There are two gyms at Las Vegas' Summer League, within about 100 feet of each other, and encompassing the same amount of NBA dreams, bubbling to burst, at any moment, in a place that is unlike any other in the world. And so fans of all ages, old, young, and the hungover teenagers that find their way to the arena, find themselves in close proximity to some of the best basketball players in the world, all melded together for a week of vapid basketball of little ultimate consequence. . Though it was a down year—for reasons fluky and otherwise—it's an experience unlike any other in the sporting world, basketball or not.
Keep in mind that most rookies that "fail to impress" or "bust" are just that, rookies, most likely 18-20 years old, playing in what can be considered a pickup basketball game with the same structural level as a five-year old built Lego bridge. However, there were several players I picked up on after voluntarily subjecting myself to the egregious mistake-filled basketball reserved for the truly degenerate hoops junkie.
Let's get this out of the way first: players like Jonas Valanciunas, the Morris twins, and even Andrew Goudelock are supposed to dominate these kinds of games. They are physically superior, and with a couple years of professional experience, are simply better players at this juncture of their careers.
With that being said, my favorite player was Cody Zeller. Granted, I was fighting a food coma after a second helping of chicken finger and fries (necessary if only because there's nothing else worth eating) but his advanced footwork and ability to shoot from mid-range had me gushing about his role alongside one-sided players like Al Jefferson and Bismack Biyombo. So often we quickly pinpoint weaknesses due to our own preconceived notions and it's easy to think Zeller is unathletic and simply a hustle player. However, he tested as one of the most athletic bigs and can also make plays for his teammates. He'll still need to bulk up—as most rookies do—but the talent level is there, and though the Charlotte Bobcats might've drafted him early, he has enough talent to justify the selection. He averaged 16.3 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting 53 percent in 32 minutes per game. Can you tell that I love him?
Choosing a guard was extremely tough given the affinity I have for players that can control the pace of the offense, with poise and calmness that seeps through all floor generals. Ian Clark shot well, Kent Bazemore flashed some of the traits that might lead him into a rotation player for the next decade, C.J. McCollum has excellent touch and toughness in the lane, Nate Wolters exhibited a smooth handle, Dwight Buycks' out-of-nowhere-ness, Ray McCallum showcasing a great feel for the game, but the player that rose above all was Dennis Schroder (pronounced Schrew-der).
Most comparisons that come through the NBA Draft are inaccurate, wishful thinking and sometimes downright Skip Baylessian in its absurdity, but the Rajon Rondo parallel is striking. His body is even built the same way: the long arms, glove-like hands, and thin, narrow shoulders. LIke Rondo, Schroder rarely showed emotion in running the offense, and getting into the lane almost at will—consider that defenders played back often because of his lack of a consistent jumper. The pick-and-rolls with fellow first-round pick Lucas Nogueira were downright unfair. The only issues with Schroder's game so far? He only shot 34 percent during the week but his 86.7 percent free-throw percentage and the lack of a pronounced hitch in his shot (like Rondo) tells us he can improve immensely in that area.
I dislike this portion because I want all the players to succeed and oftentimes Summer League isn't the right place for players so used to a system and hours, weeks and months of practice to get to a certain point in their game. I couldn't include Otto Porter (more of a system player) or Ben McLemore (showed flashes of stardom), but it became simultaneously frustrating to watch Dion Waiters play basketball while imagining what could be possible in Cleveland.
Sick of watching LeBron James win not one, but two championships after leaving Cleveland, Dan Gilbert appears to be pushing all his chips on the table in signing Andrew Bynum and drafting offensive-minded Anthony Bennett instead of injured Nerlens Noel. Let's not forget they drafted Tristan Thompson over Jonas Valanciunas (lol) and then Waiters over Harrison Barnes (thanks!) despite getting lucky in the lottery.
Don't get me wrong, Waiters has some of the worn-out phrases that people love to claim; "he can put the ball in the bucket" and "he's fearless and tough out there". There's no doubt he can score, but at what cost? The results of so many Cleveland possessions turned into a Waiters show left me losing count of the times he'd pound the ball relentlessly per possession. It's almost as if he enjoys the sound of his dribbling and shooting the way Dexter Morgan treasures his blood slides.
I'll direct you to the stats here but there's no reason to harp on the numbers if you watch him play for a few possessions. Waiters has the potential to become an electrifying offensive player but the question will remain how the Cavaliers reign in his propensity to put on his own show.
Ultimately, we learned that the tournament format, it's AAU-style effects, and the product on the floor were subpar. As fans we are always attempting to fix things, complaining, trying to imagine an ideal that conforms to our thoughts of what makes the sport functions as its best. Some easy solutions for next season are shortening the number of games and days (not many want to or can afford to stay in Vegas for 12 days), switching the exhibition games to a points format like the Orlando Summer League and even some quirky resolutions like tossing in a dunk contest, three-point contest or letting the players choose their own teams.
But ultimately, most of the issues with the games itself should resolve themselves by the time 2014 rolls around. It was an unlucky year in that most lottery picks were either hurt or drafted by teams that decided not to attend the affair. We ended up stuck with undrafted rookies and two or three-year veterans (or a 30-year old Koby Carl) trying to make names for other teams. Next year's draft class is hailed as one of the greatest in the past decade or so and another year of seasoning for what might be a weak rookie class combined with the sheer talent on the floor should make games more watchable. It only takes one player on each team (see: Dwight Buycks) to render a game watchable and there's enough talent to go around in the Andrew Wiggins-led draft.
It was my first year at Summer League and I got to meet a ton of great people, bloggers and writers, and ultimately getting me to think about how often this occurs in other sports, if at all. Oftentimes, these summer games are just a haven for managers, executives, writers and reporters to hang around, meet each other and make connections for the future. The other side of the basketball game can be just as important as the one going on around them and I was glad to make up a minute portion of it.
With that being said, Seth Pollack (SB Nation NBA League Manager) and Nate Parham brought up great points on a car ride to the arena: should other sports do this too? Better yet, is it possible? The NFL has a scouting combine but it's a rather serious time with scouts making final marks and tallies before the draft. Perhaps the Pro Bowl is a better location and stress-free environment for this type of gathering. MLB has a Winter Meeting and a Spring Training but it's hard to gather everyone when the places are so spread out. Winter Meetings happen mostly behind closed doors and Spring Training is in two different places: Arizona and Florida.
One can argue that only basketball is able to do this, with it's close-knit level of bloggers and proximity to the game. I wouldn't be opposed to the thought that other sports can and should attempt this social gathering as well. A great learning experience for all involved, I'll be looking forward to Summer League in Vegas a year from now; turnovers, clanks, and overall bad basketball aside.