August is the slowest time of year for the NBA. Summer league is in the rearview mirror, training camp won’t open for almost two months, and international play is the only professional basketball taking place.
But there is still a lot to discuss before the Hawks take the floor for the 2023-24 season, namely the expectations of Atlanta’s top rookies, Kobe Bufkin and Mouhamed Gueye.
Both players showed a lot of promise during the NBA summer league, along with several reasons why neither are projected to be rotation players in the near future. Summer League also breeds a lot of overreactions, whether high praise for positive plays or heavy criticism for mistakes.
Now that time has passed and the fanfare has subsided, August is an excellent opportunity to review how each player did, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses.
An important note before divulging — it isn’t wrong to say that Summer League basketball isn’t the NBA. But the statement only tells half of the story. Only a few Summer League players are considered to be NBA-caliber, so the challenges of shot-making, facilitating, and defensive execution aren’t on the same level that Bufkin and Gueye will see in the pros.
That said, the players in the Summer League are either successful overseas players or were just in the upper echelon of college basketball. The overall talent in Vegas was significantly better than the overall talent either of them faced in college. So, there is some value in their positives over the summer; they succeeded against tougher competition than they recently encountered.
It’s an ideal transition from college to the NBA and an essential context to help put the performances in perspective.
On to the breakdown, starting with the No. 15 overall pick, Kobe Bufkin.
Although Bufkin could be a Toronto Raptor before the season begins, recent reports indicate that the Hawks’ first-round pick is here to stay.
Atlanta’s clear goal for Bufkin was for him to work on his facilitating. Bufkin has never truly played point guard, and it showed with a team-high 4.6 turnovers per game. He was involved in plenty of pick-and-roll sets while serving as the team’s floor general whenever he was on the court.
His passes were often picked off when he tried to sling it across the court or when he tried to hit the roller, but Bufkin also dished out some nice assists and grew more comfortable each game. He favors the left hand (common among lefties) but was willing to attack with his right.
The Michigan product averaged 14 points in 27.1 minutes (both team-highs), 3.6 assists, and 3.2 rebounds on 33/13/76 shooting splits. The shooting numbers aren’t a concern, as he took a lot of long 3-pointers and contested jumpers. He was likely in a slump from the perimeter, which isn’t unordinary given the circumstances. One area he did shoot well from was the mid-range, knocking them down after receiving a screen or in off-the-dribble isolations.
His mechanics also looked solid on the floor, another good sign that his shooting will eventually come around.
Bufkin’s lack of strength showed itself on offense more than on defense, as he struggled to finish at the rim. Like his passing, however, he did show flashes, highlighted by his game-winning layup against Philadelphia. Plus, it was known that Bufkin, who’s listed at 195 pounds, needed to bulk up once he made it to the league.
Defensively, Bufkin proved why he was one of the better defenders in the draft, using his long wingspan and quick feet to get over screens and be active in the passing lanes. Atlanta’s backcourt wasn’t the best defensively, so his success on that side of the floor is a good sign for the Hawks. He’ll be even better as he gets stronger.
Overall, the phrase that best describes Bufkin is “growing pains.” It was hard at times seeing him operate as a floor general, but he needed to develop that part of his game. There was no better place to do it than the Summer League, where he can take those lessons into the regular season. He won’t be asked to handle many point guard duties with Trae Young on the roster, but he may fill that role as a third guard or in a pinch.
Bufkin’s defense may also get him on the court sooner than later, and Atlanta could benefit from another perimeter defender to put alongside Young. There’s also optimism that he’ll find his shot, providing an off-ball threat to Young and Dejounte Murray.
This is similar to when he was at Michigan; he struggled his first year, then made a huge leap his sophomore year. Now he has to make another jump as a professional. It probably won’t happen this year. He’ll likely spend some time in College Park. But his development is off to a strong start, and he can be a really good rotation piece if he sticks around.