When you’re an NBA lottery pick, the Summer League is more of a formality. It’s a few games in July that give your new bosses a chance to see what you could potentially bring to the table, and an opportunity to provide your new fans a glimpse at why you were drafted so high.
But not every Summer League prospect has that luxury. For others, a lot of the time college veterans, those few games in July present themselves as an opportunity to fulfill a dream of becoming an NBA player. A good showing in Summer League can give a late-round selection, or undrafted free agent, a shot at latching on with a team.
That is the route being taken by Justin Robinson and Dylan Ennis, two accomplished collegiate players who are logging each minute in the Summer League with hopes that the hard work turns into something more.
Robinson graduated from Monmouth University this past May as the program’s all-time leading scorer. Over his four years in school, he propelled the growth of a little-known mid-major basketball program into one of the most recognized mid-majors in the country, capable of taking down the likes of UCLA, Notre Dame and Georgetown.
Robinson acomplished much despite standing at just 5-foot-8. Despite his small stature, Robinson carries a big game and a big resume. But making the jump to the professional level of basketball is a whole new ball game. During the Orlando Summer League Robinson had the opportunity of playing for the Miami HEAT and began his transition from big fish in a small pond to new waters right away.
“It’s definitely a learning experience,” Robinson said about the transition. “When you go from being ‘the man’ for the past four years and then stepping into a situation where you’re not and you’ve got to prove yourself and work your way up from the bottom again, it’s definitely something to take in and learn from.”
During the week in Orlando, Robinson did his best to try and stick out but didn’t put up the record-setting numbers he was used to dropping during his time in college. Over the five games Robinson played in, he averaged just over six points per game in 15 minutes on the court. The 22-year-old point guard surely isn’t setting the world on fire with those numbers, but he knows that just like in college, success at the next level will take time and hard work.
“You could just say it’s a process, you’ve got to take every step as it is,” Robinson said. “You’re going to have bumps and bruises on the way whether you’re trying to maintain a program or build it up from the bottom. You can learn from everything in every aspect, so just take it in stride.”
For Ennis, his journey up until this point has been every part of a process.
A six-year collegiate veteran, Ennis faced adversity and missteps throughout his time spent playing amateur basketball. He even saw his younger brother, Tyler, enter the NBA before he got the chance to when he was drafted 18th overall by the Phoenix Suns in 2014.
This past season, however, Ennis helped propel Oregon to the Final Four, scoring 18 points and grabbing six rebounds in the team’s national semifinal game against North Carolina.
The elder Ennis received his first shot at an NBA life with the Oklahoma City Thunder in Orlando, checking into five games and scoring just over eight points per contest in 19 minutes per game.
But throughout his time in the college ranks, which saw Ennis at three different schools (Rice, Villanova and Oregon) and the loss of nearly an entire season with a broken foot, the 25-year-old believes he gained a sense of maturity he may not have had otherwise.
“I definitely think it gives me a leg up, it gives me a lot of experience,” Ennis said about his time spent in college. “A lot of guys that might leave early, come to the NBA and they don’t play as much or they have to come off the bench and they don’t know how to react to it. I’ve been in college for six years, I know this is a long grind, a long journey. I’m going to be the guy first up on the bench if I’m playing two minutes or 20 minutes, I know how to adjust. I think that only comes with maturity from being in college for six years.”
In an NBA culture where the top picks in the draft are 18 or 19-year-old kids that logged a lone season in college, the league has a tendency to overlook the four (or six) year guys. If you aren’t a teenager with crazy bounce or a smooth jumper, the odds are already stacked against you. That certainly isn’t the end all be all for players, however, and just last season Malcolm Brogdon of the Milwaukee Bucks flipped the narrative by winning Rookie of the Year as 24-year-old second round pick.
While the journey of any successful NBA player is a grind, when the chips are already stacked against you, these summertime basketball games carry that much more significance.
In Ennis’ experience, more time in college awards players an opportunity to understand their bodies and handle the toll of a grueling summer schedule.
“That’s being mature, again,” Ennis said. “That’s being in college for six years and knowing I have to take care of my body. Some of the young guys may not know that, they think they can run on fumes, but, I know you’ve got to get sleep, you’ve got to ice your knees, you’ve got to eat right and, especially with all this traveling, you’ve got to drink a lot of water, stay hydrated. But, it’s fun. I wouldn’t want to do anything else with my summer than play basketball, learn from NBA guys and, hopefully, be in the NBA one day.”
Having the chance to figure out how your body operates, or how to lead a program from the bottom of the pack into national relevancy, are the overlooked growth moments that players can experience while in college for the full duration.
Robinson made it a point throughout his time in Orlando to the show the HEAT that he has the ability to be a vocal leader on the court and a pest on defense, two skills he was able to hone as time went on at school in New Jersey.
Ennis couldn’t be happier with his situation, and whether he receives a full-time contract out of Summer League, or a two-way variation, the guard will just be happy to get his opportunity to be a pro.
While these college veterans, and now NBA rookies, don’t have the luxury of knowing where they may end up this fall like their teenage lottery pick counterparts, they’re an example that the path to the league can come in many different shapes and sizes.
And no matter how you get there, the feeling at the end is all the same.
“Being in the NBA has been a dream of mine since I was a young kid and just having the opportunity and it presenting itself, I’m just grateful for it,” Ennis said.
#19 – Kevin Huerter – Atlanta Hawks
With the No. 19 pick in the NBA draft, the Atlanta Hawks selected Kevin Huerter from the University of Maryland.
After 10 consecutive seasons reaching the playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks failed to win 25 contests in 2018. Gone are All-Stars Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague, each of whom the franchise groomed at various points during their decade of playoff bliss. Now the team is faced with a daunting rebuild under second year general manager Travis Schlenk and first year coach Lloyd Pierce.
Huerter becomes the first Maryland player to be selected in the first round since center Alex Len was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 2013. Huerter was projected to be available in the 16 to 24 range and the Hawks get a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, who has the ability to spread the floor.
In two seasons at Maryland, Huerter averaged 12 points, five rebounds and three assists on 46 percent shooting from the floor. As a sophomore, Huerter connected on 73 three-pointers on a sparkling 42 percent accuracy from long range.
The Hawks have been looking for consistent production from the two guard spot ever since Tim Hardaway Jr. left the team to join the New York Knicks in free agency last summer.
Huerter will join a young Hawks core of point guard Dennis Schroder and forward John Collins, two of the team’s first round draft picks from prior years, as well as dynamic guard Trae Young, who was selected with the fifth overall pick of this year’s draft (pending the trade with the Dallas Mavericks being finalized).
#16 – Zhaire Smith- Phoenix Suns
The Philadelphia 76ers reportedly traded the rights to Mikal Bridges to the Phoenix Suns for the 16th overall pick, which was used to select Zhaire Smith, as well as a 2021 first round draft pick.
Smith was a freshman small forward out of Texas Tech who has plenty of athleticism. Last season, Smith averaged 11.3 points, five rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. Where Smith stands out is on the defensive end. He has the size, speed, mobility and instincts to be a plus-defender, which is rare among players at this stage in their respective careers. The downside is that Smith doesn’t necessarily have the size to reasonably guard most power forwards, though he can certainly hold his own in limited situations.
Smith should be a nice addition for Philadelphia, which already has several big wing players. The team is built around Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, but Smith adds even more athleticism and upside for the young up-and-coming squad. Smith is also a solid passer and he can take the ball off of the dribble. However, Smith’s jumper can be a bit inconsistent at times, which is something he will need to work on moving forward. He also needs to work on becoming a more effective player in pick and roll situations. However, with his elite athleticism and notable skill set, it’s not hard to undestand why the 76ers had interest in making a deal for him.
This is a nice grab for the 76ers, who saved some cap space and acquired a future first rounder in the deal.
#14 – Michael Porter Jr. – Denver Nuggets
With the No. 14 pick in the NBA draft, the Denver Nuggets selected forward Michael Porter Jr. from the University of Missouri.
Leading up to the draft, there was much speculation that Porter could have gone as high as the second overall pick, but after teams got a look at his medical records, his perceived value began to fall. Porter slid all the way to the Nuggets, who record-wise, were the best team that missed out on the playoffs.
Porter measures in 6-foot-10.75, 211 pounds. The sample size was very small since Porter had to miss the majority of his freshman season, but the potential is definitely there for the Missouri alum. Porter’s scoring prowess makes him have one of the highest ceilings in a loaded draft class this year, which could make him one of the greatest draft-day steals of all time if he reaches it.
If Porter reaches his ceiling, then he is undoubtedly a perfect fit in Denver. The Nuggets, who were arguably a healthy Paul Millsap from making some noise out West, desperately need a go-to scorer to pair with their young core. Porter’s ability to score from anywhere on the court should make him the perfect complement to Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.
His ability to put the ball in the bucket should make him a keeper, but his athleticism is what could make him a potential franchise cornerstone. Porter has a fair amount of quickness for a guy his size, which could make him one of the league’s best two-way players.
Unfortunately, Porter’s question marks make him as much of a high risk as he is a high reward. His medical records evidently turned teams off after he was believed to be selected in the top 10, and there has been a lot of chatter that he may not be the most motivated basketball player. Perhaps falling all the way down to 14th could give him all the motivation he needs.
The Nuggets received a lot of flak when they traded Donovan Mitchell’s draft rights for Trey Lyles and the rights to Tyler Lydon at last year’s draft, but now they may have made up for all of that by getting Porter.