How Similar is the NBA Summer League to the Regular Season?

The 2021 NBA Summer League concluded on August 17 in Las Vegas with the Sacramento Kings emerging victorious after cruising to a 33-point victory over the Boston Celtics in the final of the competition. While summer leagues have existed for decades, the first structured NBA efforts arose in the early 2000s with Las Vegas emerging as by far the largest of the half dozen leagues that have popped up over that period. Growing to feature an entry from every NBA team and even an occasional national team looking for competitive preparation games, the Las Vegas Summer League has become a important fixture each year for franchises to bridge the gap to the subsequent regular season on and off the floor.

For many, the action is highlighted by the debuts of recent draft picks, but it’s also deep with un-drafted free agents and G-League prospects. There are also NBA veterans looking to regain traction in front of the front office personnel that descend upon UNLV’s campus to catch the action live. But one fundamental question re-emerges each year

How meaningful are Summer League performances?

Blending a diverse range of players with dramatically different things at stake into a high visibility setting and with limited practice time is a less than ideal formula for quality basketball. The average NBA fan will hear continued warnings not to invest too heavily into what transpires on the floor during the Summer League.

But when we compare Synergy Sports play-type data between the Summer League and regular season, the results tend to be more in-sync stylistically than this stigma would suggest.

As the graph above suggests, Summer League basketball systemically mirrors what occurs on the floor during the NBA regular season. While the players are an average of 4 years younger and the shot-making is not at the same level, the types of looks players get in the Summer League closely resembles what teams create when business picks up in late Fall. The notable exception is that Summer League games tend to feature more open court opportunities, a symptom of young legs and the additional chances to run created by the larger volume of missed shots.

So when we look across all teams, the overall trends and play types are similar. But interestingly, the style of play can differ radically even within the same franchise from Summer League to regular season. This is not because of any shortcomings of the summer coaching staffs in implementing game plans or even the limited preparation window, but more a reflection of the ownership that elite NBA players have over the way their respective teams operate offensively.

The Hawks and their summer squad provide perhaps the most glaring example of this. Fresh off of a breakthrough playoff campaign that saw them lean heavily on Trae Young’s ability to create out of ball screens, the Hawks’ Summer League team ranked among the lowest volume pick and roll offense in Las Vegas.

While it’s hard for anyone to replicate Young’s ability to pull-up from 40 feet and find shooters all over the floor (and even he had some ups and downs in his lone summer campaign), the fun of the Summer League is rooted in the granular talents players display and speculating whether they transform from summer-time novelty to transferrable NBA skill.

This year’s co-MVPs embody that statement, as it became increasingly easy to imagine Kings’ draftee Davion Mitchell ruining an opposing guard’s night next season as he guided his team to a Summer League Championship. And it feels almost inevitable that Nets’ pick Cam Thomas will erupt for 30 when Brooklyn’s big-three is out of the lineup at some point as a rookie.

But the question remains, how much should we invest in Summer League performances? It’s a very nuanced answer. As we’ve seen, the play in general very much resembles regular NBA basketball. But many of the players who make it onto NBA rosters will play dramatically different roles during the regular season. Where you see real value is twofold:

1. Transferrable skills that cross over between the role they are asked to play from the Summer to the regular season.

2. Skills and abilities that may project future growth and the ability to grow their role over time.

With the similarities in the way the game is played and with seriously eye-catching performances in this year’s Summer League, sometimes you don’t have to squint too hard to see who has a real chance to excel.


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