Summer league title game stars to watch when the real season tips

ByAndré Snellings ESPN logo
Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Las Vegas Summer Leaguechampionship game(10 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN)pits the Portland Trail Blazers against the Los Angeles Lakers -- both undefeated coming into the matchup.

Who are the players to watch on each team, and what kind of impact could they have when the real NBA season begins? Let's take a look.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are the defending champions, having won the 2017 summer league title behind co-MVPs Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma. This year, their team is led by another member of the 2017 draft class in Josh Hart.

Hart (pick No. 30) is the favorite for summer league MVP, with averages of 24.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. He even heard MVP chants while at the free throw line on Sunday, which had to be extra special with new teammate LeBron James in the house.

Hart has been playing more of a scoring lead guard than pure PG, creating more offense for himself than for his teammates but finishing at such a high clip that it has worked. He is coming off a double-overtime duel withCollin Sextonand the Cleveland Cavaliers in the semifinals,dropping 37 points with nine rebounds to win his matchup against Sexton(who posted 27 points and three boards).

The other Lakers player to watch on Tuesday is rookie Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (pick No. 47). While L.A.'s first-round pick Moritz Wagner was solid through the first couple of outings, he injured his left knee and ankle in the third game and is sitting out the rest of summer league. Mykhailiuk has picked up the slack in his absence, displaying a strong perimeter game that has seen him knock down 18 3-pointers in six contests. Averaging 17.7 PPG, Mykhailiuk is coming off a 31-point effort with six treys in the semifinals.

Regular-season roles

Hart was the incumbent backup point guard before Rajon Rondo was signed, but he still looks likely to get minutes as the backup shooting guard. Plus, with both Rondo and likely starter Lonzo Ball playing more as distributors, there could be a lane for Hart to get some lead guard minutes as a shooter who can play off James' creation abilities.

Mykhailiuk, on the other hand, is a big wing who can knock down the 3, which is a role that generally plays well next to James. It could be enough to earn him a few minutes at the end of the rotation.

Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers are led by a trio of NBA veterans bringing an inside-out punch. Caleb Swanigan (pick No. 26 in 2017) and Zach Collins (pick No. 10 in 2017) have dominated the middle, while third-year guard Wade Baldwin (pick No. 17 in 2016) has been the floor general controlling the action.

Swanigan has been a rebounding monster in summer league, averaging 11 RPG through his first six games. He uses his size and explosiveness to claim space in the paint at both ends of the floor. Swanigan also has a good feel from the perimeter, with the ability to create offense for his teammates (3.0 APG) or knock down the jumper and stretch the defense (3-of-8 on 3s). He hasn't been a heavy scorer for the most part, though he did carry the Blazers on offense in the semifinals with 21 points to go with his 16 rebounds.

Collins has played well off of Swanigan, particularly on defense, blocking 3.0 shots per game to go with his 8.0 RPG. While Swanigan uses his body to claim horizontal space in the paint, Collins has been more of a vertical threat and rim protector. Collins hasn't been a big scorer this summer, but he has topped double figures in both tournament games and converted one 3-pointer (in the opener). When things are rolling for the Blazers, Collins is anchoring the defense and doing just enough on offense to maintain his status as a threat.

Baldwin has been the main offensive engine, averaging 7.7 APG by creating shots for his teammates. With two seasons of NBA action under his belt, Baldwin is adept at running the offense and has the vision and feel to find his teammates in spots where they like to shoot. He complements his playmaking with a reasonable jumper (one made 3-pointer in every game) and the ability to get to the rim and score (13.3 PPG, and three games with five or more free throw attempts). Baldwin actually had a pretty disastrous semifinals in which he shot 2-of-13 from the floor and lost nine turnovers, so he will look to bounce back against the Lakers.

Regular-season roles

Each of Swanigan, Collins and Baldwin could see time in the rotation for Portland this year, though none project as sure starters.

Collins has the highest upside, but with the team re-signing Jusuf Nurkic it appears that he is set to be the backup for the foreseeable future. Swanigan will be battling for power forward minutes behind incumbent Al-Farouq Aminu, though Swanigan's size and power contrast with Aminu's speed and versatility, so he could perhaps challenge for more time with better play.

Baldwin will battle with Seth Curry for point guard minutes behind Damian Lillard, but his performance thus far in Vegas can only help his chances to earn playing time. Baldwin's $1.5 million contract for 2018-19 becomes guaranteed if he is not waived by Wednesday.

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