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Former mid-major stars primed to make leaps during Summer League

Malachi Flynn, Obi Toppin, and others have a chance to jump higher up their teams’ depth charts.

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NBA: Summer League-Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA has become increasingly harder to break into. Championship cores centered around veteran players, the growth of the international landscape, and the value of high-upside athleticism have made it hard for our beloved mid-major stars to get a chance. While opportunities dwindle, the Summer League has grown into a great stage for former mid-major talent to showcase their talents. Summer League games have recently been a phenomenon in Las Vegas. It’s a league reunion where current players gather at Thomas & Mack Center to enjoy good basketball, the Vegas Oasis, and the rest of the Vegas fun. So even if guys don’t make the roster of the current Summer League team they play for, they are likely to catch someone else's eye with good performances. Here’s who has a shot to stand out:

Malachi Flynn (San Diego State), G, Toronto Raptors

The former Mountain West Player of the Year is coming off a solid rookie season. Flynn bounced between the G League and the Raptors, but when finally making it onto the NBA roster, he contributed. He averaged 7.5 points while playing 19 minutes a game and earned an offensive rating of 114 per 100 possessions. Flynn stepped up in spots when Fred VanVleet was unavailable for the Raptors.

With long-time point guard Kyle Lowry leaving, the Raptors need Flynn to take the next step of becoming a legitimate ball-handler-to justify giving him significant rotation minutes in year two. The Raptors will need a ball-handler off the bench and someone outside of VanVleet who can create offense on the fly.

In his first summer league game, Flynn showed he could be that guy scoring 23 points while shooting 4-5 from three. However, he had two turnovers and only one assist. We know Flynn has the potential to be a lethal scorer, but he needs to create for others, too. We have seen him do this at San Diego State, where he averaged 5.1 assists per game.

This year, he will have to beat out veterans Gary Trent and Goran Dragic for the other starting guard spot. We will see if a dominating Summer League performance puts him in position to do that.

Nah’Shon Hyland (VCU), G, Denver Nuggets

With Jamal Murray sidelined for a sizable part of next season, Hyland has a path to early playing time with the Nuggets. Denver needs a ball-handler outside of Murray who can create his own shot and Hyland was one of the best tough-shot makers in this class. He was a career 40% three-point shooter in college. Hyland is also hyper-athletic and carried the VCU offense last season. Hyland needs to show he can be a true penetrating guard — an asset this Denver team needs around its horde of shooters. If Hyland keeps performing like this in Summer League, he will put himself in a position to compete for a starting guard spot come fall camp.

Obi Toppin (Dayton), F, New York Knicks

The summer league cancellation last season was detrimental to Toppin’s growth in his rookie year. The Knicks had a miraculous 2020-21 season where they made the postseason for the first time in nearly a decade, but Toppin played a limited role. He was heavily reliant on rugged, high energy athleticism, only shot 30% from three, and never found flow on defense. He was also playing behind the Most Improved Player in the league in Julius Randle. Toppin needs to show the offensive versatility that made him A-10 Player of the Year at Dayton. He needs to work on defensive rotations and get a feel for being a stopper in the paint. Toppin isn’t going to play over Randle anytime soon, so he’s going to need to demonstrate ways he can be valuable on the floor, whether it is coming in as a dominating small-ball 5 or spacing the floor as a stretch-4. The Knicks are challenging Toppin to grow his game because they know his immense potential. Maybe this Summer League is the perfect time for Toppin to reach the ceiling we all hope he has.

Neemias Queta (Utah State), C, Sacramento Kings

The former Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year has a legitimate chance to win the starting center job for the Kings. Queta has all the assets the Kings need defensively. The Kings ranked near the bottom of the NBA in points surrendered in the paint and Queta has the potential to be the key cog in the middle. It starts with him impressing in Summer League. He is going to have good rotational help with Chimezie Metu and has looked good early on in games before slowing down in the second half. Queta is in the best position to compete for a starting spot out of all the players drafted in the second round. If you watched Queta in college, there is no question he looks the part of a starting NBA center. He just has to prove he can do it at this level.

Kessler Edwards (Pepperdine), F, Brooklyn Nets

The Nets got zero points from their bench in the most important game of their 2020-21 season. The Nets lost 115-111 in overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and the starters looked gas in the extra period. A lack of scoring depth is the natural Achilles heal when front-loaded with three All-NBA caliber players. Once an injury occurs to just one of those stars, it stresses the vulnerabilities near the bottom of the roster. Luckily for the Nets, they drafted a gem in Kessler Edwards in the second round. Edwards was a three-year star at Pepperdine and averaged 17.6 points his final year in school. Edwards projects as the perfect three-and-D wing the NBA craves. He should be able to get playing time, but he’s going to have to earn his way. In his first two Summer League contests, Edwards is averaging 8.0 points per game on 33% shooting, so he is going to have to show more to be considered an early part of the Nets’ rotation next season.

JaQuori McLaughlin (UCSB), G, Golden State Warriors

The former Big West Player of the Year received a Summer League invite from the Golden State Warriors. For McLaughlin, he couldn’t have landed in a better spot. He fits perfectly in the Warriors’ system with his high basketball IQ in the pick and roll, his shooting, and his ability to find open teammates. McLaughlin had a career year last season, averaging 16.0 points and 5.4 assists while shooting 43% from three. McLaughlin ranked 16th in Heat Check’s Gold Star ratings — a system that grades the most impactful stars in college basketball. So far, McLaughlin has shot 38% from three with 5.5 assists per game across four summer games. McLaughlin is a long-shot at making a roster, but he could earn himself a two-way contract, which will at least give McLaughlin an invite to fall camp. McLaughlin made a good first impression in his opening game against the Magic, where he shot 3-4 from three. If the Warriors ever unload their depth to get another star, they may need to call on a guy like McLaughlin to fill minutes.

Justinian Jessup (Boise State), G, Golden State Warriors

Jessup was selected with the 51st pick in last year’s draft and spent last season playing in Australia’s National Basketball League, where he was a finalist for the league’s Rookie of the Year award after he averaged 13.4 points per game. Jessup earned his roster spot in Summer League and has a chance to earn himself a call up to the NBA roster. Jessup is an interesting prospect who brings great shooting and shot creation. The Warriors drafted Moses Moody with their first-round pick, so Jessup has a lot of competition for the second team guard spot.

Jordan Goodwin (Saint Louis), G, Washington Wizards

The Wizards traded arguably one of the best rebounding guards in basketball history, but then added the best rebounding guard in college basketball with Goodwin. That’s not to say Goodwin is going to turn into Russell Westbrook anytime soon. But essentially, Goodwin was the Westbrook of college basketball, averaging 14.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 2 steals while shooting 31% from three during his senior year. Goodwin is a taller guard who possesses great length defensively and can play both guard positions. Goodwin signed an Exhibit 10 contract that invites him to the Wizards’ training camp, allowing Goodwin an opportunity to compete for a roster spot.

Let’s say the Wizards’ backup point guard spot is as open as the atmosphere’s ozone layer. Journeymen Raul Neto is listed as the backup point guard, with Aaron Holiday and Cassius Winston behind them. Goodwin can prove he can be a guy that can contribute off the bench, whether it’s his ability to guard, bring physicality, rebound, or score. He will have to prove his critics wrong about his inconsistent shooting. If Goodwin can prove teams can’t leave him wide open behind the three-point line, he has the potential for a long NBA career.

Joel Ayayi (Gonzaga), G, Los Angeles Lakers

Most of the college basketball world was shocked when Joel Ayayi went undrafted. However, Ayayi falling in the draft wasn’t an accident. According to a report from Sam Vecine, Ayayi turned down offers to be drafted in the second round so he would be able to choose his NBA destination. Ayayi is a Swiss army knife guard who can shoot, slash to the rim, and is an intelligent passe.

The Lakers are the oldest team in the NBA. They need a shot of youth to help the guys with older bones endure the long NBA season. It takes a lot for LeBron to trust rookies and Ayayi has a chance to show him and the other veterans that he is good enough to contribute. So far in Summer League, Ayayi has shown he is a great decision-maker and is the best ball-handler in the Lakers’ backcourt.