Summer League and the Zone of No-Context

Summer League is only barely basketball, but it's exactly what we need.
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It wouldn't be Summer League without Baron Davis on the creep.

Illustration by Scott Henkle.

The non-contending majority of NBA fans spend basketball’s summertime nadir, this slow death and slower rebirth, in a two-headed state of extreme boredom and extreme distress. The arc that encompasses the draft lottery, the NBA Draft, the heady first days of free agency, and then the Las Vegas Summer League--with the added tease, if you can stand it, of a bit of Olympics every few years--is the same time when SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight become nigh on indistinguishable, and attention drifts toward Fantasy Football forecasts. But for the NBA observer it’s also a state of almost constant, agitated anticipation. And it’s a state particularly heavy on evaluation. It was easy to remember this from the stands at the Las Vegas Summer League last week, watching some very fast and not very precise basketball, trying to remember which team drafted which players, and encountering the hacked Wikipedia page for the “2012 NBA Draft.”

It’s a state of evaluation that is never less than fully committed, but also and notably rarely correct. I don’t know yet about Waiters over Barnes or vice versa, and won’t pretend to have sussed out a difference between blackjack hands during my Vegas visit. I do know that we’re almost never right about this sort of speculation, at least in the short run: Last year a friend rails against choosing Kyrie Irving over Derrick Williams, claiming “Nothing, nothing in the world easier than evaluating NBA talent!”; this year, after watching that same Derrick Williams weakly block a shot in Summer League, that same friend shouts with the bitterest certainty from the deathly quiet stands: “Oh you must be soooooooo proud Derrick Williams! It’s SUMMER LEAGUE Derrick Williams!” Nothing, nothing in the world could be easier.

Still, all this dead-certain guesswork is something to do when there’s no actual meaningful basketball being played, and this liminal “period of potential acquisition” is usually more exciting than slogging through the pre-Christmas portion of the NBA season. Summer League is as casual, wonderful and frankly strange an event as basketball has to offer. If attending the NBA draft is visiting the set of television show, going to summer league is like being let into the back rooms of a family business.

The concession stand is surrounded by generations of NBA players—they’re shaking hands, they’re catching up, they’re now and again ducking into one of the two gyms to semi-attentively watch players who, in many cases, are fighting for their basketball lives. A few feet away, Knicks invitee Mustapha Farrakhan Jr.’s older, NBA-tall relative or friend or advocate or something is talking to Byron Scott, presumably on behalf of the bristly grandson of the Nation of Islam. Just over there a backpacked Reggie Miller slides by. And along the wall a certain sometimes-heavy, sometimes-underachieving, sometimes-amazing, always-bearded last-seen-grimacing-on-a-Knicks-stretcher point guard turns his bedroom eyes, now and again, toward the prettiest in the stands. Asking what Baron Davis is doing there is missing the point. Or, rather, unnecessarily assuming that there is a point. It's Summer League. Of course Baron Davis is there.

It’s quite a show for the star-gazing fan, but what about the basketball upon which all those upcoming front office judgments depend? This, especially, is hard to say: these are All-Star Games without all-star talent, a playground one-on-five game where those who can’t create lurk pointlessly around the three point line, waiting for passes that don’t come. It’s undeniably, deliriously and awesomely motley: professionals with a year or two of NBA tricks showing up more athletic, more skilled, better players; guys desperately trying to make the league sometimes playing harder and better, sometimes playing harder and totally out of control; and guys who don’t have to worry about making it all just hanging out, for now deeply out of shape.

Coby Karl and Luke Harengody can dominate a Summer League game, at least for a while, which is great for them and great to watch, but also a strange thing in a league that ostensibly exists to evaluate NBA talent. So if we hope to find out how Jared Sullinger’s (un)vertical might play in a non-college context, and if Jared gets off his shot against whoever he’s getting it off against, it means maybe he’s been doing the Pilates his father suggested, but decidedly does not mean we now know what will happen if the Celtics meet Miami again in ten months.

So Summer League is, finally, a weird hybrid sort of basketball: a team game played without much teamwork at all. Partly this is because few of these players have played together before, and partly it’s because each is furiously pursuing his own agenda. If basketball is a deeply and essentially communal activity upon which a single individual can, at great potential peril and only with great skill, occasionally impose something like a so-called individual will, then Summer League basketball is only sort of that.

As a fan, it’s easy to forget that “essentially team” part and start over-evaluating individual potential, even against a background like this one, which is cheerful and up-front about how little its context is like that of the NBA. It’s easy to forget because individual evaluation is easier than evaluation of, say, team defense at the speed at which NBA defense is played. It’s easy to forget because we’re all a bit weak-kneed for the cult of NBA personality of the sort that leaves you—well, left me—embarrassed to be a near forty-year-old too excited about being this close to Larry Johnson. And it’s easy to forget because we can’t always fend off the NBA/Nike/Adidas/ESPN machine that delivers us this product, which is a machine that always celebrates individual efforts over collective ones, because individuals buy things for individual reasons. Las Vegas is, in this regard, the perfect place for all this individualism gone rampant and weird, even when the individual under evaluation is . Adam Morrison.

Which is why I think that hacked Wikipedia page almost says it all: as a claim it’s hilarious, and as a claim it’s insanely premature, and also as a claim it’s just what fans do, at this time of year and also at other times of year. And to say so isn’t a homer’s defense: I was at the 2012 NBA Draft as a Cavs fan, and groaned over the Waiters pick, and I groaned through watching his helpless first two Summer League games on television, and I groaned while watching him sit out two more in real life. I have nothing but doubts and anxiety about this team and its pick—and boredom, shouldn’t forget the boredom—but I also have nothing resembling certainty. That makes me a bad fan, maybe—vexed ambivalence is not what we’re supposed to feel, or so we're told. What we are supposed do in these rest periods is claim more certainty and claim more certainty, not less, based on whatever information is around, or none at all.

But it’s a fools’ game, trying to evaluate the future of an NBA player—let alone the team that employs him—in a context like the Summer League. Which is, finally, fine: we know it and we play the game anyway. In fact, it brings us all the joy we know, especially now. For another couple of months, 25 or so fanbases will have almost no hope except the one they felt here, in this strange and unreal place: the hope for some unexpected someone at the edges of the D-league, for one more genie in a rookie class. We’ll desperately try to talk ourselves into what we’ve seen here in Las Vegas. It could mean ten more wins, which could mean a playoff spot. It could just mean someone fun to watch next season. It could mean nothing at all.

I will tell you what though: Damian Lillard is one hell of a basketball player. An unquestionable future all-star. He should have gone number two in the draft. He lit up the Summer League, and he looked so damn strong.

Or maybe not, maybe I'm wrong. For now, though, this is what there is to talk about. And thank the basketball gods for that. 

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