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Summer League load management? Zion among many top picks sitting in Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — This was the most anticipated Summer League ever. 

For the first time in its history, the first two days of the NBA’s July convention were completely sold out days in advance — more than 17,500 fans filling an arena in the middle of the desert, in the hottest part of the year, to watch a rookie play basketball. More than 1,000 media credentials were issued. The Zion hype was palpable. In an NBA that has become more about off-season chess moves than the games themselves, here were fans buying scalped tickets into a sold-out arena to watch a young star burst onto the scene.

Or not.

Zion Williamson has spent most of his Summer League in street clothes, and he is not alone: Only one of the top six players in the last draft has played regularly in Las Vegas (R.J. Barrett of The Knicks), and other stars never touched the court. A quick rundown:

• No. 1 pick Williamson played nine minutes in one half of one game before New Orleans broke out the bubble wrap, citing knee-to-knee contact and an “abundance of caution.”

• No. 2 pick Ja Morant had arthroscopic surgery to get his knee cleaned up at the start of June and was not rushed back for any games in Vegas.

• No. 4 pick D’Andre Hunter played in his first game Sunday night after missing the start of Summer League for Atlanta.

• No. 5 pick Darius Garland has not played and is unlikely to suit up for Cleveland (nor has the Cavs’ high profile No. 30 pick, Kevin Porter Jr.).

• No. 6. Jarrett Culver officially signed with Minnesota on Monday but is not expected to play for the team in Las Vegas.

• No. 10 pick Cam Reddish is not suiting up for Atlanta in Summer League.

• Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. — a guy thought to be a steal in the 2018 draft who sat out last season to get healthy — was going to make his debut at Summer League but sprained a knee just a day before games started and is out.

Las Vegas has been robbed of some of its star power, but most of that was about Zion.

Summer League felt deflated after Williamson was put in street clothes.

“It was a crazy experience, the gym was sold out, I didn’t expect that many people to be here,” Williamson said of his one game, adding that his being sidelined for Summer League “was more precautionary.”

The impact of him being out could be seen immediately.

By the time word started to circulate through the arena he would not play in the second half of that July 5 game, fans had begun to file out of the building. There were a lot of empty seats in the Thomas & Mack arena by the time an earthquake shut the night down. Beyond that, a couple of Las Vegas residents I spoke with talked about people they knew who were planning to come for Summer League games turning around and deciding to stay home instead.

The concern among Summer League observers is this is the start of a trend of sitting stars.

Call it “Summer League load management” — or risk management may be more accurate — but what happened with those top players could become more of a norm.

With the larger rookie-scale contracts in the new CBA, meaning teams making substantial investments in these players, will teams start to reduce or eliminate the amount of time their prized young players are on the court in Las Vegas? If that happens, it would begin to erode what has become a happening — and for some fans a pilgrimage — in the middle of the offseason. With Summer League — much like the NBA itself — fans come to see stars.

This year, teams had reasons not to suit up their rookies. Ask coaches or team officials about the guys being out and you got some variation of the Pelicans’ “abundance of caution” statement.

“The guys are a little beat up. We don’t want them to get hurt, then we could never develop them,” Cavaliers Summer League coach Antonio Lang said of Garland and Porter not playing.

From the teams’ perspective, this is logical — what are they risking these players for? Summer League do not matter. In fact, plenty of teams quietly will tell you there are too many games — go to the Summer League Tournament Finals to play for the title and team will have played in eight games. Often after four or five games teams are shutting down their best players. Or, as some of the veteran players get offers from teams overseas, they shut themselves down to avoid injury risk (as Jimmer Fredette did this year).

There is no financial incentive for teams to play the best guys. Teams do not make a lot of money in Summer League (teams basically want to break even, which happens if they make the tournament) and many executives don’t want to be in Las Vegas longer than they have to be.

That said, there is value for teams in seeing their top players in different settings. For example, the Wizards have No. 9 pick Rui Hachimura on the court playing in Las Vegas for developmental reasons.

“Just to have him see different situations, to be exposed to the NBA game,” said Robert Pack, Wizards’ Summer League coach. “He’s going to see different coverages, schemes that he may not have seen in college, and you want him to get a taste of that before he gets into vet camp and into the regular season. Playing here he’ll get a lot more touches than he’ll probably get in the regular season.”

Coaches have long seen Summer League as a chance to get a baseline on players — what are they good at, and what needs to be worked on the rest of the summer. It’s a starting point to build from. Cavaliers coach John Beilein said to NBC Sports, during the Salt Lake City Summer League, that with Garland and Porter out it gave him a chance to put the ball in No. 26 pick Dylan Windler‘s hands and see what the Belmont star could do as a playmaker.

“That’s why you put [Hachimura] in different situations, you’re seeing where he can go strong right, go strong left, is he good in the midrange, is he ready for the NBA three,” Pack said. “Those are things you get to see, you get film on, you can teach him and study film with him on things. These minutes are so valuable to us as a staff to continue to develop him.”

Is it valuable enough to keep star players on the court at Summer League?

Or, as it has during the NBA regular season, will the “load management” trend of keeping players out for health and risk-management reasons start to impact Summer League? If it does, will the NBA league office start to get involved in an effort to keep an event where games are broadcast on ESPN and NBA TV going strong?

The NBA loves the buzz, the sold-out games for Summer League. It loves the way the event has grown. Which is why this summer’s reduced-star version has been a bit deflating for everyone.

Watch Trae Young drop 31 at Drew League, lose to Montrezl Harrell who has 46

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The Drew League in Los Angeles is one of the premiere — for my money the best — summer pro-am basketball league in America. There is some serious talent getting run on that court.

But drop in NBA talent and it’s another level.

That’s what happened Saturday in Los Angeles. Atlanta’s Trae Young showed up, went head-to-head with the reigning Drew League MVP Frank “Nitty” Session (who has embarrassed guys like Denzel Valentine in Drew games), and dropped 31.

But Young’s team lost because Clippers’ stud  Montrezl Harrell dropped 46.

You can see the highlights above thanks to BallisLife.


Manny Pacquiao says he has thought about buying part of NBA team when he retires

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At age 40, Manny Pacquiao is not retiring. Even if you and some boxing pundits think he should. Tonight (Saturday) he fights Keith Thurman at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas and is expected to pull down about a cool $26 million for his trouble. If you’re getting paid like that, why retire exactly? He has said he wants to fight another five years or so.

After that, he’d like to buy part of an NBA team.

That’s what he told TMZ in a pre-fight interview.

He said he has thought about buying a piece of an NBA team after he retires. Pacquiao, a basketball nut who uses the sport as part of his training, owns an entire semi-pro league — the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League — in the Philippines (one of the most basketball-crazy nations on earth). Pacquiao said he thinks his experience with that league would help him as an NBA owner, that some of the skills will translate, which is likely true. Pacquiao said it’s about finding the right opportunity.

Forbes estimates that Pacquiao will have earned, after Saturday’s fight, more than $500 million in his career. Various websites estimate his net worth in the $200 million range. He’s got the money to jump in as a part owner.

In an NBA that loves personalities and characters — and one always trying to gain more traction in Asian markets — don’t be shocked if this happens someday.

Once Pacquiao retires.

C.J.McCollum, Eric Gordon both withdraw from USA Basketball for World Cup

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First Anthony Davis. Then James Harden.

Now add C.J. McCollum and Eric Gordon to the list, as reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Don’t be surprised if a couple of new players are added to the USA roster for training camp.

The loss of those four stars strips the Team USA of some international experience. As pointed out by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, now only four members invited to USA camp have played in the World Cup or Olympics: Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, and Kyle Lowry — and Lowry just had thumb surgery and is questionable for the playing in China.

USA Basketball can still roll out this starting five:

Damian Lillard
Bradley Beal
Khris Middleton
Tobias Harris
Andre Drummond

Then off the bench have Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Lowry, Jayson Tatum, P.J. Tucker, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez.

That’s still enough talent, coached by Gregg Popovich, to win the World Cup. The USA remains the heavy favorites for a reason.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

James Harden reiterates it was ‘false talk’ he and Chris Paul were at odds

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The Houston Rockets — not in an anonymous way, but in a “we are putting our names on this, quote me” kind of way — have pushed back hard on the narrative that there was tension between Chris Paul and James Harden that led to the Rockets trading CP3 for Russell Westbrook this offseason. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has denied it, team leader P.J. Tucker called it fake news, and Paul himself has pushed back.

Harden has done that again, speaking at his camp on Saturday.

The counter-argument to this: Chris Paul is in Oklahoma City right now.

People will believe what they want to believe, but the Rockets guys have all gone on the record about this. Nothing leaked and anonymous.

From the Rockets’ perspective, they made a trade for Westbrook that is a roster upgrade. Houston has a dynamic duo that can compete with the Los Angeles teams and the other contenders around the league, and whatever questions fans and the media may have about the ultimate fit of Harden and Westbrook the talent level is not in question.

Do the Rockets make that trade if everything is great between Harden and Paul? Probably, if they saw CP3 as in decline and Westbrook as a talent upgrade (which they did). The Rockets can be a cold, business-like organization in terms of their pursuit of a title.

We will see next season if that calculation paid off. Whether or not Harden and CP3 got along.