The NBA’s Summer League concludes next Monday with the mini-tournament’s championship game, held at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. The two-week long practice campaign is designed for the franchises’ recent draft picks to work out with second year ballers, as well as select veterans and undrafted free agents trying to make the main club’s roster. The odds for many aren’t good but, if lucky, a few just might land at the end of the bench, or on a D-League squad. So last weekend, as the Summer League was about to kick off, I did what I like to do and embarked on another road trip into the desert to watch some more meaningless exhibition games.
My companions this time around included two basketball nuts. Each are hardcourt weekend warriors, and both support two of the most spoiled franchises in basketball. Unfortunately for me, the Knicks (and their most recent signing, a fellow Ohio University Bobcat by the name of Maurice Ndour) did not travel to Vegas this season, instead opting for the NBA’s shorter summer camp in Orlando. If they had, there’s no way I would have agreed to watch the Lakers play twice, nonetheless the Celtics even once.
Just east of the Vegas Strip, and a couple ticks past MGM’s emerald palace (and Topgolf!), the Thomas & Mack Center is normally the home of the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels basketball team. Larry Johnson, Reggie Theus, and Greg Anthony’s jersey’s hang from the arena’s rafters as dusty memories of a bygone era. Photos of the towel-knoshing Tark the Shark adorn the concourse walls, hung across from various Dairy Queen stands and Backcourt Grills. NBA TV’s ever-excellent broadcast team, The Starters, host a live show nightly in front of the streaming crowds, who can also measure their wingspans and standing verticals at the mini “NBA combines” scattered throughout the complex.
On an average Summer League day, sixteen teams compete in an alternating rhythm across the arena’s two courts. The main court, reserved for the marquee names, is your typical 19,522 seat collegiate showcase. It also serves as the Lakers home-away-from-home-court, often packed with the Purple and Gold’s raucous travelling and local fanbases. The second court, Cox Pavilion, feels about the size of my high school gym and is connected to the main arena via two hallways and a food court. It seats an intimate mass of 2,500 fans, athletes, front office execs, and media. When you walk into Cox, and if you’re fortunate enough to find an open seat or two, you’ll brush past the players’ benches on your way down the aisle. I’m 6’3” but standing on the floor within an arm’s length of Dragan Bender and Bobby Portis made me feel so very, very small.
The trip from Los Angeles takes about five and a half hours on a Friday afternoon, just far enough to keep degenerate gamblers away from permanent ruin and yet close enough for a quick getaway such as this. Fueled by Slim Jims and soundtracked with an ear-splitting playlist of professional wrestlers’ theme songs, we pulled directly into the Thomas & Mack parking lot at 7:30pm sharp and stepped out into the Las Vegas air, smothered by a desert heat that topped out at 109. Our brisk walk from the car to the arena would be the maximum amount of time we’d be willing to spend outside of a basketball court or casino floor.
First up, on the main stage, was a battle of the very recently drafted number two and number six NBA prospects. As a kid, I was lucky enough to watch an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant in exhibition at the McDonald’s Roundball Classic, months before he became the future of face of the Lakers. It’s an impossible standard, but I hope that seeing Brandon Ingram here, donning the very same uniform in his very first pro game might one day measure up to that memory. The 6’9” forward from Duke made an immediate impression, sinking a silky smooth 14-footer with his first touch, then busting back on defense and blocking a shot.
On the other side of the court, another future franchise cornerstone got off to a slower start. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma Sooner and John Wooden Award-winning shooting guard–who is coming off an almost flawless NCAA Tournament–struggled to find his footing as a New Orleans Pelican, hitting just one of eight three pointers. This however, would be a recurring and almost relatable theme amongst all the prominent draftees we saw making their first appearances on a professional basketball court. Only so much can be discerned from five summer scrimmages. They, and we, would be best to keep that in mind.
On a Friday night in Vegas there’s plenty to do and consequently TMack’s upper bowl was bare. Still, the heavily “hometown” Lakeshow crowd erupted when their 2nd-round center from Croatia, Ivica “Zubacca” Zubac, blocked back-to-back baskets and Ingram followed with a great baseline take to the rim. A close game quickly turned into an L.A. blowout, led by sophomore point guard D’Angelo Russell, who played with a confidence that belies future greatness, or inevitable disaster. With the outcome all but official, the crowd took to emphatically jeering Cleveland fans on the JumboTron for the rest of the game. The body of the 2015/2016 season is still warm, but I’m already desperate for next year’s tip-off, and this game has only stoked that fire.
Back at the Luxor, whose shining beacon cannot actually be seen from space, we spent the night gambling, first on the Deal or No Deal slot machine and after that I tried my best to remember when to hit, stand, or double down at blackjack. It’s then that I realize that, with the Las Vegas Summer League, the NBA brass has obviously built itself its own 10-day holiday. The year’s champion has been crowned, next year’s prospects drafted, and the time to celebrate that hard work has come. We do our best to keep up on the felted tables. A run of good luck and free booze keeps us up late, and we retreat to our rooms just before dawn. I wonder how many basketball insiders littering the Strip tonight can say the same. You’ve got to admire the character of anyone who escapes Summer League publicly unscathed.
Perhaps the anonymity of being an undrafted free agent helps keep your cover on the Strip, but unlike an NBA game, where the stars get the cheers and there’s little room for sidekicks, anyone can be a star at Summer League. The next afternoon, in the game following a dominant performance from future All-Star Devin Booker, Chicago Bulls’ forward Jack Cooley was the next to earn the Cox Pavilion’s adoration going up against the Celtics. Straight out of the Second City’s central casting agency, the former Notre Dame man hustled on the boards and was consistently rewarded with chants of “Coooooooooooley.”
Elsewhere, Abdel “Ralph Nader” Nader and Guerschon “French Draymond” Yabusele draw praise from our, admittedly Boston-leaning, section, while blue chippers like Jaylin Brown and Terry Rozier try to prove they deserve regular first-team minutes. You could hear a pin drop in the smaller gym, and the two games we saw there were certainly the edgiest we’d witness all weekend. A mid-season NBA game is affable, and fun, but here jobs are on the line and it felt like the fans respected that effort appropriately, even if someone like Cooley doesn’t have a great shot at getting one.
Finally, in the match we’d been waiting for all weekend, the stars collided as the Lakers met the Sixers for Saturday’s 5:30pm game on the big court. This time around, the place was packed, not quite sold out, but still electric. We had to settle for a row of seats half-way up a corner section in the upper deck, which was not exactly a good view nor one I expected to settle for at an exhibition game this early in the tournament.
Mr. #1 Pick, Ben Simmons, the Sixers’ 6’10” Australian forward with a point guard’s handle, quickly displayed his incredible awareness of the court and his teammates, putting down some brilliant pin-point passes. Unfortunately, he still plays for Philadelphia, so few converted his beautiful feeds, and more surprisingly he never made up for it with shots of his own, going just three for eight in 30 minutes of action.
Meanwhile on the other end of the court, Ingram drifted in and out of the action, unable to replicate the success we saw the night before. And honestly, I have loved this sport my entire life, but never have I ever seen anything as god awful as this anemic first half. It was 30-25 in L.A.’s favor at the break, both teams were shooting in the arctic mid-20s, and committing every possible kind of turnover and foul a basketball masochist could imagine.
So, five minutes into the third quarter our party skipped out and said goodbye to the Shark Tank in order to catch the opening bout of UFC 200’s main card. We might have missed D’Angelo Russell’s game winner, but we got a hot tip on a two fight parlay that paid off, and going big on Brock Lesnar was well worth it.
Las Vegas still reigns as the “City of Sin,” despite its Gordon Ramsay-esque, adult Disney themed properties, and I can’t quite believe that the NBA condones 10 days of this ever-present debauchery. But regardless, I loved it and I’ll be back next season for more Deal or No Deal, all-you-can-breakfast-buffets, and the feisty, if ultimately meaningless, basketball of the pre-pre-season.