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Players to watch, sleepers at 2021 NBA Summer League Las Vegas

Cade Cunningham is the headliner, but what other players taking the floor in Vegas can make some noise at the next level?

Phoenix Suns v New York Knicks
Obi Toppin of the New York Knicks grabs the rebound against the Phoenix Suns at Madison Square Garden on April 26, 2021 in New York City.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

NBA Summer League begins in earnest in Las Vegas with teams hoping to get a glimpse of how their prized young prospects are coming along and players attempting to latch onto a roster ahead of the preseason. Here are some players to watch and sleeper picks for the 2021 Summer League in Las Vegas.

Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, headlines Summer League. The Pistons are sending most of their young core to Las Vegas and it’ll be the start of something potentially special for Detroit. The group will fit around Cunningham well, but it’s his pairing with Killian Hayes that will merit the most attention. Cunningham is versatile and can adjust to his teammates’ skills well. His play in Las Vegas will be the talk of the league regardless of how he performs.

Obi Toppin, New York Knicks

Toppin was a rotation player on the Knicks last season, averaging 11.0 minutes per game in 62 contests. The No. 8 pick from 2020 hopes to have a larger role in the upcoming season as New York looks to build on its first playoff berth since 2012-13. Toppin has the potential to be a versatile piece in New York’s rotation, but needs to show he can space the floor and move the ball well. This is a big Summer League campaign for him.

Joel Ayayi, Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers have assembled a “Big 3” with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. They’ve surrounded that group with shooters and rebounders almost exclusively over the age of 30. It’s unlikely anyone from LA’s Summer League squad is going to see significant minutes this year at the next level with the Lakers.

However, Ayayi is worth monitoring as a sleeper. The guard improved as a three-point shooter and defender last season, proving himself to be a vital part of Gonzaga’s runner-up squad. He also reportedly passed up the chance to be drafted to sign with the Lakers on a two-way deal, essentially betting on himself. Expect Ayayi to have a big Summer League performance.

Sharife Cooper, Atlanta Hawks

Cooper was projected to be a first-round pick, but fell all the way to No. 48 to the Hawks. He’s an aggressive guard who can sling the ball around the court and play tough defense. Throw in what is likely a massive chip on his shoulder and you’ve got the makings of a Summer League MVP. Cooper was a stat machine at Auburn and will be looking to prove a point in Las Vegas. He could be the breakout star of the showcase.

Vernon Carey Jr., Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets made some noise in the NBA draft with James Bouknight and Kai Jones, but Carey Jr. is a sleeper in Summer League. The 6-9 forward was a force at Duke, averaging 17.8 points per game and shooting 38.1 percent from deep. As a second-round pick, he only averaged 6.1 minutes per game in 19 contests but should feature in the rotation more this year.

Charlotte is going to be playing at a much faster tempo with LaMelo Ball and Bouknight. Carey Jr. has the makings of an energetic rim-runner who can wreak havoc on both sides of the floor as a hustle guy. He’s not going to become a star, but he can be a useful piece on a team looking to take a big jump in the East. Jones is the trendy player to watch, but Carey Jr. might see more playing time based off Summer League production.

Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors

The Warriors have had a mixed offseason. Some may look at Golden State’s offseason and applaud the front office for adding high-potential players in the draft and veterans in free agency to surround the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green core. Others will question why the Warriors didn’t trade their draft assets and young players for a fourth star to maximize the championship window for the “Big 3”.

With James Wiseman out of Summer League, Kuminga becomes the natural pick to take over the spotlight. He was seen as very raw entering the draft, with many considering him a “project prospect” for the franchise that takes him. The Warriors obviously feel they can get the best out of Kuminga, but they want it sooner rather than later. If he pops in Summer League, Golden State fans will feel better about how he will come along this season.

Romeo Langford, Boston Celtics

In 50 games across two NBA seasons, Langford has averaged 2.7 points and 1.5 rebounds per game while shooting 35.3 percent from the floor and 22.2 percent from deep. So why is he on this list?

It’s Year 3 for the forward who was taken with the last lottery pick of the 2019 NBA draft. Langford was supposed to be another weapon next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but struggled to break through at the position with those two clearly ahead of him. The Celtics would like to use him in positionless lineups, but he hasn’t gotten the appropriate amount of game time to develop. Summer league represents Langford’s best chance to make a leap and show he deserves a bigger role, either with Boston or somewhere else.

Kira Lewis Jr., New Orleans Pelicans

Another player who underperformed in his rookie season despite being a lottery pick, Lewis Jr. is going to have an opportunity to burst onto the scene in New Orleans. With Lonzo Ball heading to the Chicago Bulls, Lewis Jr. is the natural successor at the point guard position.

The Alabama product is exciting, explosive and can direct an offense. He’s going to need to improve his three-point shooting, but Lewis Jr. has the skills to maximize Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram in New Orleans. His Summer League campaign is worth watching.