23 NBA teams and one NBA D-League Select squad will head to the desert on Friday to begin play in the eighth annual Las Vegas Summer League (last year’s was cancelled because of the lockout). The teams will play a total of 60 games from July 13-22 between the Thomas and Mack Center and Cox Pavilion, both on the campus of UNLV. Six of the top seven picks—including number one overall selection Anthony Davis of the Hornets—will be in Vegas for their first taste of the NBA experience. NBA TV will show all 60 games, 39 of them live—plenty of action to whet a hoops fan’s appetite until Olympic play begins July 28. Here’s a primer on which teams and individuals to watch this year in Las Vegas.
Charlotte Bobcats: No team has more of its future present in Vegas than the Bobcats. In Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker, Charlotte’s roster boasts three top-10 draft picks from the past two years. To say that Biyombo and Walker’s rookie seasons were rough wouldn’t do justice to the term: as we all know, the Bobcats finished 7-59 and their .106 winning percentage was the lowest in league history. While Walker’s stats didn’t blow anyone away (12 ppg on 37% FG, 31% on threes despite launching 4.5 per game), Biyombo pretty much lived up to expectations. The Congolese forward was clearly still raw offensively, but his rebounding and block numbers (9.1 and 2.8 per 36 minutes, respectively) were great for a player his age (19) and height (6-foot-9). Byron Mullens, who played the third-most minutes on the Bobcats in 2011-12, will also be in Vegas even though he’s now entering his fourth season, as will 2012 second-round draft choice Jeffery Taylor of Vanderbilt. Taylor’s a great defender who can also shoot a bit (50% and 49% in his first two college seasons before shooting 45% last season). Taylor will figure to get more playing time next season than your typical second-rounder, considering how awful the Bobcats were last season, and that should also open the door for a couple other summer league guys to compete for a roster spot. One other familiar name on the roster is Ralph Sampson III, who went undrafted this year out of Minnesota. But a strong bloodline only goes so far: Sampson averaged just 8 points and 5 rebounds per game last season as the Golden Gophers finished ninth in the Big Ten with a 6-12 conference record.
Cleveland Cavaliers: 2011-12 Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving lived up to the billing last season and should be even better next season as his supporting cast continues to improve. Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters were surprise selections at #4 overall in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and will need to play up to their draft positions if Cleveland wants to get better as a team. Tyler Zeller, the #17 pick in this year’s draft, should help Cleveland’s frontcourt and forms one of the league’s most underrated frontlines along with Anderson Varejao. 2008 Big East Player of the Year Luke Harangody is probably too small and slow to have an impact at the NBA level, but he will play for Cleveland’s summer league outfit.
Dallas Mavericks: The Mavs have never been a team to rebuild through the draft, and that’s probably going to be the case as long as Mark Cuban is around. But after an embarrassing first-round sweep in this year’s playoffs and stricter luxury tax penalties coming into place over the next couple years, Dallas may have to pay slightly more attention to the summer league than usual this year. Dallas’ top pick from this year’s draft, Jared Cunningham (#24 overall, acquired in a draft night trade with Cleveland) will be in action, as will fellow rookies Bernard James, Jae Crowder (#33 and #34 overall, respectively, also from Cleveland) and Drew Gordon (undrafted out of New Mexico). Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle compared Cunningham to Russell Westbrook, which is fair—Cunningham shares a lot of the same attributes as the Thunder guard, for better (fast, athletic, gets to the rim) or worse (questionable decision making, not a great outside shooter), though obviously he’s not on Westbrook’s level. James is a 6-foot-10, 240-lb defensive presence and was a big part of Florida State’s success over the past two seasons. It must be noted, however, that James is 27 years old after serving time in the Air Force. Crowder, last year’s Big East Player of the Year, is the kind of guy who will outperform a lot of the guys drafted above him because he doesn’t overstep his role and instead focuses on doing what he can to help his team win. Gordon surprisingly went undrafted despite averaging 14 points (54% FG) and 11 rebounds last season as the best player on a New Mexico team that lost by three points in the NCAA Tournament to Big East champ and Final Four squad Louisville. Dominique Jones, the Mavs’ first-rounder in 2010 who’s barely played in two NBA seasons, will be in Vegas, as will undrafted free agent Keith Wright, the 2011 Ivy League Player of the Year who last season helped Harvard to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1946.
Denver Nuggets: The Manimal, Kenneth Faried, will play for Denver after finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting with averages of 10 points, 8 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in just 23 minutes per game last year. The top European player drafted in June, France’s Evan Fournier (#20 overall), will play as well, alongside fellow rookies Quincy Miller of Baylor (#38 overall) and Izzet Turkyilmaz of Turkey (#50 overall). 2011 first-rounder Jordan Hamilton played just 258 minutes last year and will get some much-needed run in Vegas. Josh Carter, formerly of Texas A&M, has spent the last few years playing in Germany and Israel and led the NCAA in three-point shooting in 2006-07 (50% on 172 attempts).
Golden State Warriors: Golden State has one of the summer league’s largest rosters and has a lot of names worth watching. Much-hyped/maligned prospect Harrison Barnes, the number seven pick in the ’12 draft, will be there, as will fellow first-rounder Festus Ezeli of Vanderbilt (#30 overall). Michigan State’s Draymond Green (#35 overall) made a pair of Final Fours and was the 2012 Big Ten Player of the Year. He’s good at everything, but not great, which isn’t always a recipe for success at the NBA level. Charles Jenkins started Golden State’s last 17 games at point guard while putting up solid per-minute averages. Jeremy Tyler moved into a similar role as a rookie, starting the team’s last 23 games despite putting up less than impressive numbers (yes, if you haven’t figured it out by now, the Warriors were tanking at the end of the season). 2011 lottery pick Klay Thompson had a very nice rookie year, averaging 13 points per game and shooting the lights out (41% 3 FG, 87% FT). None of these guys seem set to be future stars, but they have the potential to form a nice supporting cast or could be packaged together for a star in a trade (though I can’t remember the last time a star wanted to play for Golden State).
Houston Rockets: Houston ended up making three picks between #12 and #18 in this year’s draft, and they kept all three players—Jeremy Lamb, Royce White and Terrence Jones. Lamb and Jones both won NCAA championships in college, but it’s White who is the most fascinating (and best) prospect of the trio. He led Iowa State in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals last season and went for 23 points, 9 rebounds and 3 steals against Jones’ Kentucky squad in the NCAA Tournament last year. Scott Machado was perhaps the best player not to be drafted in 2012, and led the nation with 10 assists per game in taking Iona to the Big Dance. Chandler Parsons was a surprise success as a rookie, and fellow 2011 draft pick Marcus Morris will also be in action after playing just 17 games last season. Promising Lithuanian big man Donatas Motiejunas, who led Prokom Gdynia to the Polish league title last season, signed with Houston last week and should be worth keeping an eye on.
Milwaukee Bucks: Tobias Harris looked unimpressive as a rookie, featuring in 42 games (9 starts), though he’s still just 19 and has room to improve. Top 2012 draft pick John Henson (#14 overall) won’t replace Andrew Bogut entirely, but he should provide a reasonable facsimile in the areas of rebounding and shot-blocking, if he can add some bulk to his 6-foot-11, 220-lb frame. Doron Lamb averaged 14 points per game and shot 47% on threes last season; he’d be getting a lot more hype if four other players from his school weren’t drafted ahead of him. Larry Sanders has appeared in 112 games over two seasons for Milwaukee, but hasn’t got much extended run, averaging just 14 minutes per game for his career.
New Orleans Hornets: Anthony Davis headlines this team, even though he had to withdraw from Team USA Olympic consideration due to a sore left ankle. Fellow 2012 top-10 pick Austin Rivers will also be in action, as will Davis’ Kentucky teammate Darius Miller, who averaged 10 ppg last season and probably would have started for any other team in the country. Xavier Henry, a 2010 lottery pick who’s had a rough first couple years, will look to salvage his NBA career, though his numbers in the pros so far have been underwhelming. Jerome Dyson, the predecessor to Kemba Walker at UConn as the inefficient, high-scoring guard (17 ppg on 39% shooting in 2009-10) is also looking to catch on with the Hornets.
Phoenix Suns: If you watch a lot of the tournament, you’ll probably recognize a ton of the names on the Suns’ summer league entry. Unfortunately for Phoenix, tournament success is only one of many indicators of a successful pro. One guy whom there is little doubt about, however, is Kendall Marshall, the #13 overall pick out of North Carolina and the draft’s best point guard. Marshall ranked second nationally in assists and led the Tar Heels to back-to-back ACC regular season titles and Elite Eight appearances. UNC was considered a favorite to win it all last year prior to Marshall fracturing his wrist against Creighton in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32 (a game in which he had 18 points and 11 assists on 7-for-8 shooting). Without him, the Tar Heels barely edged Ohio in overtime before falling by 13 to Kansas in the regional final. Matt Howard, one of the stars of the Butler team that made consecutive national title game appearances in 2010 and 2011, will play for Phoenix, as will former tournament stars Patrick O’Bryant (Bradley), Jacob Pullen (Kansas State), David Lighty (Ohio State) and Erving Walker (Florida). O’Bryant is a huge bust at this point after being taken #9 overall in 2006, while the other four all went undrafted for various (valid) reasons. Walker is extremely athletic but lacks the passing chops to compensate for his height (5-foot-8), while Lighty had one good season shooting threes in college (43% in 2010-11) but four poor ones (33% combined in the rest of his career, including seven games in 2008-09 before redshirting due to injury). Markieff Morris had a pretty average rookie season, but guys like him will need to step up if the Suns are going to do anything in the post-Steve Nash era.
Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers will debut their two top draft picks, #6 overall selection Damian Lillard of Weber State and #11 overall selection Meyers Leonard of Illinois. Both are surrounded by questions about how their skills will translate to the next level, but the Blazers are hoping that the numbers both put up last year in college (25 ppg for Lillard, 14 ppg, 8 rpg on 58% shooting for Leonard, plus he’s 7-foot-1) are more indicative of their abilities than their supposed shortcomings. Will Barton (#40 overall) was Portland’s other 2012 draft pick and almost outrebounded Leonard as a guard (8 rpg in 2011-12). He stuffs the stat sheet, but at 6-foot-6 and a waif-like 175 pounds, there are legitimate concerns about how he will handle the physicality of the NBA. For some reason, three-year vet Wesley Matthews will be playing for the Blazers in Vegas, as will 2011 first-rounder Nolan Smith.
Sacramento Kings: Aside from DeMarcus Cousins, most of the Kings’ young talent will be on display in Vegas. Lottery picks Jimmer Fredette (#10 overall in 2011) and Thomas Robinson (#5 overall in 2012) headline the squad, along with 2010 second-rounder Hassan Whiteside, who has yet to prove that he’s anything other than the raw 7-footer he was drafted as. Yancy Gates is an intriguing rookie from Cincinnati (12 ppg, 9 rpg last season) and has proven himself in the Big East. However, Robinson is the only one of the group who no one has any major question marks about (and that includes Cousins), but it will take more than just a strong effort from the Kansas product to turn this mess of a franchise around. The Kings have a lot of pieces that don’t fit together and their arena situation remains unsolved. Until GM Geoff Petrie makes some moves, this team isn’t going to do anything.
Washington Wizards: The headliner is #3 overall pick Bradley Beal of Florida, though the Wizards’ roster will also boast a pair of prominent Czechs in Jan Vesely (#6 overall in 2011) and Tomas Satoransky (#32 overall in 2012). Florida State’s Chris Singleton is another great defender from Florida State and could have a future in that role in the league. Shelvin Mack averaged just 12 minutes per game as a rookie last season, so he could benefit from some extended playing time in Las Vegas.
Best of the rest
Not all of the other 12 teams have announced their rosters, but of those that remain, here are some of the top guys worth watching among those expected to play:
Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins will suit up for the Hawks. He can stroke the three (20 ppg, 44% 3FG) and had 17 points and 7 rebounds in the Commodores’ upset of Kentucky in the SEC Tournament championship game . . . Marquis Teague was the Bulls’ only draft pick in 2012 and will look to replicate his brother’s rise to success with the Hawks . . . Like Chicago, the Clippers only had one 2012 pick – Furkan Aldemir of Turkey. Also like the Bulls, the LA’s player to watch will likely be a Kentucky point guard, Eric Bledsoe. With Mo Williams headed to Utah and Chauncey Billups’ return uncertain, Bledsoe, entering his third season, will need to prove himself as Chris Paul’s backup . . . Darius Johnson-Odom (#55 overall) and the NBA Draft’s Mr. Irrelevant, Robert Sacre (#60 overall) will suit up for the Lakers. Andrew Goudelock and Devin Ebanks, who started 12 games in 2011-12, will also be ones to watch in purple and gold . . . Justin Hamilton of LSU is the only guy the Heat acquired on draft night, but they’ll probably also send 2011 first-rounder Norris Cole, who flashed some potential in 2011-12, to Las Vegas . . . A pair of Big Ten stars could stay in the Midwest with strong summer league stints with the Timberwolves. William Buford was a good second or third option at Ohio State and projects to be an end of the bench type in the NBA, while Purdue’s Robbie Hummel looked good last season but is an injury risk—he’s already torn his ACL twice . . . The Knicks’ sole draft choice, Kostas Papanikolaou, won’t be in action, but some of their younger veterans, like Toney Douglas and Josh Harrellson, will be . . . The Spurs don’t need to do a lot to get better, though second-rounder Marcus Denmon of Missouri, a two time first team All-Big XII selection, could fit nicely as a shooter off the bench on a team that loves to take threes . . . Toronto will likely send three 2012 draft picks—#8 overall selection Terrence Ross of Washington, #37 overall selection Quincy Acy of Baylor and #56 overall selection Tomislav Zubcic of Croatia. Undrafted Xavier guard Tu Holloway, the 2011 Atlantic 10 player of the year, can score, but hasn’t received much hype despite reaching the Sweet 16 in three of his four seasons.