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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.

Shaq donates a year’s rent to a paralyzed Atlanta boy

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ATLANTA (AP) — Basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal has donated a year’s rent in a new home to an Atlanta woman whose 12-year-old son was paralyzed in a shooting at a football game.

O’Neal tells WXIA-TV  that Isaiah Payton’s family had been living in a one-bedroom apartment that wasn’t accessible for people with disabilities.

“It’s just sad. It could have been any one of us,” Shaq told the Atlanta station. “It could have been my son. It could’ve been your cousin. She was living in a one-bedroom apartment with her two boys, so we found her a house in a nice area.”

Now they have a home in a good neighborhood. He says he’s helping furnish the home and will pay its rent for the next year.

Isaiah was shot through the spine in August after a football scrimmage between two high schools. Sixteen-year-old Damean Spear also was wounded and treated for minor injuries. Isaiah’s mother, Allison Woods, has said relearning how to care for Isaiah meant she had to leave her job, adding financial stress to her emotional turmoil.

Jazz reportedly extend contract of coach Quin Snyder, locking him down well into future

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Quin Snyder has evolved into one of the best coaches in the NBA (and my pick to win Coach of the Year this season). He’s built a development program and system in Utah that has turned Rudy Gobert into a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Donovan Mitchell into the face of a franchise, and Joe Ingles into a guy other teams covet. His players like and respect Snyder, and he has worked well with the front office of Dennis Lindsey and Justin Zanik.

So the Jazz are locking him up with a contract extension beyond the two seasons remaining on his deal. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news.

Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder has agreed to a long-term contract extension, league sources tell ESPN. Snyder had two years left on his deal, and a new contract extends multiple years beyond that term, sources said.

After upgrading the team’s talent base over the summer, locking Snyder into an extension had been a top organizational priority.

Jazz fans should be ecstatic about this.

Snyder has built a system team in Utah, one that moves the ball beautifully on offense, and that has been tough to defend in the regular season, with the Jazz winning 50 games last season. Utah has made it to the second round of the playoffs the past two seasons, but when the level of play made that leap a lot of the system gets taken away by good defenses, and the Utah offense became Donovan Mitchell against the world. It didn’t work, Mitchell (still just 22) wasn’t fully ready and there was not enough shooting around him.

This past summer, the Jazz added Mike Conley at point guard and Bojan Bogdanovic on the wing, two excellent shooters who also can create off the dribble. Expectations are high in Utah.

Whatever happens, Snyder is their coach now for a long time.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he learned from Kawhi Leonard: “He was calm”

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Milwaukee was up 2-0 in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals on Toronto, having won those games by an average of 15 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo had scored 54 points, pulled down 31 rebounds, dished out 11 assists, and was looking every bit the MVP.

Then the games shifted to Toronto, Kawhi Leonard took over — including guarding Antetokounmpo more — and the Raptors rattled off four straight wins to take the series on their way to the NBA title. The Greek Freak still averaged 20.4 points a night in those final four games, but the buckets were much harder to come by.

Milwaukee returns this season as the Eastern Conference favorites and legit title contenders, in part because of what they learned from that loss. Antetokounmpo told Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports he learned a lot directly from Leonard in that series.

“I learned a lot from him,” Antetokounmpo said. “He knocked down free throws. He was calm. When double-teams came, he was swinging the ball but getting it right back. He was aggressive. He was calm but he was on a mission.”

Leonard is the living embodiment of the old John Wooden axiom “be quick, don’t hurry.” He’s not rushed, he’s rarely forced into shots he doesn’t want to take or plays he doesn’t want to make.  That’s true of all champions on some level. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan all bring an inner calm.

If Antetokounmpo brings that to his game, the Bucks are one big step closer to a title.

Domantas Sabonis on trade rumors: ‘I know exactly how the Pacers feel about me now’

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The Indiana Pacers have started to explore the trade market for Domantas Sabonis. There are logical reasons for this: Sabonis is good (he was second in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season), yet he and the Pacers are nowhere near agreement on a contract extension, and the Pacers already paid big money for Myles Turner to be their center, how much do they want to pay Sabonis, too?

That’s sound logic if you’re in the Pacers’ front office.

If you’re Sabonis, it can feel like a slap in the face to a guy who put in a lot of sweat and passion for the franchise. That’s what Sabonis sounded like in this quote, via Scott Agnes of The Athletic.

The Pacers are not talking about the report, which started with the well connected and reliable Sam Amick at The Athletic.

Pacers’ brass needs to talk about this with Sabonis (and likely already have, behind closed doors). If the Pacers trade him, it’s likely not until after Dec. 15 at the earliest (when most players signed this summer can be included in a deal) and probably closer to the February trade deadline. That’s a lot of season to play out, and Sabonis remains a vital part of the Indiana rotation.

There is likely to be a lot of interest in Sabonis on the market. However, because he’s a center (a position teams are careful not to overspend on in today’s market) and in the last year of his rookie deal — meaning he becomes a restricted free agent next summer and gets more expensive — teams are not going to overpay for him. Right now the Pacers are asking for too much and interested teams are lowballing their offers. The sides will meet in the middle.

That middle could shift if Sabonis has a rough start to the season. Both sides need him to play well and feel comfortable, whatever is going on with the business side of his contract.