How to Watch the NBA Summer League

“For when the One Great Scorer comes
To mark against your name,
He writes – not that you won or lost –
But HOW you played the Game.”

Grantland Rice

This is often found paraphrased into the expression, “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, but how you played the game,” and I can think of no place that this applies more than at the NBA Summer League. Summer League is weird, man.

A few friends, all Lakers fans, and I took a run out to Vegas earlier this month to check it out for the first time. Watching Summer League is very different than any other form of basketball, like the Harlem Globetrotters, because you learn very quickly to separate the games from the outcome. If we hadn’t made things more interesting by gambling among ourselves, I wouldn’t be able to tell you who won each game we watched.

It’s a good thing you’re not there to watch the games in person. To be frank: the basketball is not good. There is more talent on the floor that you would find in the vast majority of college games (schools like UK and Duke excepted), but these guys haven’t been playing together that long, usually only a few days before the league starts. As a result, offense is disjointed, there’s a fair amount of selfishness, and no real flow.

No, you’re not there to watch the games. You’re there to watch the players, which can be broken down into a few different types.

First, you have the undrafted guys who just got out of college, trying to get picked up on a team for training camp or sign as a free agent. Guys like Jeremy Lin, who starred on the Mavs Summer League team before inking a deal with the Warriors. Then, there are the second year guys who are being sent to Summer League AGAIN after their (usually disappointing) rookie season, who have way more polish and game than anyone else out there. Then you’ve got the vets, D-Leaguers, and guys coming back from overseas who are still chasing the dream.

But the most exciting group by far is the lottery picks. The players that some teams have spent years tanking for (we see you Sixers), or just the last year or so (we see you Lakers), or perpetually (we see you T’Wolves). Because even though it’s called “Summer” League, what it’s really about is the fall. And not just this fall, but for the next few years. It’s about hope.

When you’re a fan of a bad team, you latch onto whatever hope you can get. Warriors fans will no doubt remember our great chimera Anthony Randolph heading to summer league after an up-and-down rookie season, and doing this:

He hit jumpers, he slashed to the rim, he got out in transition, he blocked shots. His 42 points was a Summer League record. It stood for three whole days, until another Warriors player, undrafted guard Anthony Morrow, dropped 47 to overtake the record.

Randolph ended up averaging 26.8 points per game that summer. He was going to be the next KG, but better. Morrow? Ray Allen was his floor, angels were his ceiling. Of course, they comically failed those expectations, or they just failed comical expectations. But for a few fleeting moments that summer, anything was possible. By the way, the rookie guard on that team overshadowed by the Anthonys: Stephen Curry.


On Saturday afternoon the stars aligned: two back-to-back games at the Thomas and Mack Center, starring the top three draft picks: Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Jahlil Okafor.

For Summer League you don’t buy tickets for individual games, you pay once and get access to two arenas with games running staggered by 30 minute start times. You could conceivably spend from 1 PM until 10 PM watching basketball (I do not advise doing this). The first game on our docket was Towns and the Timberwolves against the Bulls, led by Doug McDermott.

Towns was the real deal. He has legitimate size and wears it well, the opposite of the plodding seven-footer. He was also athletic enough to throw down a between-the-legs dunk in the layup line (it was apparently not the first time) and was active defensively, with a couple big rejections. Although he was actually overshadowed by the Bulls’ rookie PF, Bobby Portis, who went off for 23 points, including 3-of-4 from three, and 7 rebounds in this game, Towns remained the story afterward; he didn’t play fantastic but showed enough flashes of what he could be to justify his selection for the time being.

That was just the appetizer though, the main event was to follow: Lakers vs. Sixers Tankapalooza I.

If you’ve ever been to Las Vegas you know there’s a pretty good chance that the majority of folks who descend there came from LA. And the arena was no exception; there was A LOT of purple and gold in there. It was like Club Med for Lakers fans. I saw a dude rocking a black Lakers jersey with a custom name on the back that said “KOBE24BACK.” That takes courage I don’t think I have. Summer League is weird, man.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Lakers fans, including the four that I went with. In my head I thought that they might not know how to act; they haven’t been in this position (rebuilding) for a long time. The last time they weren’t winning in the mid-aughts they at least had Kobe in his prime, gunning away for entertainment. But now there’s not a whole lot for them to hang their hats on. To their credit, they seem to have fully embraced futility in a rapid succession.

The Lakers taking Russell over Okafor was a risk at the time and it still looks that way. Okafor looked polished and ready out there, with NBA-caliber post moves, a big frame, and really impressive footwork. From day one you’ll be able to throw the ball into him and he’ll draw double teams. He drew five fouls on Tarik Black, all of them shooting, in the first half.

Russell? He was whatever the opposite of polished and ready was, struggling mightily in this game. A fair amount of sloppiness and poor shooting can be excused in this environment, but he also showed a disconcerting lack of vision, missing wide open near corner shooters several times, and turning the ball over seven times. He did have one nice pass (1:24 in the video above) but contrasting his performance with that of Jordan Clarkson, who actually had a strong rookie season last year, made one thing clear: he may be a star eventually, but eventually is going to take time.

The highlight of the game for Lakers fans came in the form of Larry Nance Jr., the rookie out of Wyoming who was best known for an ill-advised tweet about Kobe that surfaced after the Lakers drafted him. He had a game high +20, showed a high motor, and consistently hit the glass. In the third quarter, after this, a friend of mine turned to the rest of our group and proudly exclaimed “Larry Nance is my new favorite player!” The crowd even got a “LARRY, LARRY, LARRY” chant rolling at one point. Summer league is weird, man.

The game ended and we walked out into the hot Vegas summer. My friends were still talking about Larry Nance, when I had my personal highlight: a nod from Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams as I walked by in a Warriors championship T-shirt and mouthed “THANKS COACH,” while he talked on the phone.

I started to think about how Summer League once meant so much to me not long ago, how much it seemed to mean to them now, and how strange it was to flip places so suddenly. Then I started to think about Kobe telling D’Angelo which teammates were on the “do not pass” list, chuckled to myself, and we skipped towards the parking lot enjoying different highs but happy all the same.

thumb_Brian-WongBRIAN WONG | @bigbwong
Brian Wong is a third-generation Chinese American and Bay Area native. NBA fan, Golden State Warriors fanatic. Brian is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.

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