LAS VEGAS — Las Vegas Summer League is simultaneously one of the most exciting events on the NBA calendar and one of the silliest. For fans, it’s the first look at their team’s future, and the possibilities are endless. If a prospect performs well, they’re a future All-Star and Hall of Famer. If they struggle, they’re a confirmed bust and a wasted draft pick. Those are the rules.
Nothing this week in Vegas had higher stakes than Saturday night’s 76ers-Lakers game, better known as the Ben Simmons–Brandon Ingram game. Ingram had played the night before, showing promise in a Lakers win over the Pelicans; Simmons, meanwhile, had impressed the previous week at the Utah Jazz’ Summer League in Salt Lake City. But the game between the No. 1 overall pick and the No. 2 overall pick always has an extra level of buzz.
The most memorable recent Summer League duel was 2014’s opening-day matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Milwaukee Bucks, featuring the professional debuts of No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and No. 2 pick Jabari Parker. That game took place in a filled-to-the-brim Cox Pavilion, the ancillary gym that houses half of the Summer League games, and it gave it a high-school feel.
This was different. The Thomas & Mack Center, which holds nearly 20,000 people, was filled with fans (mainly Lakers fans), and they were loud. It felt more like a real NBA game than any moment in the Summer League’s history. They started a “LAR-RY” chant for Larry Nance, Jr. after a dunk, even though it came just a couple of possessions after he airballed a three-pointer. There was a Kobe Bryant tribute video for some reason, and that gave it the feel of a real Lakers game from this past season.
It was all peak Summer League, and the same was true of the basketball itself. Even by the loose standards of Summer League, whose games are rarely more than glorified scrimmages, the first half was ugly. Like, halftime score of 30-25 ugly. Airballed threes, missed point-blank layups, bad passes, you name it. It made your normal Summer League game look like a regular-season game, which is not easy to do.
Then, the Sixers blew the 16-point lead that dunk created, thanks to a few threes by Nance and last year’s No. 2 pick, D'Angelo Russell.
All of that was just a setup for arguably the greatest, most meaningful moment in Summer League history: Russell’s game-winning three, which had the crowd sounding like it was a playoff game.
Now about that Simmons-Ingram matchup: Ingram was awful. He shot 3-for-12 from the field with three turnovers and looked lost on defense. Simmons was better, but the strengths and weaknesses of his game were on full display. He showed off his spectacular passing vision, racking up 8 assists, a number that only wasn’t twice that because of some missed wide-open shots from his teammates. But he was hesitant to look for his own offense. It’s unfair to look at this game as a complete picture of either player, but it’s fun to speculate.
It was, in short, what Summer League is all about.