davis highlight?

Mikal Bridges had a rough summer league in 2018, but it seemed more due to lack of opportunities rather than poor play. That Phoenix team featured first overall pick Deandre Ayton, and the fourth overall picks from 2016 and 2017 in Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson soaking up the shots for the Suns. (Why are Corey Kispert and Deni Avdija not playing?)

Bridges has turned into arguably the best 3-and-D player in the NBA, with a complementary skill set that doesn’t translate to summer league. While Davis projects as a plus defender, it’s hard to imagine him turning into a lockdown artist like Bridges given his wingspan is four inches shorter. Bridges was also a much better shooter.

Perhaps there’s more optimism to take from the other top Villanova product that season — Jalen Brunson, who struggled on a Dallas Mavericks team that saw Luka Doncic sit out. Among everyone on this list, he’s arguably the only one who had a worse stint than Davis. Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope that Johnny turns into a $104 million man?

Good, Not Great Role Players

Josh Hart 30th, LA Lakers

Age 21 | 2 GP | 10.0 PPG | 10.5 FGA | 38.1 FG% | 11.1 3P% | 4.0 RPG | 0.5 APG

Dillon Brooks 45th, Memphis Grizzlies

Age 20 | 6 GP | 12.2 PPG | 9.7 FGA | 46.6 FG% | 35.3 3P% | 3.7 RPG | 1.7 APG

Malcolm Brogdon 36th, Milwaukee Bucks

Age 23 | 5 GP | 10.2 PPG | 12.8 FGA | 34.4 FG% | 16.7 3P% | 5.0 RPG | 4.4 APG

Terry Rozier 16th, Boston Celtics

Age 20 | 8 GP | 12.3 PPG | 10.4 FGA | 34.9 FG% | 40.0 3P% | 3.0 RPG | 3.9 APG

Josh Richardson 40th, Miami Heat

Age 20 | 5 GP | 11.3 PPG | 10.3 FGA | 38.8 FG% | 38.1 3P% | 2.8 RPG | 1.6 APG

Some see Davis with the potential to become a Josh Hart-type player. Hart’s stats were nothing to write home about in 2017. But he was on an absolutely stacked team that featured fellow rookies Alex Caruso, summer league MVP Lonzo Ball, summer league Finals MVP Kyle Kuzma, and a brief appearance from an Brandon Ingram who casually dropped 26 points in his lone appearance. They unsurprisingly won the title.

With Ingram, Kuzma, and Ball gone the following season, Hart then went on to become summer league MVP in 2018 while averaging 22.4 points on 45% shooting.

A 23-year-old Malcolm Brogdon had a lousy summer league in 2016. He’s similar to Davis in that he isn’t quick off the dribble, he showed moderately decent ball-handling skills in college, and neither possessing above-the-rim athleticism. Brogdon then went on to win Rookie of the Year in what was a fairly weak rookie class.

Davis has close to zero chance of pulling off a ROY miracle with this current crop, but there’s a reality where he can emulate Brogdon’s rookie production off the bench after a tough summer league start.

Final thoughts

NBA Summer League often gets dismissed because it’s not a precise barometer to measure how players will perform at the next level. The schemes are different. The roles allotted to players are undefined or different except for elite players like the Paolo Bancheros and Cade Cunninghams of the world.

However, it’s arguable that the theory applies more for the overachievers rather than those at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s easy to dismiss a breakout summer league superstar. Success could be small sample hot shooting, or perhaps their style of play is better suited to the disorganized summer league. The Josh Selbys and Von Wafers of the world didn’t amount to much in the league despite outstanding stints.

But, put a bona fide NBA talent in a setting where a majority of players are never going to sniff an NBA roster, and the skill gap should be evident — at least some of the time. If that gap doesn’t flash, it’s concerning. Even a string of exceptional plays or a crunch time takeover should be enough.

But if you didn’t know the players on the Wizards summer league roster, it would be difficult to tell Davis from the rest, let alone identify him as this year’s lottery pick.

Davis should absolutely not be written off after three bad summer league games, but it’s probably a safe bet he doesn’t turn into a true star. As posited in the beginning, if every NBA franchise hopes to hit the jackpot with their lottery picks, then it’s hard to feel confident that Washington will end up as one of the big winners.

All Wizards fans can hope for is that Davis proves all of his naysayers — and any projections based on summer league — wrong.