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6 unexpected NBA Summer League stars who deserve to make a rotation

These unlikely NBA Summer League standouts proved they deserve a roster spot.

2023 NBA California Classic - Miami Heat v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

NBA Summer League in Las Vegas is more than just the initial introduction to this year’s rookie class and a platform for second-year players to show how much better they’ve gotten over the short offseason. For NBA hopefuls on the fringe of the league, it’s also a major opportunity to prove they deserve a guaranteed contract and a spot on a final 15-man roster. While the Summer League games themselves aren’t particularly meaningful, the stakes are enormous for those trying to realize their dreams of making it in the NBA.

Las Vegas Summer League is over with the Cleveland Cavaliers claiming the championship over the Houston Rockets. We have already spotlighted seven NBA sophomores who were too good for Summer League, and ranked the 11 best rookies in Las Vegas. Now it’s time to spotlight the players who weren’t household names coming into Summer League, but did everything they could to prove they deserve a role on an NBA roster this season.

Here are six Summer League standouts who should earn a shot on an NBA roster after a great run in Las Vegas. This list does not include the rookie class, who covered already.

Orlando Robinson, C, Miami Heat

As you may have heard once or 100 times during their run to the 2023 NBA Finals, no team has been better at turning undrafted free agents into key contributors than the Miami Heat. Orlando Robinson could be next. The Heat plucked Robinson out of the UDFA pool in 2022 after three years at Fresno State. While he barely got onto the floor for the main club, the Heat thought enough of him to sign him to a two-year, $3.9 million deal with a partial guarantee this offseason. Robinson rewarded Miami’s faith playing like the best player in Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 25.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.5 steals through four games. Robinson did it while shooting 57.7 percent from the field, 35.3 percent from three-point range (on 4.3 attempts per game from deep), and 82.1 percent from the foul line.

At 6’11, 245 pounds with a 7’4 wingspan, Robinson brings a tremendous mix of physicality and skill. Robinson can play through contact on offense as a roll man, and has enough size to crash the glass and offer some rim protection. The skill flashes are even more fun: Robinson is capable of ripping a pick-and-pop three-pointer, or hitting an open shooter. The Heat could have a rotation spot open at the backup five after Omer Yurtseven left in free agency (Miami also signed center Thomas Bryant). Robinson, still only 23 years old, did everything possible in Las Vegas to prove he deserves a chance.

Jaden Springer, G, Philadelphia 76ers

Springer has been an intriguing prospect since his one-and-done days at Tennessee, but NBA teams didn’t value him quite as highly as the blog boys as he slipped to the No. 28 pick in the 2021 draft. The sales pitch has never been too complicated: Springer is a big, strong guard with elite defensive playmaking ability, and upside as a bully-ball creator on offense. Still only 20 years old, Springer is younger than plenty of incoming rookies after two seasons in the G League, and he looked like one of the most physically dominat players in Vegas. As Springer did some jaw-dropping stuff defensively, he also averaged 22.3 points on 62.8 percent true shooting across six games in Vegas.

Springer defense would be legitimately impactful at the NBA level right now. He’s a bulldog at the point of attack, and has tremendous instincts as a help defender, which often leads to big plays the other way. His offense remains something of an adventure with a loose handle and an inconsistent jump shot, but he’s still often able to outmuscle opponents for buckets in the paint. Philly isn’t necessarily primed for him to take rotation minutes with a similar player in De’Anthony Melton already entrenched, but Springer has time on his side. As long as he can continue to make gradual improvements to his offensive skills, there should be a place in the league for him before long.

Jared Butler, G, Oklahoma City Thunder

Butler was the driving force behind Baylor’s national championship team in 2021 as a highly skilled point guard who could rip pull-up threes, set up his teammates with sharp passing reads, and be a pest as an on-ball defender. There was only one real knock on Butler: his size. Butler hasn’t gotten any bigger since he entered the NBA — falling to the second round in part because of a rare heart condition that threatened his career — but the skill that made him an All-American and the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four is still there. Butler showed that he remains a deadly outside shooter — 44.2 percent from three on 6.1 attempts per game — while also having great feel for a lead guard.

If there’s one skill missing within the Thunder’s ultra-talented young core, it’s pull-up shooting. Butler is a natural fit there, but it won’t be easy to TyTy Washington Jr., Vasilije Micic, and first round Cason Wallace around. If it doesn’t work out with OKC, Butler is still talented enough to catch on somewhere eventually.

Javon Freeman-Liberty, G, Chicago Bulls

Freeman-Liberty went undrafted in 2022 after a productive four-year college career split between Valparaiso and DePaul that saw him earn Second-Team All-Big East honors as a senior with the Blue Demons. The Bulls signed the Chicago native to their G League team for last season, but he still entered Summer League as a mostly anonymous guard without any real momentum for securing a spot on the main roster. That changed after an incredible run in Las Vegas: Freeman-Liberty ranked as the second best overall player in Summer League by some metrics, showcasing his ability to stockpile points while playing on or off the ball. He ended his five-game run by averaging 21.2 points, 4.4 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game on 49.3 percent shooting from the floor and 46.2 percent shooting from three.

Freeman-Liberty has good size at 6’4 with a 6’9 wingspan. He was known as a defensive pest throughout his college career — he had a steal rate of 2.7 percent or higher in all four years — but he’s started to make major strides offensively. While he’s not an overwhelming athlete, Freeman-Liberty is a crafty attacker who showed his ability to drive and finish at the rim. The big improvement is his three-point stroke, which he comfortably showcased on both pull-ups and spot-ups. The Bulls have too many guards on their roster as it is if Ayo Dosumnu is retained, but there’s enough two-way potential and shooting talent here to give him a spot on the final 15-man roster as a developmental creator bet. The Bulls once let Spencer Dinwiddie and Max Strus walk off their G League team, and it would be a mistake to let JFL do the same after such a great run in Vegas.

Max Christie, G, Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers selected Christie with an early second round pick after his one-and-done season at Michigan State, but essentially redshirted him as a rookie. Summer League gave Christie an opportunity to show he deserved a spot in the rotation for next season, and he did everything he could to make the most of it. The 6’6 off-guard was shooting the ball confident and comfortably from deep, connecting on 55 percent of his threes on four attempts per game.

Christie’s cleanest translation has always been as an off-ball wing who can space the floor and use his 6’6 frame to defend smaller wings. His Summer League run was so encouraging because of the flashes of one-on-one scoring ability he showed with the ball in his hands. Christie won’t be asked to create much offense on a team with LeBron James and Austin Reaves, but his improved handle and surprising burst going to the basket should help him attack closeouts when he’s run off the three-point line. The Lakers’ roster is deep at almost every position, but there could be a spot for Christie if he keeps developing the all-around game he showed in Vegas.

Dominick Barlow, F/C, San Antonio Spurs

Before the Thompson twins became top-five picks coming out of Overtime Elite, Barlow was the first player to earn NBA minutes out of the upstart league. The 6’10, 220-pound big man continued the progress he showed in 400 minutes with the Spurs last season during his run in Summer League, where he made his case for a spot on final roster as he remains unsigned. Barlow doesn’t space the floor yet, but he’s really impressive at traditional big man skills. He’s a great screener, hits the glass hard on both ends as a rebounder, and has nice touch around the basket. He’s the type of strong, agile big man who could pair well with Victor Wembanyama’s perimeter skill down the road.

He ended his six-game run in Summer League averaging 15.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game on 61.2 percent shooting from the floor. The Spurs have a bit of a roster crunch right now, so it’s possible another team could sign Barlow away. He’s worth a flier as a developmental big man who already has real NBA experience and is still only 20 years old.