It's a chance for coaches and GM's to take a look at how their draft picks fair in game situations against NBA players for the first time. For the newcomers, it's a chance to work with their teammates for the first time -- and for the older players, a chance to have the nouveau riche rooks pay for dinner. In Damian Lillard's case, it's a chance to get on SportsCenter for a few weeks during the usual dry hoops season. For the fans, it's a chance to see into their team's future. And, just as importantly, justify a trip to Vegas.
But Summer League -- especially the 2012 one, after a one-year hiatus due to the 2011 lockout -- brought a special sort of significance to the NBA D-League's Top Prospects. Almost to a man, the D-League's best have to claw their way through a jungle of misconceptions, snap judgements and one-glance guesses. Whether they have a skill missing, an unproven past or just a bad rap (deserved or undeserved), this Summer League gave them a chance to prove that they could go at NBA-level competition the way they have against NBA D-League players.
And these are the guys who did it best.
Note: For a player to be considered a Top Prospect, he must have played in the NBA D-League in the past two years and not solidified himself on an NBA roster. Check out the Prospect Board for more.
Sacramento Kings (Canton Charge)
Any time you score more points than minutes played over the course of the week, you know you're standing pretty tall. Well, that's exactly what the 5-foot-11 Akognon did this week. The Cal State-Fullerton product scored 58 points in 56 minutes over the course of three games this week, blowing past defenders and earning, at one point, a spot on NBA.com's Rookie Ladder. Akognon did not play in Sacramento's other two games - call it mercy for the other teams - but he made a strong enough impression in the three he played to get on this list. Akognon's week was highlighted by a 25-point explosion (in 22 minutes) against the Los Angeles Lakers that saw him connect on 10 of his 16 attempts, including 4-of-8 from downtown. Akognon followed that with an 18-point gem against Toronto where he did most of his damage from the free-throw line - hitting on 12-of-13 attempts - showing that he can get to the paint and draw contact. He projects as a high-energy backup of the bench in the NBA.
Atlanta Hawks (Austin Toros)
Wanamaker only played 20 combined minutes in the last two games - maybe Atlanta had seen enough and/or had to get some looks at other prospects - but when Wanamaker got significant minutes in the first three games, he consistently looked like one of the best guards on the floor in all of Vegas. He kicked off the week with a 13-point, six-assist performance against Washington. He backed that up with a vintage performance for him - nine points, eight assists and seven rebounds against the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA affiliate of his former NBA D-League team the Austin Toros. In those first three games, Wanamaker averaged 9.3 points, 5.7 assists and 3.7 rebounds. He also shot 9-for-13 from the floor and 10-for-11 from the line. He is fundamentally sound with outstanding body control, can play both guard positions and can, as he did in Vegas, fill up a box score. It would not come as a surprise to see an NBA could give him a look this season.
Chicago Bulls (L.A. D-Fenders)
Only In-N-Out Burger had more double-doubles than Malcolm Thomas this week. The San Diego State product that played for three NBA D-League teams last season stormed out of the gates in Vegas with identical 10-point, 13-rebound performances on Tuesday and Wednesday. But that was really nothing compared to what came next. Thomas, a 6-foot-11 tornado in the paint, recorded 16 rebounds in each of his next two games and combined to score 33 points on 13-for 19-shooting. Of Thomas' 62 rebounds this week, 23 came of the offensive end, which should serve to bolster a somewhat shaky offensive game -- he still has room to grow as a finisher, but his ability to keep possessions alive is a good consolation prize. As far as reserve NBA forwards go, Thomas' rebounding acumen would match up with most, if not all, of them.
NBA D-League Select (Dakota Wizards)
Lyons came into NBA Summer League looking to prove a few things. That he could work. That he could run. That he could battle. And that he'd do all three every second he was on the court. Out to change the perception of him as a walking heart monitor, he left with one of the best overall performances of any forward at Summer League. From his shooting touch (48 percent from the field, 41 percent from 3-point range) and ability to create space -- Lyons has always moved like a guard -- to his work on the interior (4.4 boards in 22 minutes a night), he showed off a great deal to complement his NBA-ready offensive game.
Atlanta Hawks (Sioux Falls Skyforce)
Benson's numbers flagged a little bit as the week went on (as did his minutes), but for his first three games in Vegas, he looked like one of the elite big men at Summer League, averaging 16.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. Over the course of his NBA D-League season, he added some weight, strength and offensive ability to a game that once relied just on height to get by -- and every bit of it showed. He battled for position on the glass, contested shots and showed an ability to score from above the rim to 15 feet out.