Why you should care
To the uninitiated, Summer League looks laid back. But for 450 aspiring NBA stars, it’s anything but.
Halftime of the Detroit Pistons and New Orleans Pelicans game at UNLV’s Cox Pavilion is winding down, but no one seems particularly interested in the game’s competitors. Kids race through the stands to collect autographs from Charlotte Hornets forward Frank Kaminsky, while scouts, team executives and media members trade gossip. On the court, Pistons superstars Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond are in street clothes, heaving up half-court shots like a couple of kids at the rec center. Seated courtside, their girlfriends appear mildly amused. Soon the stars will sign some autographs and shake hands as they head for the exits, ready for a Las Vegas night.
To the uninitiated, NBA Summer League seems like a casual affair. The games don’t count and are often played in the morning. Basketball junkies, journalists, retired stars and autograph seekers circle in a vast hobnobbing summit — with all the distractions of Vegas to partake of.
But for the 450 job applicants on the court, some as young as 18, it is an 11-day physical and mental maelstrom — an opportunity for NBA organizations to assess which players are worth an investment. Making the NBA is the goal, but the reality is that most players here will never realize that dream.
As a rule of thumb, there are three types of players who participate in summer league.
Only 60 of the summer league players were drafted this June, with the rosters filled out by former draft busts, undrafted college players and professional vagabonds desperate for a chance to extend their careers. And off the court, the hustle continues. Aspiring coaches, scouts and trainers feverishly network in the stadium promenade, résumés in hand. For all parties involved, summer league is a crash course in professional basketball. The first key to success? Staying on task.
“That’s why they put it in Vegas,” says Tyler Dorsey, a second-year guard from the Atlanta Hawks. “It’s a big test. You see who can avoid distractions and get to work.”
For Dorsey, the difference between his rookie and second-year summer league appearances are vast. In 2017, he was a second-round pick out of Oregon trying to catch his breath at professional game speed while fighting for a contract. This season, he’s a newly re-signed Hawk with a season of professional training under his belt. “In Year Two, you’re stronger and faster,” says Dorsey. “But most of all, you know what to expect.”
Dorsey may feel like a veteran, but his future is far from certain past this season. For him, Las Vegas is a way to reassure the Hawks, or other teams, that he is worthy. Dorsey will know he truly made it when he’s no longer asked to play in summer league. See, there’s a caste system here. For established stars like Detroit Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson, summer league means briefly stopping by the gym to shake hands, sign autographs and support his potential teammates. Jackson, Griffin, Drummond and the other Pistons in town work out in the morning — “not with the summer league guys,” Jackson makes sure to note — before enjoying the Vegas nightlife. For the Pistons, summer league is also a chance to meet their new boss, as Detroit scooped up Dwane Casey shortly after the Toronto Raptors fired the 2018 NBA Coach of the Year. “I’ve heard nothing but good things,” says Jackson. “Everyone says he’ll get on you like [former Pistons head coach] Stan [Van Gundy], but in a different way. Hopefully he adds some energy.”
As a rule of thumb, there are three types of players in summer league. There are the highly drafted rookies, like Atlanta’s Trae Young or Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges, who draw fan attention and SportsCenter highlights. These players are guaranteed NBA roster spots, but they’re still adjusting to professional life. “I’m just working on my spacing and learning to take good shots,” says Bridges, who’s averaging 13.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in Las Vegas.
Then there are the players like Dorsey and third-year Charlotte center Willy Hernangómez, who have proved that they are capable of playing in the NBA but use summer league to get a head start on next season. Hernangómez (18.3 points, 11.7 rebounds per game) was traded from New York to Charlotte in the middle of last season. In an atypical move, he volunteered for the summer assignment. “I had to show them that I’m ready, that I can be depended on,” he says.
Lastly, there are the roster fillers — players hoping to impress anyone in attendance enough to earn a contract one step down in the G League or a lucrative offer to play overseas. Their chances at making an NBA roster may be slim, but effort, team fit and demonstrated specialty skills could help them defy the odds. At least that’s what former Purdue University shooting guard Dakota Mathias, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers in summer league, is counting on. The 3-point specialist is hoping that a rebuilding Cleveland team will sign him to its G League affiliate. “I’m a shooter, and Cleveland needs me to be a lockdown defender,” says Mathias. “I can’t afford to not get those things done.”
Summer league ends on Tuesday. Soon Mathias will have a better idea of what, exactly, he can afford.