It is 11:30 a.m. Sunday morning, outside the Cox Pavilion on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a half-hour before the doors open to a day of hoops at NBA Summer League. It is 39 C, on the way to an afternoon high of 43. The phrase “it’s a dry heat” alleviates nothing.
A hundred or so basketball devotees are up against the building, waiting in a sliver of shade. The line is mostly male – boys and fathers, brothers and friends. Nearby, there’s a statue of Jerry Tarkanian, the long-time UNLV coach, immortalized in bronze, a towel between his teeth. “Look at Jerry T!” says an arriving fan to his buddies. “That’s awesome. Tark!”
This is a pilgrimage, and this is their church.
And this is where they can mingle with the people they usually see only on TV.
Summer League is 11 intimate days when the world of pro basketball gathers to hang out in Vegas to watch the kids: heralded rookies, undrafted players and those a little older scratching for their last shot. It is a hoops fest of sights and sounds – this year featuring a prominent contingent of Canadian players – yet with real consequences for careers. Only some of what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
‘I love you, Anthony!’
Anthony Bennett wasn’t here last summer. The No. 1 pick of the 2013 NBA draft, the first Canadian to ever reach such a height, had shoulder surgery and couldn’t play Summer League ball. The Cleveland Cavaliers had shocked the NBA when they chose the young man all his confidants call AB first overall. He had been a consensus top-five pick, but No. 1?
Everything went wrong. He piled on weight after surgery and stumbled through one of the worst rookie seasons a top hoops pick has ever played. He did not start a single game and averaged 4.2 points an outing.
Skeptics cackled with glee, the Internet a chorus of mockery. For AB, at 20 years old, it was a boyhood dream achieved and destroyed.
A year later, Bennett is rehabilitated. Warming up for a game on Sunday afternoon, he embraces the ESPN analyst and retired NBA big man Tim McCormick on the sideline. “I’m at the top of his fan club list,” says McCormick a few minutes later. “He’s got a lot of work to do, but I really think he’s going to be a tremendous player.”
McCormick pauses the conversation to say hello to two old friends, retired all-star Grant Hill and voice-of-basketball Marv Albert. This place is a fan’s fantasy: Hey, there’s Phil Jackson; hey, there’s Mark Cuban. The obsessed trawl for pictures and autographs.
Canada has invaded the desert. The United States dominates basketball and 269 of the prospects here are American. The next largest group is Canadian, 14, including back-to-back No. 1 draft picks Bennett and Andrew Wiggins. McCormick returns to the conversation. He’s from Detroit; he knows hockey, too. He predicts a roundball future for the red-and-white, the country that spawned the inventor of the game, James Naismith, so long ago.
Bennett, Wiggins and the rest are the children of Vince Carter, the Toronto Raptors showman who inspired what is poised to become a golden generation. “They saw NBA basketball,” McCormick says, “and started dreaming. Hockey’s a very expensive sport. Basketball, you need some shoes and a ball and you just dream.”
The game begins. Twenty pounds lighter than last year, Bennett bounds down the court with the gait one would not expect for a man 6 foot 8 and 240 pounds. He happily pops up threes. He throws down dunks. He grabs one, two, three rebounds. He finishes the first 10-minute quarter with eight boards. A female fan bellows out: “I love you, Anthony!” Late in the game, Bennett slams in an arena-rattling dunk. He bellows. He spent a year being laughed at. No more.
After the game, there’s a string of questions about Bennett to Cavaliers coach David Blatt – whose roster includes the more-famous Wiggins and, come fall, a guy named LeBron.
“What’s this, the Anthony Bennett show?” Blatt quips.
“Calm,” says Bennett of his mood in a scrum of reporters afterward. “I’ve proved to everybody I can play.”
A television reporter asks: “When was the last time somebody said, ‘I love you, Andrew,’ from the crowd? Did you hear that?” The reporter has confused Anthony and Andrew, Bennett and Wiggins.
“Aw,” says Bennett, a bit embarrassed, a bit annoyed, “I never heard that.”
“I saw you smile,” says the reporter.
“My name’s Anthony,” Bennett says. “I don’t know Andrew.” Bennett chuckles. He of course knows Wiggins, the boy wonder who has overshadowed the rest of Canadian basketball for a couple of years.
There’s just one thing: For all their apparent future together in Cleveland, both Bennett and Wiggins keep being mentioned in trade rumours with the Minnesota Timberwolves for all-star forward Kevin Love.
‘How do you feel about losing by 30 points, and the game was all your fault?’
The Toronto Raptors, the only Canadian team in the NBA, have one Canadian player on its Summer League roster, 22-year-old Myck Kabongo, who at the moment is a long shot for the NBA. The Raptors wanted to draft Brampton’s Tyler Ennis, but Ennis went 18th to the Phoenix Suns, two spots ahead of the Raptors. Toronto then went way, way off the board to pick Bruno Caboclo, an unknown 18-year-old Brazilian, a raw teenager with intriguing athletic promise.
It’s a day earlier, Saturday, and the Raptors are getting punched up by the Denver Nuggets, 45-21. Jesse Mermuys, the Raptors assistant coach who has the head bench boss role at Summer League, has called a timeout and unleashes a torrent at his players gathered in a circle. There’s five minutes left in the second quarter. “Right now,” Mermuys tells his team, “we’ve got to make a stand.”
They don’t. Another timeout, a couple minutes later. It’s 55-27. Mermuys is much calmer. Denver is hitting everything. “We’re going to have to grind it out,” he tells the players.
The scores in Summer League are not what counts. For rookies headed to the NBA, this is step one on a long road. For fringe players, this is the chance to put on a show, impress someone. For men like Mermuys, 34, this is the opportunity to display head coach bona fides. Still, even after a 110-82 loss, the sting is softened. This is the off-season, in Vegas.
In a corner behind the stands, outside the makeshift locker room, a pointed questioner grabs a mic. It’s Kyle Lowry, the star Raptors point guard who two days earlier re-signed for four years and $48-million (U.S.) and is in Vegas hanging out. “How do you feel about losing by 30 points, and the game was all your fault?” Lowry demands. Mermuys’s smile is delightful. On the court, the American anthem is about to ring through the arena ahead of the next game, sung by Duncan Jones, the film-director son of David Bowie.
“I’m glad I’m getting this media training right now after I got blown out,” Mermuys says. “I feel really frustrated, angry and trying to do the best I can as a young coach to stay composed.”
Lowry approves. “That’s nice. That’s a good answer.”
The Sundance Film Festival of the NBA
Vegas Summer League was founded a decade ago and the first year there were six teams. The figure more than doubled the next year and it became an institution. Twenty-three teams are here this year, and players from 25 countries. Summer League has been called the American Idol of pro basketball. It has also – with all the coaches, scouts and executives dressed casually in polo shirts and shorts in the house – been called the Sundance Film Festival of the NBA.
Because it’s mostly rookies, and the pressure is on to make a mark, it can get wild. Players chuck up shots. “A weird mutant form of basketball,” is how one scout puts it. But the first pillars of reputations can be made. Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas was MVP last summer.
‘I’m getting a good vibe. I love it here’
It’s early afternoon Monday, and the Thomas & Mack Center, adjacent to the Cox, is almost empty. The Sacramento Kings – with three Canadians on their Summer League roster, No. 8 pick Nik Stauskas, 7-foot-5 Sim Bhullar and brother-of-Andrew Nick Wiggins – are warming up. Old highlight reels unspool on the scoreboard above.
On the baseline sits Buzz Peterson, the college coach and good friend of Michael Jordan, owner of the recently renamed Charlotte Hornets. Peterson is in town doing a bit of scouting for his pal. The Hornets have a 24-year-old Calgarian on their roster, Jordan Bachynski, a 7-foot-2 centre who last winter at Arizona State blocked the most shots in all of Division I.
Bachynski wasn’t drafted but eight teams wanted him in Vegas. Many players here have less-certain futures in the NBA, such as Bhullar and Nick Wiggins. Higher-ranked names such as Ennis of the Suns, the No. 18 pick, will likely eventually become NBA regulars.
Peterson says there could be room on Charlotte’s regular-season roster for Bachynski as a third centre. “We’re really interested,” he says.
A couple hours later, after a Hornets game next door at the Cox in which Bachynski played well – a block, a steal and six points in eight minutes of work – one of the best-ever big men chats with reporters, towering over them.
“He’s just got to want it,” says Patrick Ewing of Bachynski. The Hall of Famer turned Charlotte assistant coach goes on: “Do the things that he’s been doing his whole career. Block shots, rebound. As a big, those are the things that will stand out. People drive to the basket – step up and block shots. Defend the rim.”
A monk-like summer, in the gym and on the court, lays ahead for Bachynski back home in Phoenix, where he lives with his wife and newborn son. A night of Netflix is as wild as it will get. The real audition is this fall at training camp, where he is ready for “more intelligent basketball,” he says.
Making it is about providing for his young family. Bachynski feels buoyant.
“Just showing the coaches what I can do, and what I can possibly be,” he says. “I’m getting a good vibe. I love it here.”
‘Stauskas – rookie of the year’
The story of Stauskas, whose draft stock steadily climbed until he cracked the top 10, has become a Canadian hoops fable. The backyard court his dad installed in Mississauga, Ont. A young Nik shovelling snow in winters. Shot after shot after shot. It’s the basketball mirror of the backyard rink Walter Gretzky made each winter for his boys.
Stauskas is a highly efficient shooter, an assassin. So he’s stereotyped: White guy can shoot. Larry Bird. Can he defend? He’s an affable 20-year-old – but takes it as an insult. To him, saying a ballplayer can’t defend is like saying he can’t shoot.
“I know a lot of people have questioned me,” Stauskas says. “I’m showing I’m a capable defender at this level.”
The believers are confident. Among a small contingent of diehard Kings fans in their purple jerseys, one holds a sign: “Stauskas – rookie of the year.” On Monday afternoon, he looks like a contender. With a minute left in the first half, the game tied, Stauskas has an open-look three in the corner and rises for the shot before rifling a pass to a teammate under the hoop who finishes with a dunk. Before the half ends, Stauskas puts up a three, and hits.
‘Show us the dunk! Show us the dunk!’
Wiggins, a 6-foot-8 athletic wonder, has just pulled off one of the feats that lead people to pin so much promise on his 19-year-old shoulders. Monday night, on the baseline in the second quarter of a game in which he’s been a nonentity, he drives to the hoop, busts out a crossover spin move and trampolines to hammer home a dunk.
Immediately thereafter, Wiggins bolts down the floor and swoops in behind top prospect Nerlens Noel of the Philadelphia 76ers. Wiggins bounces into the air and, like a ninja, swats away the ball as Noel lays it up.
“Show us the dunk! Show us the dunk!” A fan wants a replay of Amazing Part 1. He keeps up his solo chorus for several minutes until his wish is granted, the replay put on the big-screen on the wall. The full-house crowd roars. Sport is about spectacle and this is awesome.
Never mind Wiggins finished the night with only 10 points. The replays, on the Internet, Twitter and elsewhere, are everywhere, instantly.
The day before, Sunday, Wiggins missed most of his shots and sometimes looked listless. ESPN, grading the top names daily, gave him a C+: “You can see how the narrative about the lack of a ‘killer instinct’ got started.” Monday’s display, however, was the stuff most players can only dream of, and ESPN awarded an A-, even on an otherwise so-so night: “All we’re going to talk about is that dynamic dunk off Wiggins’s dreidel move.”
When the game concludes, Wiggins lingers in the makeshift locker room. He has his knees iced, wrapped in plastic, his left wrist too. He then exits, passing through reporters and into a service elevator. He descends one level and sits for an interview with nba.com. He then proceeds to get his visage and body scanned for the video game NBA 2K.
Wiggins is going to be a star. No, he’s long been a star. He was a YouTube sensation at 14. He’s a quiet kid but is not shy. When he went No. 1, dressed sockless in a suit to kill, his smile easy, he publicly announced his goals: rookie of the year, NBA all-star, all-defensive team.
Summer League, for Wiggins, is merely prelude.