IT'S JAN. 28, 2011. Doc Rivers' powerhouse Celtics, featuring a Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, are seven months removed from their second Finals in three years. They're 35 -- 10 on the season, winners of seven of their past eight, and visiting the 20 -- 24 Suns. Prediction: blowout.
From the start, though, the Celtics stumble in startling fashion. Garnett throws a pass to no one, then gets tossed for striking Suns forward Channing Frye in the groin. Boston shoots a season-worst 34.2 percent against one of the NBA's worst defenses. The Suns roll 88-71.
Rivers, incensed, rides out most of the game from the visiting locker room after being ejected for jawing at the officials. Watching it all unfold, he wonders, Jesus Christ, was the whole team drinking last night? But the Celtics' longtime trainer, Ed Lacerte, has another theory: "We should see the sleep doctor. This is the game he pointed to."
The sleep doctor was Dr. Charles Czeisler, the director of the Sleep Health Institute at Brigham and Women's Hospital and of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, whom Rivers had consulted before the season, asking him to identify trouble spots on the schedule. Czeisler noted that the Celtics would be flying into Phoenix after facing the Trail Blazers in Portland the night before -- and Cleveland in Boston two nights before that. With so much travel across so many time zones in just three days, "your instincts will be bad," he said. "It'll be like playing drunken basketball. You will not win this game."
After the loss, Rivers realizes that Czeisler was right and that it's time to start adjusting routines. He calls his Big Three into the office: "We're changing, immediately."
The players push back. They like their routines. "This is what we do!" Garnett says.
Replies Rivers: "Well, we're not doing it anymore."
ALL IN ALL, it was not the best few months for Draymond Green. On June 10, during Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Cavaliers, some 20 million viewers caught him in the act of trying to slap LeBron James in the groin. Three days later, after being suspended for that act, he watched his Warriors lose by 15 before dropping Games 6 and 7 in the greatest collapse in Finals history. In early July, he was arrested in East Lansing, Michigan, on an assault charge resulting from a scuffle in a college bar. Later that month, Green accidentally sent out a photo of his penis to the world.
By universal decree, the 2016-17 Warriors are a juggernaut. And if this juggernaut has a foundation, Green is it. Steph Curry is the reigning MVP; new acquisition Kevin Durant is one of the NBA's greatest scorers. But multiple Warriors staffers share the opinion that Green is their most important player. Nobody replicates his set of contributions. As one team official puts it: "The guys might be frustrated by his antics, but they had an opportunity to prove themselves without him in Game 5 and they played like a bunch of [cowards]."
Herein lies the paradox of the perfectly constructed squad: It's built on ground that roils with lava -- and on the back of a man who has become increasingly unpredictable, emboldened and unaccountable.
Draymond Green had a very bad summer. But that weekslong meltdown was a year in the making. And to understand the tensions that could undermine this season's presumptive champion, you must first understand the untold story of what undid the Warriors a season ago.
IN A NORMAL time, it would be implausible to sit down with Carmelo Anthony two weeks before the start of the NBA season and not talk about basketball-to not hear a word about his Knicks, his Olympic gold in Rio or his new All-Star teammates. But this isn't just any time in America. Since the early summer, when six police officers were acquitted in Anthony's hometown of Baltimore after facing charges resulting from the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, basketball for the Knicks' franchise player has become secondary to being an active, involved citizen, one aware of his power and influence-and often the limitations of each. We spent a recent afternoon together in New York talking as black citizens and parents, debating race and policing, owners and players, and the increasing politicization of sports in a tense, post-Ferguson nation. For Anthony, there is no more holding back.
HOWARD BRYANT: It sounds like there's a sort of tipping point that's happening around the country. When I talk to younger people, they have this attitude like, "We're supposed to be past this. This is why I'm upset." And then I talk to my uncles and they're like, "See, this is how it is. This is nothing new."
CARMELO ANTHONY: This is the new '60s right here. Everybody I talk to, my mom and uncles and friends, they say the same thing. They're like, "What you're seeing right now, we'd seen it already. It's new to you, but it's not new to us." I think it's bigger and much deeper than just actually seeing what's happening out there. Not just police brutality but so many other issues out there that are being swept under the rug. Our educational system is messed up. Schools are closing left and right.
Editor's note: This story contains explicit language.
Billy Kennedy doesn't look up from his scotch when he's presented with the microphone.
It's after midnight on a Friday in July at IronWorks, a restaurant and lounge that doubles as a clubhouse for a modest executive golf course in an older section of Glendale, Arizona, just blocks from Kennedy's home.
When Kennedy, a regular, checked in a few minutes ago, he inconspicuously slipped the karaoke wrangler $20 to jump the line. Now his song is up -- the intro led by a few sharp trumpet statements and hot brass chords. And as the horns give way to the piano and cool metal brushes against the drum, Kennedy begins to croon.
"A foggy day / In London town / Had me low / Had me down ..."
From the opening stanza, it's clear: This is not your typical late-night, booze-soaked aria. The man has pitch control, steady intonation, the kind of playful interpretation of an old standard popularized by Michael Buble that only a karaoke superstar can deliver. Several of the other 25 or so people left in the joint are straining to find the voice's owner. Their heads are on swivels. But Kennedy still hasn't lifted his eyes. His back is to the room, with its brass, wood paneling, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series banners, a whiteboard highlighting tonight's fish fry special and a video monitor for the lyrics -- something else he doesn't need.
STEVE BLAKE DOESN'T sit by the phone, but his cell is never far from reach -- during his morning workouts, picking up his boys from school, or lying in bed with his wife watching television while ruminating over whether he's actually retired.
For now, he is definitely unemployed.
It's the first time in 13 NBA seasons that no team has offered the 36-year-old point guard a contract. When the Houston Rockets hired Mike D'Antoni, his former Lakers coach, Blake perked up, optimistic. But then the Rockets locked up Pablo Prigioni with a two-year contract in July. When Mo Williams abruptly retired last week, Blake's hopes were raised again that Cleveland might call. But the Cavaliers reached out to Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers instead.
"I've never had to wait this long," Blake concedes. "I've always had a place to go. To be in this space ... it's definitely different."
Kobe Bryant's magnificent show and Tim Duncan's disappearing act notwithstanding, precious few NBA players script their own endings. For the typical NBA player, the ending is far murkier and significantly more anticlimactic. Careers simply peter out, clouded by the disappointment and bitterness that mounts as the months drag on and the realization sets in that nobody wants them anymore.
There were 201 free agents on the market on July 1. There are still 24 who remain unsigned, among them Chalmers, Cole, J.R. Smith, Josh Smith, Kevin Martin, Matt Bonner, Kendrick Perkins, Andre Miller and Chris Kaman. Some of those players may not have known it at the time, but they have already played their last NBA game.
Blake is not planning to be one of them. He spent each morning during the preseason scrimmaging with Trail Blazers players at the team's facility near his Portland home, but that is no longer an option now that training camp is in full swing. At night, Blake lifts and does conditioning drills.
He doesn't need the money -- he just craves the game. Blake has three sons -- ages 9, 7 and 6 -- and he has moved them each time he has changed teams, from Portland to Los Angeles to San Francisco, back to Portland and, last season, to Detroit. If he does get picked up, Blake says, his kids and his wife, Kristen, will remain in Oregon, which will be a difficult adjustment for all of them. But it will be palatable because it will be for just ... one ... more ... year. While his first priority is to play, Blake says he is also open to taking a coaching job. He started planning for the future years ago by enrolling in coaching clinics and attending real estate symposiums.
But Blake knows it's a numbers game. There were 60 players selected in the draft in June, and most of them will garner roster spots.
"Sometimes," Blake says, "you don't realize you are retired until you don't have a job."
LEBRON JAMES WAS being publicly shamed.
It was the night of Dec. 5, 2015, and the Cavs trailed by 20 points in the fourth quarter of the most highly anticipated matchup of the season: James against his former team, the Miami Heat. The Golden State Warriors had opened the season with the greatest start in NBA history at 20-0. The Cavs had stumbled into Miami with two consecutive losses to drop their record to 13-6. Still, James sat quietly on the Cavs' bench in a striped tee and navy blazer as giggly Heat fans in AmericanAirlines Arena chanted, "Le-BRON is TI-red!" like bullies at a schoolyard.
The backdrop was even bleaker for James.
James was clad in street clothes, not because he was injured. He had been deemed healthy by the training staff. But then-head coach David Blatt had other plans: Thanks to the grueling NBA schedule, James would not play.
It wasn't just that this was the dreaded second game of a back-to-back. The NBA's schedule-makers had called for the Cavs to play less than 24 hours before in New Orleans for a 9:30 p.m Eastern tip-off, then fly eastward for two hours across a time zone to land in South Florida. After the Cavs had forced overtime against the Pelicans, the Cavs had sauntered off their team plane and into their Miami hotel rooms just before 5 a.m., the day of the Heat game.
With sleep on short supply, Blatt had made the call for James to sit, marking the first time in James' career that he missed a game because of rest before Christmas.
"Very short turnaround," Blatt explained before the game. "Just thinking long term here."
LONG BEFORE SHAQUILLE O'NEAL was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, he was a lanky 20-year-old from LSU whose impact on the NBA game was so highly anticipated that each of the 11 teams at the 1992 draft lottery had a jersey printed with its logo -- and O'Neal's name -- stashed under the seat.
"It was," says Orlando Magic senior vice president Pat Williams, "the Shaq draft."
Then-Charlotte Hornets coach Allan Bristow's team had won the lottery the season before (and selected Larry Johnson), so he laid out the same suit and tie and checked into the same hotel in advance of the 1992 lottery. He also brought along his trusty turkey caller.
Then-Dallas Mavericks owner Donald Carter, for his part, opted for a 10-gallon hat with a brim dotted with coyote teeth. He obsessively caressed his "lucky" stone in advance of the lottery results, prompting Williams, who had not brought along any good-luck charms, to inquire about it.
Williams rubbed the stone and noticed it was speckled with raised bumps. Carter explained they spelled out "Shaquille" in braille.
Carter's stone didn't bring him the good fortune he was seeking: The Mavericks wound up with the fourth pick (Jimmy Jackson). After the Timberwolves won the third pick, the final two selections came down to Charlotte and Orlando.
"As the lottery unfolded, and each team fell into their slotted place, you could hear the rustle of those (Shaq) jerseys going back into the paper bag,'' Williams says. "It was the sound of, 'It's not going to happen for us.'"
SAN ANTONIO -- You crave the recipe of his secret sauce. You believe you've identified some of its special ingredients: draft foreign players, shoot corner 3s, emphasize defense, share the ball, victimize trembling sideline reporters.
You'd like to believe you've captured the essence of the bearded coach stomping along the sideline -- a blend of Midas, Yoda and occasionally a teeth-baring pit bull.
But, in truth, you haven't -- you never could -- because you don't fully realize the simple truths of his journey: how the man who demands respect through discipline and selflessness was once an impatient Air Force cadet who complained vociferously (and repeatedly) to his coach about a larger role. How his bid to represent the United States in the Olympic Games as a player was squashed by petty politics. How his wish to coach the 2008 Dream Team was crushed by miscommunication and subterfuge. How he was passed over -- twice -- for the very Spurs job he now holds. How when he finally got that job, he spent his weekends passing out free wieners in a parking lot hoping to generate basketball interest in a football-crazed state.
Talk to players, coaches and executives who have worked with Gregg Popovich, and they'll say these are the events that shaped him. Tremendous obstacles. Cold, hard truths. Popovich may float above the fray now, but he earned that ascent -- one gritty step at a time.
Ask Popovich about any of this and he'll cut you off. None of it, he insists, resonates as much as you think it does. "My disappointments aren't anything to do with what you mention,'' he says. "They have to do with times we had opportunities to win a championship, and we didn't."
To hear him tell it, he has shed those other disappointments like old snakeskin. But make no mistake: Gregg Popovich's appointment as coach of the USA basketball team for the 2020 Olympics is a significant personal triumph. Popovich will take the reins of the Olympic basketball program in the wake of an uninspiring showing in Rio that, while producing the expected gold medal, raised questions anew about the United States' ability to cobble together a collection of superstars on short notice and implement elite results. Popovich, whose teams in San Antonio have come to symbolize cohesion, has been lauded as the natural choice to lead a meld of substantial egos on the path to world success.
"But if you think this has all been easy for Pop,'' says former Spurs assistant (and current New Orleans head coach) Alvin Gentry, "then you don't know his story."
He's 6-foot-9, and shoots the lights out with moves that are more advanced than Kevin Durant at this stage -- according to Kevin Durant. He's one of the highest draft picks in Los Angeles Lakers history and is slated to be the next star and savior of Hollywood's favorite sports team.
Ever since late June, his life has been a whirlwind -- jetting to New York to be drafted (and endorse a deodorant stick), then heading to his North Carolina hometown, then to Los Angeles to be introduced as a Laker, then to Las Vegas for NBA summer league and to practice against Team USA, then to L.A. to house hunt (and endorse an oatmeal chocolate chip protein bar), then back to North Carolina to catch his breath.
Along the way, every element of that jet-set life has been interrupted by a reminder app on Brandon Ingram's iPhone -- the little app that dings every three to four hours, every ... single ... day, telling him to eat. On a recent afternoon in Las Vegas, Ingram sank into a hotel room couch and explained how he aims for six feedings every 24 hours: breakfast, then a snack, then lunch, then a snack, then dinner, then a midnight snack. "It gets sickening," Ingram says, sounding tired, "but I just try to stick to it."
Ingram says he gorges on steak, grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and ... well, it sounds like he'd rather stop there. Though Ingram's favorite class at Duke was public speaking, he's famously soft spoken; even sitting a few feet away, it's hard to hear him above the whir of a nearby air conditioner. But he seems even more reserved about the subject of his weight -- or lack thereof. And it's understandable. He has faced such questions in almost every interview (and countless other settings) for years.
"I think it just gives me motivation to show these guys that the skinny part doesn't matter," Ingram said on a conference call shortly after the Lakers selected him No. 2 overall this summer. "It got me here today. Being skinny didn't mean nothing when I was battling with each and every guy, each and every night."
Steph was back.
Six minutes and 2 seconds into Game 4 of the Golden State Warriors' second-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Stephen Curry sauntered off the bench for his first live action in two weeks and into the epicenter of the most exciting game of the year. It was as if the lights had come back on after a power outage. The Warriors trailed 16-2, lost in an effervescent maelstrom of brilliant, whirling basketball by the Blazers. Yet here came the MVP, restoring electricity.
Curry took over in the middle of the second quarter, teaming with Klay Thompson to steal the ball, blitzing down the court and making a 10-foot leaner over an airborn 7-foot Mason Plumlee to bring Golden State within nine.
The earthquake of Curry's knee injury -- and its anxious aftershocks felt around the league -- was history. Everything that rested on his shoulders -- the Warriors' march to the NBA Finals, TV ratings, the ongoing long-ball revolution -- was saved. Steph was ready to explode.
Until ... Just before Curry had a chance to do something amazing, Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu put his arms around 7-foot center Andrew Bogut: an intentional foul of the worst free throw shooter on the team -- the turd in the punch bowl of Curry's comeback.
As social media groaned, Bogut, a career 55.8 percent free throw shooter, bricked his first attempt and made the second. A minute later, the Blazers fouled him again. And then a third time.
Steve Kerr -- the freshly minted coach of the year -- soon retaliated, ordering his team to hack 6-foot-9 Moe Harkless, a career 58.9 percent free throw shooter.
"Stupidest rule in the league," Kerr was overheard grumbling, according to CSNNW reporter Jason Quick. "People pay $8,000 to sit courtside to watch this."
Fans pay to watch the best in the world, Kerr was saying, and instead they were watching a play designed, by the opposing coach, to be terrible. Tall men fumbling at the free throw line has become one of the NBA's signature shortcomings -- and it's creeping toward an epidemic. Not because players are worse at free throws than they used to be, but because coaches are more sophisticated and strategic and, some would argue, less gentlemanly. This season, NBA fans were subjected to about 450 intentional free throws shot by some of the league's worst free throw shooters.
There's a closely guarded secret in the NBA, one that's policed vigilantly by executives at the league office. Current team presidents and marketing people will whisper about it on background, but ask them to use their names on the record, and they clam up.
What is this strictly confidential piece of information, so combustible that the league demands a code of silence?
It's the enormous value of superstars.
"Whatever they pay LeBron or Curry, it isn't enough," said one of these team executives.
This isn't a head coach tasked with game-planning for MVPs or a general manager charged with acquiring the best talent. This is coming from an executive who toils on the business side of a medium-revenue franchise, in the suite of offices that aren't so much concerned whether the team finishes in the playoff bracket or the lottery, but whether it finishes in the black or the red.
The exec requested anonymity because suggesting that superstars drive disproportionate value for the NBA is verboten. With negotiations over the next collective bargaining agreement already underway, the league can't have its bean-counters publicly offering a true appraisal of those they're facing off against across the table.
Meanwhile, the NBA continues to market its cohort of superstars to the hilt. Virtually every team uses the likes of LeBron James, Stephen Curry and, for years, Kobe Bryant as anchors in their ticket packages, and the league constructs its national broadcast slate around its most elite talent.
"Superstars are an accelerant," said a senior NBA marketing official who has also worked in other pro leagues. "They're the thing that drives people to the product and the experience. If a guy has a specific injury and isn't playing, he's out of sight, out of mind. That's a reality with any product. If I'm in front of you all the time, I'm not just building awareness, but I'm also building intent. Then you start getting caught up in whatever I'm selling, and you say, 'You know, I should buy that.'"
The health of these players is the league's most valuable asset, and the NBA knows it. That's why commissioner Adam Silver told Portland guard C.J. McCollum in a recent Players' Tribune Q&A session, "the No. 1 correlation between play and injuries is fatigue." The NBA's board of governors meets in Las Vegas on Tuesday, and it will nibble around the edges of this issue. Members will congratulate themselves for reducing back-to-backs and for adding performance specialists and sports scientists to their franchise directories.
But they have yet to seriously consider the one measure that those experts agree would do the most to preserve the health of the league's high-volume players: reduce the 82-game schedule.
There has been a lot of conversation about Kevin Durant leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder. As I wrote in this story and again in this story: Durant met with Thunder teammates Russell Westbrook and Nick Collison in Los Angeles before he met with teams. The impression that Westbrook and Collison -- and many around Durant -- had was that the coveted free agent would return to the Thunder.
In a TrueHoop podcast on Tuesday, I misspoke in saying that Durant specifically told Westbrook he was coming back.
On the podcast I said, "Three weeks ago, Kevin Durant's sitting there at dinner, telling [Westbrook], 'Hey I’m coming back, man. Don't worry about it.' And now Russell Westbrook's kinda been thrown into this in having to decide his future a summer earlier than expected."
These were not direct quotes meant to be attributed to Durant. It was an attempt to characterize what Westbrook thought his situation was going to be in Oklahoma City and how Durant's leaving impacts his thinking about his future.
There's something for everyone at Las Vegas Summer League. For the new blood in the 2016 draft class, it's their first real chance to make a name for themselves on the NBA stage. For others, it's an opportunity to jump-start a career and break into the league.
The following is our annual back-of-the-envelope guide to the 23 NBA teams participating in the Las Vegas Summer League, highlighting some of the more promising and intriguing prospects who will take the floor. The East guide is below, and the West guide is here.
Taurean Prince: He’s already roasting reporters at an elite level, and after using the 12th pick in the draft on him, the Hawks are hoping the Baylor product will develop into the 3-and-D presence they lost when DeMarre Carroll bolted for Canada last year.
Bryce Cotton: It's hard to believe that a player who averaged 22 points per game on 45.3 percent 3-point shooting with 90.5 percent free throw shooting in 40 D-League games can’t hold down a regular rotation spot as a backup point guard. After trading Jeff Teague, Atlanta should give Cotton a long look.
Jaylen Brown: Being the third player selected in a supposed “two-player draft” is enough to create a healthy chip on anyone’s shoulder. Brown has shown that he’s capable of playing with a mean streak, and, for a defensive-minded coach such as Brad Stevens, that’s half of the battle. The jury is still out on his jumper, though, and he isn't expected to play before this weekend after bruising his right knee.
Terry Rozier: The 16th pick in the 2015 draft barely got off the pine his rookie year, but he’s been impressive early on in the Utah Summer League. Rozier might have a tough path to playing time with Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart ahead of him, but for now, it’s his time to run the show and win some more fans within the organization.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson: His rookie campaign was interrupted when he fractured his ankle, but RHJ looked like Gerald Wallace 2.0 when he did play. It's clear he can defend his tail off and rebound, but now it will be interesting to see how much polish he has added to a pretty raw offensive skill set.
Isaiah Whitehead: This feels like a “local boy makes good” type of story. Whitehead is a Coney Island native and played at Lincoln, the same high school that produced Sebastian Telfair and Stephon Marbury. After being drafted by the Nets in the second round, he’ll try to live up to the hype of being the next great New York-bred point guard, right in his own backyard. No pressure.
Bobby Portis: No Pau, no problem? The Bulls will miss Gasol, but Portis is going to add a much-needed boost of athleticism and energy to the frontcourt that often went missing last season. Not many guys can grind on the offensive glass and step out and play on the perimeter, but Portis has the versatility to become a key cog in Chicago's future.
Doug McDermott: McBuckets shot 42.5 percent from behind the arc last season (that’s good!) but didn’t do anything else well (that’s bad!) in his sophomore campaign with the Bulls. Swapping a scorer in Derrick Rose with a distributor in Rajon Rondo at point guard might lead to some more chances, but McDermott has to defend and rebound better to earn more minutes (especially with Dwyane Wade joining the mix).
Denzel Valentine: The AP Player of the Year probably would have been a top-five pick if he were 6-foot-8 instead of 6-6, but regardless, his versatile offensive game should shine at any position. Valentine can do everything offensively at a high level, but he'll need to become a much better defender to earn big minutes right away.
Kay Felder: Big men, beware: Felder is only 5-9, but he has so much bounce that Oakland would run lob plays for him pretty regularly. That obviously won’t be his bread and butter in the pros, but Felder is cut from the Isaiah Thomas mold and is a certified bucket acquirer. With Matthew Dellavedova gone and Mo Williams aging quickly, Felder has a shot to play real minutes for the reigning champs.
Sir’Dominic Pointer: For the second year running, Sir’Dominic Pointer wins the hotly contested “best name at summer league” award. He can play a little bit, too, as he’s a solid defender on the perimeter.
Justise Winslow: He was spotted at a game earlier this summer with a hat that said, “Really Really Good,” and that probably sums it up. Winslow is a little too good for summer league already, but it’s a nice place for him to work on being more aggressive offensively and looking for his own shot more often. He’s already a great role player -- can he develop into more?
Josh Richardson: Dwyane Wade has left Miami, so Richardson’s development suddenly means quite a bit. If the Heat decide not to match the reported $50 million offer the Nets gave restricted free agent Tyler Johnson, Richardson could be on track for big minutes soon enough.
Thon Maker: There’s plenty of controversy behind his age and the unconventional path he took to the league, but Maker has the kind of length you dream of. Whether the mixtape skills we’ve seen in the past are for real, though, remains to be seen.
Rashad Vaughn: The UNLV product is an important piece of the puzzle for the Bucks going forward, as he’s projected to be the wing shooter to slide in between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Vaughn is somehow still only 19 years old, but the Bucks need him to grow up quickly for depth reasons.
Ben Simmons: Get your popcorn ready. The process led the 76ers to Ben Simmons, an athletic freak who possesses some of the best court vision you’ll ever see from a 19-year-old forward. No one in this draft class has a higher ceiling, and no one’s performance will be more closely scrutinized. The rap on Simmons at LSU was that he wasn’t competitive enough and that he often played with a certain level of laziness. He has a chance to put a lot of those concerns to bed in Vegas.
Bruno Caboclo: Fran Fraschilla said in 2014 that Caboclo was “two years from being two years away,” which would put the lengthy forward as being just two years away now. Got all that? Along with Caboclo, the Raptors will have Delon Wright and Norman Powell on the wing. This is like the summer league version of Golden State’s big four, basically.
Jakob Poeltl: Let’s get this out of the way: Here’s how you pronounce his name, straight from the source. Poeltl is a bit of a throwback in that he’s an efficient back-to-the-basket scorer with limited range, but the Raptors will have to get him up to speed defensively rather quickly after reportedly losing Bismack Biyombo to the Orlando Magic in free agency.
Kelly Oubre Jr.: The Wizards might have the least entertaining team in Vegas, but at least Findlay prep grad Oubre will be there to get shots up. Oubre was the 15th pick of the 2015 draft and a self-proclaimed "steal" and, given the lack of big-time talent around him, is a decent bet to lead summer league in scoring.
There's something for everyone at Las Vegas Summer League. For the new blood in the 2016 draft class, it's their first real chance to make a name for themselves on the NBA stage. For others, it's an opportunity to jump-start a career and break into the league.
The following is our annual "back-of-the-envelope" guide to the 23 NBA teams participating in the Las Vegas Summer League, highlighting some of the more promising and intriguing prospects who will take the floor. The West guide is below, and the East guide is here.
Perry Ellis: Ninth-year-senior Perry Ellis (not really, but it feels that way) is finally done at Kansas and is ready to join the league. How ready? He already has an endorsement deal signed with... Perry Ellis.
Justin Anderson: After letting one 3-and-D stud slip through their fingers in Jae Crowder, the Mavs are hoping they can develop another one in Anderson. The lefty forward has strength and plenty of athleticism, but it won’t mean much in Dallas until he develops his jump shot.
Jamal Murray: Every draft class you have one elite prospect who falls a little too far. Taken with the seventh pick, Murray is a good bet to be that guy. He’s one of the best shooters to come out of the draft in a long time, and the Nuggets need that floor spacing next to Emmanuel Mudiay. Don’t be surprised if he ends up looking like the best rookie in Vegas.
Emmanuel Mudiay: It might be weird to see him here considering he started 66 games last season, but the Nuggets are taking full advantage of the opportunity to buy their young backcourt of the future more time together. Mudiay’s shooting percentages last season were brutal, but there were flashes of major potential as well.
Jimmer Fredette: Jimmer! This is going to be kind of like seeing a wrestler from your childhood looking lonely at a booth at Comic Con: you’ll be happy, nostalgic and then a little depressed all at the same time. Maybe Jimmer has a dominant summer league run in him like Adam Morrison did a few years back.
Landry Fields: Now here’s a throwback. Chances are you mostly remember Fields for letting Jeremy Lin sleep on his couch in the Linsanity days, back when they both were lighting it up for the Knicks. Unfortunately, Fields has been unable to hit a shot ever since and fell out of the league entirely last season.
Patrick McCaw: The UNLV product will surely have some fans in attendance, and the Warriors' contingency probably isn’t going to be small, either. McCaw has lots of length on the wing and would do well to show he can defend at a high level, as the Warriors shouldn’t need a whole lot of help scoring the ball this season.
Michael Beasley: This is not a clerical error: Beasley, the second pick in the 2008 draft, is really on Houston’s summer league team. After tearing it up in China and becoming a key contributor down the stretch for the Rockets last season, Beasley told the Houston Chronicle that he wants to get a jump-start on learning Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has no plans of trying to score 40 points. That doesn’t sound like fun...
Gary Payton II: The son of The Glove landed in a pretty good spot after going undrafted, didn’t he? New Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni is considered a point guard whisperer, and Payton has plenty of athleticism to work with and a good opportunity to steal minutes away from Patrick Beverley down the line.
Brandon Ingram: Lakers fans travel well, and they’ll come out in droves for a look at their newest star. Ingram has freakish length and a smoothness to his offensive game that you wouldn’t expect from someone so young. He’ll have the green light all the way, and his July 9 matchup against the Sixers and Ben Simmons should be the one Las Vegas Summer League game you refuse to miss.
D'Angelo Russell: The dynamic between Russell and Ingram should be interesting to watch. Will Russell take a backseat and let Ingram create for himself, or will he spoon-feed the rookie with his excellent passing? And here’s something else to think about in these awfully quiet gyms: Have the fans forgiven him for last season’s incident with Nick Young, or will it be open season for hecklers? Either way, the Lakers are going to be the most entertaining team in the league, if only for a few weeks.
JaMychal Green: One of the lone bright spots last season for the injury-plagued Memphis Grizzlies was the emergence of Green, a scrappy energy guy who new head coach David Fizdale should quickly fall in love with.
Wade Baldwin IV: Baldwin is a point guard with a 6-foot-11 wingspan who probably needs to file a restraining order on Jay Bilas (a legendary lover of wingspans). He has all the physical tools to be a disruptive defensive force, and his spot-up shooting should come in handy for a team that always seems to be starved for floor spacing. He could end up being one of the big steals of this draft class.
Kris Dunn: Can he play with Ricky Rubio, or is he going to replace Ricky Rubio? That probably won’t be decided this summer, but Dunn is the type of player who will shine the brightest when the ball is in his hands and he’s using his elite physical abilities to put defenses in bad positions. The future is bright in Minnesota.
Adreian Payne: Payne is probably running out of chances, despite having an intriguing profile. Players who are this big and athletic that can shoot from deep are relatively rare, but Payne hasn’t been able to consistently demonstrate his skills or a solid basketball IQ. He needs a strong summer as much as anyone.
Buddy Hield: Being the best player in college basketball doesn’t always translate to NBA success (just ask Jimmer Fredette), but Hield certainly looks like he’ll be able to contribute for the Pelicans right from the jump. With Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson both reportedly signing in Houston, the Pelicans will need perimeter shooting in the worst way, and that’s what Hield does best.
Dragan Bender: He’s the runner-up for having the best name at summer league, but he’s also a fascinating prospect. Bender has a well-rounded game without any glaring weaknesses, and as of late, he’s become a much better perimeter shooter. It’s not completely clear what he does best now, but at 7-foot-1, his size is going to amplify all his skills. If he can play next to Alex Len, Phoenix could have the rare option of playing two towering centers at the same time.
Marquese Chriss: The Suns spent this offseason stockpiling all the intriguing big men, as Chriss shot up draft boards thanks in large part to his workout numbers. The UW big man projects as an ultra-athletic power forward who can knock down open shots, but those types of players are slowly being replaced by power forwards who can make plays against scrambling defenses. It will be interesting to see if the Suns turn him loose and see what he can do with the ball.
Noah Vonleh: The ninth pick in the 2014 draft hasn’t shown a whole lot in his first two years, but he’s still only 20 years old and is clearly adjusting to the speed of the NBA game. Vonleh isn’t much of a scorer, despite possessing a decent shooting stroke, and he doesn’t have the quickness to keep up with most power forwards. Perhaps one day he can develop into a rim-protecting stretch 5, but patience is required here.
Willie Cauley-Stein: The Kings have loaded up on big men during the past two drafts, much to the chagrin of DeMarcus Cousins. Cauley-Stein at least has the defensive versatility to make sense next to Cousins. He can really guard and he can really run, but it would help if Cauley-Stein could demonstrate that his jumper isn’t a lost cause.
Skal Labissiere: All the Kentucky big men! Labissiere didn’t play a whole lot in his one year at Kentucky, but he showed just enough of a sweet shooting stroke and rim-protecting combination to be a first-round pick. Maybe the Kings are planning on defeating small ball, one center at a time.
Kyle Anderson: He’s way too polished offensively to be playing in summer league. Go on a vacation like everyone else next year, Kyle.
Jonathon Simmons: Simmons broke out in a big way last season, and he carried the momentum over to the Utah Summer League as well. Unsurprisingly, it looks like the Spurs have taken another wing player from the bottom of the barrel and developed him into a real NBA player with a bright future.
Trey Lyles: Lyles has a great opportunity to learn from recently acquired forward Boris Diaw, a player whom Lyles was often compared to when he entered the draft last year. It seems likely the Jazz will lean on the versatile forward quite a bit this season, especially after he shot 38.3 percent from deep in his rookie year.