California Classic takeaways: Bronny James struggles, Stephon Castle shines in NBA Summer League tune-up

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SACRAMENTO — The California Classic is in the books. The sixth annual NBA Summer League prelim to the main event in Las Vegas featured a new format spread across four days and two locations in Northern California at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento and Chase Center in San Francisco. 

The Kings, Hornets, Spurs and the Chinese National Team competed in a round-robin event in Sacramento, headlined by the No. 4 overall pick in the 2024 NBA Draft, Stephon Castle, playing for San Antonio. The Hornets were without the No. 6 pick from the draft  (Tidjane Salaün) due to a minor laceration near his knee.

The Warriors, Heat, Lakers and a second Kings summer league team played in the Bay Area simultaneously. Golden State defeated Sacramento 91-90 in the final game of the event to claim the inaugural “Mitch Richmond Trophy,” which is awarded to the winner of the Battle of NorCal Summer League game between the Warriors and Kings.

The final day of the event in San Francisco saw Bronny James, the son of Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James, play his second summer league game. The younger James was held out against the Warriors last weekend due to knee swelling. James finished with three points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals against Miami.

Here are the three biggest takeaways from the event.

Bronny, Knecht struggle to find their shot

When the Lakers selected Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht with the No. 17 pick in the 2024 NBA Draft, many considered it a steal. Knecht was a consensus top-10 pick in the weeks and days leading up to the draft and was arguably the second-best player in college basketball last season behind Naismith Player of the Year Zach Edey. Knecht was known for his incredible shotmaking ability in his final collegiate season with Tennessee. Knecht struggled in his first organized game(s) in nearly four months – finishing 13-of-43 (30.2%) from the floor and 4-of-15 (26.7%) from distance. Knecht scored 20 points in his final game against the Heat.

Knecht wasn’t the only rookie who struggled with efficiency.

James appeared in two games in the California Classic, and finished 3-of-12 from the floor and missed all four of his attempts from the 3-point line. James only attempted three shots – all in the first half – during the final game against Miami. Bronny did contribute in other ways (seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals combined), but improving his shot — and finding it — should be a point of emphasis in Las Vegas. Bronny’s role in the NBA in the short and long term is likely as a 3-and-D player. He has the IQ and instincts to be a good defender in the NBA. It’s just going to come down to him hitting shots more consistently. 

Castle can be San Antonio’s long-term PG

One of the biggest talking points leading up to the NBA Draft was what position Castle would play in the NBA. Castle reportedly expressed a desire leading up to the draft to play point guard at the next level after playing in more of an off-ball role for UConn during his lone college season. After the California Classic ended, I asked Castle directly what position he sees himself playing in the NBA.

“I’m comfortable really anywhere out on the court,” Castle told CBS Sports. “I will say I’m probably most comfortable on the ball, but if I play off the ball, I still feel 100% comfortable there. Just being with the kinda team that we have, I feel like we will have five guys that can dribble, pass and shoot. The positions are out of the equation a little bit.”

With the Spurs adding veterans Chris Paul and Harrison Barnes this week to a youthful roster, Castle could find himself in a position to play more off-ball next to Paul in his rookie season. Castle could also run the second unit as a PG and learn from one of the greatest players of all time at the position as San Antonio gears up its rebuild. Castle showed flashes of why he could make an immediate impact for Gregg Popovich and company as a rookie because of his elite basketball IQ. Castle finished with 18 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals in his final summer league game before Las Vegas. 

Summer League performances are always viewed as a mixed bag. Some shine during the summer and drop off in the NBA, while some struggle in the summer league and perform well against the best of the best. From the (very) small sample size, it appears Castle was the right pick at No. 4 and he should fit perfectly next to Victor Wembanyama.

Keon Ellis could be in for major jump for Sacramento

Ellis is a summer league veteran at this point. After going undrafted out of Alabama in 2022, Ellis joined the Kings summer league team and shined next to fellow rookie (at the time) Keegan Murray. After playing in the G League for the Stockton Kings during the 2022-23 campaign, Ellis found himself in the rotation last season and slotted into the Kings’ starting lineup when Kevin Huerter went down with an injury in March.

Ellis scored 30 points in a loss to the Warriors Wednesday and showed flashes of why he should be in firm competition to start at SG for Sacramento during the 2024-25 season. Ellis will likely head into training camp in that competition alongside Huerter and Malik Monk – the runner-up for Sixth Man of the Year. 

Ellis’ fit in the starting lineup makes sense because of his defensive presence. He could insulate De’Aaron Fox and the newest member of the team – DeMar DeRozan – in the backcourt. Ellis connected on 41.7% of his 3-pointers last season (on 2.9 attempts) and the volume should increase if he becomes a full-time starter. The other reason Ellis could enter the season as the starter is Monk’s ability to come off the bench and provide a spark for Sacramento’s second unit. Monk is the best player of the bunch and will be in the closing lineup on most nights, but Ellis’ skillset could anchor Sacramento’s defense next to Murray and help them make a massive jump in that department.

There’s nothing wrong with a player entering his third season playing in the summer league. In Ellis’ case, it could be the confidence and stepping stone he needs in order to have a breakout season.

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