LAS VEGAS — Knicks fans were lined up out the door, literally overflowing the Cox Arena on the UNLV campus to get a glimpse of Kevin Knox, who averaged 21.3 points per game at Summer League and suddenly was seen as the newest star on Broadway — the perfect pairing for Kristaps Porzingis.
Top pick Deandre Ayton filled the building and had Suns’ fans dreaming of rings with his star power. Memphis’ fans were saying they saw the future of the franchise with Jaren Jackson’s combination of shooting and shot blocking. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander‘s looked like a steal and his play gave Clippers’ fans hope. Atlanta’s Trae Young went from “bust” to “future franchise cornerstone” over the course of two weeks as his play improved through July.
As Summer League has grown over the years — all 30 NBA teams were represented in Las Vegas, every game was televised nationally — so has the importance of these July exhibitions in the minds of fans.
But what do teams — their coaches, scouts, and GMs — take away from Las Vegas?
“It’s just benchmarks for the guys,” new Hawks’ coach Lloyd Pierce told NBC Sports in Las Vegas. “I got bear cubs right now. I saw Omari (Spellman) at Villanova, but I hadn’t touched him. I saw Trae (Young) at Oklahoma, but I hadn’t touched him. Kevin (Huerter) I still haven’t touched (hand surgery).
“So we have a couple areas with Trae, and we have a couple areas with John Collins and a couple areas with Tyler Dorsey where we say, ‘you know what, I know what we need to work on.’ More will come, but at least I have a starting point, and we can have a conversation now.”
That conversation is about how much more work needs to be done.
Summer League has become big business for the NBA, it’s marketed and put on a bigger stage, and with that it’s natural that Summer League games have grown in importance in the eyes of fans (and media). But for teams, the purpose hasn’t changed since the games were an almost forgotten part of the NBA season at the Pyramid on the Long Beach State campus.
Multiple NBA coaches and executives told NBC Sports is just the first post-draft step in evaluation, and where a player is on the scale right now is not nearly as important as where he goes from here. Those decision makers know that 90 percent of the players in Las Vegas will not even be invited to an NBA training camp, then combine that with limited practices and there is only so much big-picture evaluation that can take place.
“I don’t get wrapped up into the rookies, as far as being discouraged with what you see here,” said Bobby Marks, former assistant general manager with the Brooklyn Nets and current ESPN analyst. “I think I’m more discouraged if I have a second- or third-year player who does not play well here…
“You take gradual steps. You look at where you were when you first get to Vegas, where they were at the end of June or early July, then you see where they are in the middle of July.”
A lot of the evaluation from teams is not in those televised Las Vegas games, but rather on the practice court.
“The first thing is you evaluate how coachable they are, because you don’t have a lot of time, but there’s a few things you emphasize just to see if they do it,” said Utah Jazz Summer League coach Alex Jensen. “Summer League is one of those things where they are always trying to showcase themselves, so sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to do, but we want to see how coachable they are.”
For those first-round and high second-round picks, it’s also a chance to put players in NBA situations. For example, Portland Summer League coach Jim Moran said they run a lot of the same sets in Las Vegas they will run come the fall, with the goal of getting guys like Gary Trent Jr. or Anfernee Simons shots they will see come the games that matter.
“We’re trying to put them in situations they’ll be put in the regular season,” Moran said. “So whether it be defensively having our bigs switch out on smaller guys, or learning how to move and keep smaller guys in front of them, or offensively just getting them a feel for where their shots are going to come from in certain plays, we want to see it.”
For a first-round pick such as Portland’s Simons or the Knicks’ Knox or Atlanta’s Young, Summer League is a showcase. Every first-round pick has a guaranteed NBA contract — they are going to get paid come the fall. That’s not to say they don’t play hard or take it seriously, but no matter what happens in Las Vegas they will be on a roster come October.
The real business of Summer League is second-round picks, undrafted players, and guys coming back from playing overseas trying to get noticed — by NBA teams, ideally, but at least by European scouts who can land them good paying gigs playing basketball. It’s an on-court job application for almost everyone in uniform. NBA staffs are taking notes on these guys, as well.
“Second-rounders, undrafted guys, guys you might sign to two-ways, guys you might need to call up on a two way, because you don’t really know,” ESPN’s Marks said of who he watched closely at Summer League in his executive days. “There could be guys who were playing in Europe last year, or maybe from lower level schools and you didn’t bring them in for a workout, there’s a newness to this. So I think it benefits them more than your first round picks.”
Put in a good showing and guys can find their way onto a roster — Trevon Bluiett out of Xavier averaged 18.3 points per game for the Pelicans, and they signed him to a two-way contract. A handful of other guys did the same, or will get training camp invites out of Las Vegas.
Because of that those guys are hustling — say what you want about the glorified pick-up game nature of Summer League play, guys go hard because paychecks are on the line.
However, for bigger name, higher drafted players, performance in Las Vegas matters more to fans than it does the franchise.
“There are takeaways, it gives you a baseline for the rest of the summer,” Marks said.
And that’s just the first step. By Halloween, all these games will be a distant memory.