Every year, herds of basketball fanatics from around the world make the trek through the Sahara that is Las Vegas in July, in order to gather as a collective to experience the NBA Summer League.
The annual Las Vegas event, which officially began back in 2004, has served as a haven for diehard fans with it’s radical quantity of live games and the way it provides the first opportunities for spectators to watch the most highly anticipated draftees on their new professional teams.
This past weekend I too embarked on this basketball venture and came away with a few reactionary and personal takeaways from a first timer’s perspective:
For one, the sheer amount of live basketball on a daily and nightly basis was staggering. This is the usual case from those I spoke to at the event, but this year’s event doubled down and marked the first time all 30 NBA teams are due to participate either in the Thomas and Mack center or Cox Pavilion on the UNLV campus.
With an initial ten games on the docket daily, I was easily able to watch six full games of sloppy, but fun basketball among somewhat light crowds on Friday’s opening. Saturday predictably brought in more foot traffic in and outside of the gym, but I was still able to sit in fantastic seats through another six games, including the Lakers’ night cap.
The ridiculous amount of basketball in one locale was worth the reasonably priced admission alone, but the general atmosphere swirling among the humid air is what separates Summer League from other organized events and makes it something every NBA fan needs to find a way to experience first-hand.
As a rookie to Summer League, I had no idea how immersive the experience truly was until I was there. In the first game alone (Houston vs. Indiana) I was seated just a few feet away from where Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey chatted with their most recent free agent signee — Michael Carter-Williams.
A few seats down from the Houston Rockets’ brass was a scrum consisting of NBA TV on-air personalities prepping before ultimately calling a game at the broadcast table. Later those seats previously reserved for D’Antoni, Morey and Carter-Williams would soon be filled by former Lakers’ lottery pick and current Brooklyn Net, D’Angelo Russell, and his teammate/ NBA All-Star Skills Challenge winner, Spencer Dinwiddie.
The candidness and approachability of NBA players and personailitles throughout was not lost on me and was something that began to simply become familiar as my time in the arena prolonged.
Soon everything from Mo Bamba taking in several games simply as a spectator with a Sour Patch box in hand, Amir Johnson frantically waving his hands in the crowd trying to get a free t-shirt during intermissions, Bill Simmons’ quickened pace down the halls while on his cell phone as I ordered a pretzel and Dikembe Mutombo and Vlade Divac casually hugging it out in front of me all weirdly somehow became normal.
In terms of actual basketball, the team of the hour, weekend, and overall event in recent years continued to be the Los Angeles Lakers. The team’s Saturday night contest was easily the most boisterous and engaged any crowd had been among the opening weekend of games.
Although lacking a lottery player on their current Summer League team for the first time in recent years, the anticipation and energy was apparent when the team stepped on the floor. The pro-Lakers’ crowd perked up even more when the group of Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Luke Walton, and Rob Pelinka all took their seats courtside beside one and other to cheer on the team.
The player who got arguably the loudest ovation in the arena that night, and possibly the entire weekend was no other than newest member of the purple and gold—JaVale McGee.
The former Golden State Warriors’ big man was met with a hero’s welcome from the Lakers’ faithful as he was showered with applause and choruses of his name in the crowd’s best Shaq falsetto before reaching his seat alongside his new teammates and coach.
On the court, the reigning Summer League champions have seemingly found their groove again after what was a rough and winless start in the California Classic. Currently winners of their first two contests, the team has been led by the stellar play of second year man Josh Hart, and impressive performances from the team’s most recent draftees: Moritz Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk.
Hart in particular has been dominant so far in his Las Vegas play. Currently leading the team in both points (21.5) and minutes played (27.1) the former 30th overall pick has shown the organization and the league that he probably does not need to play another minute at the event.
One of the most notable improvements to his game thus far has been his shot diversity and on ball efficiency. Used primarily in catch and shoot opportunities and as a finisher in transition in his rookie campaign, Hart made a dedicated effort this offseason to round out his offensive game which has been showcased so far on the floor.
The former Villanova guard’s shooting has not only gotten better (currently shooting over 55 percent from three and 87 percent from the free throw line) but has come with more variety. He is still drilling his stationary catch and shoot opportunities so far in Vegas, but has now added some impressive off the dribble shooting to his repertoire, most notably as a pick and roll ball handler.
So far as the lead guard initiator in this scenarios, Hart has used the initial screen to generate some space through a series of step backs and off motion gathers to get his shot off with early success. He has also made some solid pocket passes to the roll man and flashed the ability to find his perimeter shooters with the ball in his hands.
His strength is still absurdly impressive on his drives as he cradles the ball with both hands like a mother protecting her baby as he barrels through traffic— something that is even more visually impressive in person as Hart continues to prove he is much more than a “3 and D” prospect and has the potential to be an invaluable player going forward.
Hart’s teammates, notably the Lakers’ new rookies, have been impressive in their own right showing improved elements to their games thus far in Summer League.
When Moe Wagner was initially drafted, many analysts had concerns about how his current ability to defend — or seemingly, lack thereof — would translate at the next level, but thus far his defense, specifically his reactionary skills, have been a pleasant and encouraging sign.
Wagner has shown to have projectable skills to work with in his quick feet and sound shot contests. He has also shown an eye for reading post entry passes well as he has intercepted and poked those passes away before they could arrive to his opponent. This has backfired in some instances, but has showed a good enough motor to get back into the play and recover for the block.
The former Michigan Wolverine has also stuffed the defensive stat sheet so far in his first Las Vegas Summer League, averaging three steals and two blocks to go along with his eleven rebounds per game.
His teammate and fellow recent draftee, Svi Mykhailiuk, continues to shoot the ball at a dazzling rate, but has shown to be no slouch on defense as well. Mykhailiuk’s defense is something I have been tracking in person and has been surprisingly solid. He moves his feet quite well and even with his short wingspan almost always offers up a good contest.
Like Wagner, Mykhailiuk simply fights hard out there. He does have some technique issues like his teammate, but he helped cause the crowd to erupt with a superb pressing defensive sequence that led to a turnover and dunk in Sunday’s game against Chicago.
Another element he has impressed the Vegas crowd with is his rebounding ability, an area I was unaware was a strong point in his arsenal up until this past weekend. He often soars off the floor with both feet to grab the defensive board, but more impressively continues his knack of stealing extra possessions for his team with 2.5 offensive rebounds a game—which is most on the team.
The trio of Lakers have so far done a fantastic job in not only getting wins and producing on the floor, but also showing these aforementioned elements to their game that will only make them more valuable players for a team expected to be competitive for the first time in recent years.
Aside from that, though, this weekend was one of the most immersive and educational sports’ experiences of my life. Among simply taking in as much basketball as humanly possible and trying to survive a blistering heatwave, I made strong connections with those I have admired on this site and in the basketball community collectively. I stepped out of my usual comfort zone and it truly did pay off.
For those who are debating about whether or not to go next year, I can not recommend it enough, and if you do end up heading on basketball’s annual pilgrimage to the desert, you will almost definitely see me out there again.
*Statistics provided by: Basketball.realgm.com