Just over a year ago, I stood on the baseline, about 20 feet behind the Los Angeles Lakers basket at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. With a few minutes left in a meaningless game, a Lakers player took off on a fast break, and exploded to the rim for what figured to be a power jam.
Golden State Warriors rookie Alen Smailagic, a good ways away from the Lakers player, beelined to the hoop, timed his jump perfectly, and stuffed the dunk attempt from behind.
It was at that moment that I understood what the Warriors saw in Smailagic, and how good he could potentially be (“potentially” being the operative word here). And it was the moments — and games — that preceded it that made me realize there was next to no chance that Smailagic would be playing meaningful minutes as a rookie.
As an NBA media member and basketball nerd, there’s no week of the year I love more than Las Vegas Summer League. I find myself sadder about the cancellation of Summer League than the long postponement of the season, though I suspect that the Warriors elimination has at least something to do with that.
But Summer League is much more than just a fun time for fans and media members. It’s become a vital part of developing an NBA team. And while it might not offer up enough time for players to truly make developmental strides, what it does do is provide a glimpse as to what a team can expect from a player.
And once they have that glimpse, they can begin to make some moves.
Was Damian Jones’ poor start to Summer League the reason the Warriors traded him for Omari Spellman? Probably not. But if he had shown strong developmental gains, maybe they think twice.
The Warriors left Las Vegas likely feeling the things that, with the benefit of hindsight, seem obvious. Smailagic was not going to have a role on the 2019-20 team. Jordan Poole had some big holes in his game, first round pedigree be damned. Eric Paschall was ready to contribute. Jacob Evans III hadn’t fixed the hitch in his jumper and still struggled to penetrate.
All of that information helped the team decide what personnel moves to make. They factored into the signing of Marquese Chriss, and the release of Alfonzo McKinnie. They factored into the signings of Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III.
Maybe they weren’t the only factors, or even very strong ones. But they were factors.
As the Warriors look to patch things on the fly for the 2020-21 season, they’ll be without that Summer League info. Smailagic certainly would have played, and the team would get to see if he was ready to play a role, or if he would need another year in the G League.
Poole would likely play, and the team could find out whether he developed further after his strong end to the season, and if he was ready to be a role player on a championship-level team. Players like Ky Bowman, Mychal Mulder, and Juan Toscano-Anderson would play, giving coach Steve Kerr and general manager Bob Myers more intel as they look to flush out the roster. The team’s first-round draft pick — if they keep it — would play.
Golden State has limited roster spots to play with as they try to maximize their chances of winning the 2021 championship. The knowledge gained by seeing where their young players and fringe players are is an important tool.
They’ll have to build a team without it this year.