The Joys Of NBA Summer League
The Las Vegas Summer League began in 2004 with six NBA teams playing a total of 13 games.
It was a humble start, to be sure. By 2005, the event had expanded to 15 teams, but the NBA would not attach its name to the proceedings until 2007. The following summer, EA Sports signed on as a sponsor. Big time!
Just a little more than a week ago, I visited the NBA Summer League for three days. Each day eclipsed 100 degrees, but the scorching heat took nothing away from my experience. I had an amazing time losing my summer league virginity.
This year, 10 days of basketball were scheduled from Friday, July 13 to Sunday, July 22. Two arenas housed the games, each of which was located on UNLV’s campus. The setup was convenient with two games typically occurring at once. Cox Pavilion, the more intimate of the two arenas, was located just across the concourse from the Thomas & Mack Center. Cox is so small that regardless of where fans were seated, they could hear the players communicate on the court. In turn, the players could hear cheers and jeers from the crowd.
As an avid basketball fan, it was heavenly. Basketball legends were everywhere if one looked hard enough. I spotted Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who was a two-time champion with the New York Knicks and currently serves as a color commentator for the team. Surprisingly, he wasn’t dressed as flamboyantly as usual. Seven-time all-star Jack Sikma was around to watch his son, Luke, play for the Timberwolves squad. The senior Sikma also serves as an assistant coach for the team, which was most likely the reason his son earned a spot on the team. Luke Sikma played decently in limited minutes, but the guy is so unknown that his last name is misspelled “Sigma” on the NBA’s website.
Because NBA TV was broadcasting all 60 games (each of the 24 teams played a 5-game schedule), NBA greats Reggie Miller and Chris Webber were on hand to announce some games for the network. Not as renowned NBA players, such as Brent Barry, Sam Mitchell and Dennis Scott also served as color guys for NBA TV. Although the first row, on each side of the court, was reserved for NBA employees, seats in rows two through whatever were designed to accommodate whoever wished to occupy them. For a few games, I sat in row two behind the press table, and I could hear most of what the announcers were saying on TV. I was a kid in a candy store, a basketball-themed candy store.
The access to players was incredible. Summer league participants could be seen walking from arena to arena if they had just finished a game or were waiting to compete. One player, whom I could not identify, was asked for an autograph by a young woman. He graciously obliged, but I strongly suspected that she had no idea who he was. He was tall, looked athletic and had tattoos. That was enough for her. So after the player left, I decided to ask her whose autograph she got. The woman had no idea. As she showed me the autograph, it was so illegible that "Joe" was all we could come up with and even of that, we were not sure. I never did the background research to determine who it was, but I still think it's hilarious that people were seeking autographs without even knowing who the guys were. As far I could tell, only the Timberwolves' Derrick Williams walked around with security guards to hold back autograph seekers. Even No. 3 overall pick Bradley Beal (Wizards) roamed freely.
Although none of these guys were on their teams' summer league squad, I saw Danny Green (Spurs), Corey Brewer (Nuggets) and Enes Kanter (Jazz) during my time at UNLV. The fact that Kanter’s Jazz didn’t even compete in this year’s summer league speaks volumes of how much the event has expanded. While Brewer and Green were in attendance primarily to watch their young, prospective teammates, Kanter simply attended to catch a glimpse of the league’s up-and-coming talent. The most notable player in attendance (though I didn't see him) was Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics. There are pictures of him tutoring young guards on the Celtics summer league team.
Summer league is designed to give rookies and other young players an opportunity to improve, while allowing each team to evaluate talent. Winning is not even secondary at summer league. It’s almost beside the point. Teams hope to nurture their young talent, while determining which players are worthy of signing (many of the players have not yet been signed by their summer league team; many will never be signed given roster limitations and/or the players’ lack of talent). Finally, teams hope to get an early jump on building team chemistry.
Take, the Portland Trail Blazers, for instance. Two weeks after drafting Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard (apparently Portland's new draft policy is to only draft first-rounders whose last names start with "L" and end in "ard") with their No. 6 and No. 11 picks, respectively, Lillard and Leonard were already building a pick n’ roll rapport that was a pleasure to watch.
Provided that the Rockets don’t trade for Dwight Howard, they will also enjoy the fact that their rookies got a chance to work together this summer. The Rockets, who finished with a 4-1 record, were quite impressive. They will be discussed in greater depth in my final summer league post.
I almost forgot. Summer league is also designed to develop coaches. Each of the 24 squads was headed by a usual assistant, providing assistants the opportunity to take command for once. The typical head coaches were not even allowed to sit on their summer league team’s bench, so as to give the summer league coach full autonomy. Also, guys like Kevin McHale (Rockets), Doc Rivers (Celtics) and Monty Williams (Hornets) really seemed to be enjoying the games without the pressure of having to make substitutions or draw up plays.