By: Alex Barker
Art by Nate Zemanek
Day three of Summer League, and really Las Vegas, is when you transition from rookie to savvy veteran. Towels draped over our necks and sunglasses hanging from our shirts, we casually flashed our room key (the only possession we brought with us) to the stoic pool attendant. Chest out, eyes up, we walked right past the lockers to a sea of open chairs to claim what was ours: any damn chair we wanted. It’s curious how humans are creatures of habit though- after seeing all the options, Spitz and I returned to our shady cove behind the waterfall from the day before.
Skipping breakfast got us there an hour earlier, and like a kid that spent all year asking for a cool toy we never thought we’d actually get for Christmas, we didn’t know what to do when we got our way. The pool was mostly empty, and we were mostly bored. After an awkward float around the pool and some chit-chat near the waterfall, we were done.
Over the previous two nights, we logged nearly 20 miles of walking. We were on a mission to see almost every casino and hotel on the strip. Leaving The Mirage, there were only a few famous spots left to visit, and the one we went to wasn’t plated in gold or 20-stories tall. It was the holy grail of southwest regional fast food cuisine: In-N-Out. They are about as frequent as sunburns across California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and Texas, but if you’re from the Midwest they’re nearly mythical. Their Double-Double burger isn’t just a serendipitous basketball reference, it’s probably the best double cheeseburger in fast food, and I got two.
Pulling up to the Thomas & Mack Center a quick Uber ride later, we were anxious to get even better seats than the day before, but a glance out the window had us crestfallen. Hundreds of other gym rats had shown up an hour earlier too. Uber is great when they heroically rescue you, whisking you home to safety or off to somewhere exciting, but sometimes an arrival feels like walking the plank. Getting out of the car, we waited for an hour outside in the 117-degree heat.
In order to save battery for the long day of basketball, we resisted scrolling Twitter or texting. As I people-watched, I pondered how long the human body can last on Denny’s, beer, and In-N-Out. There is a saying around Nike, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” I guess we’re just a different kind. We’re Long Distance Vacationers, or Spectator Marathoners, maybe.
Thomas & Mack’s entrance sits up high, with its doors opening right to the concourse, so there is a sizable flight of stairs broken up by a single wide landing that stands before anyone who visits. A patchwork quilt of throwback jerseys and hats swarmed like fish ready to be fed at the bottom of those stairs. Arena employees stood patrol, occasionally reporting back and forth over black walkie-talkies. I assumed they were discussing how quickly they could get an ambulance there if one of us passed out from the heat, or how dumb it is to stand in the middle of the desert for an hour to watch 20-year-olds play basketball in practice jerseys.
Obviously in charge, one employee walked back and forth, casually dropping lines like, “Not yet everyone!” or “It’s almost time!” She would look over and nod to other employees, then shake her head. She must have known she was teasing us, and it felt like the crowd was sensing that too. When she finally announced, “Okay!…” the crowd cut her off and burst through the invisible barricade, like the start of a Planet of the Apes battle scene. “WAIT!!!” She shouted, and miraculously, everyone stopped mid-step to look at her for a full second before they looked back up and continued to sprint to the doors.
Soon we found our seats and had to settle in because we had Dallas vs. Chicago, Toronto vs. Minnesota, Boston vs. Los Angeles (Lakers), and Philadelphia vs. Golden State ahead of us. Spitz and I were by far the most excited for Celtics-Lakers, but Vegas worked its magic and there were several charming surprises. As everyone got situated we saw J. Cole come in and sit courtside, and soon fellow courtsider Mark Cuban came over to say hello.
Tee Grizzley’s “First Day Out” thumped in the arena as warm-ups commenced and I turned to Spitz to ask him to get a picture of me for Instagram. Taking pictures of me in public is probably Spitz’s second least favorite friend activity behind being a spontaneous sunscreen masseuse, but he obliged. As I’m turned, trying to look at the camera, but not, and be cool, but not act like I’m trying to be cool, the crowd exploded with “Oooo’s” and then applause. What did I miss? Spitz handed me the phone back without making eye contact and said, “Dennis Smith Jr. just had a sick dunk, but you missed it.”
Putting my phone away, I looked back at the court and crossed my fingers for the next time Smith would get the ball in the layup line. A minute later, my wish came true. Taking a few gather steps, he rocketed his 6’2” into the air, cocking the ball behind his head in the classic tomahawk pose, before spinning, dipping it between both legs, and throwing down the two-handed reverse. That is an amazing dunk. I turned to Spitz, open-mouthed and wide-eyed and said, “Do you think he’ll do another? He has to do another. When you have a gift like that, it’s your job to share it with the world.” I know I can be a little dramatic, but I really believe that, and this dude has bunnies in his sneakers. Sure enough, next time as he drove from the left wing, he jumped off both feet, spun to face midcourt and put the ball through his legs before throwing it off the back of the rim, barely missing the 180-degree inverted East Bay dunk. The crowd was buzzingly giddy. Just when it looked like we’d get one more peek, the horn sounded and everyone headed to the bench for introductions.
On draft day, I had been in the same camp as many other Pistons fans, hoping North Carolina State’s Smith Jr. would somehow drop to us at the 12th pick, but he was scooped up by the Mavericks with the 9th. The game that day against the Bulls was a nice example of why: he just felt like a star in the making. Aside from crazy hops, he showcased exceptional acceleration and an obvious feel for switching gears just as defenders turn their hips or change speeds to compensate his last speed change. He repeatedly got around his man to draw the help-side defender before successfully getting the ball to the freshly-open backside player near the bucket. Smith’s aggressive nature and ability to penetrate into the paint and all the way to the rim caused his defenders to step off, which helped him easily create space for a flurry of step-back jumpers, but he wasn’t connecting on those. Therein lays the biggest obstacle in evaluating talent during Summer League. Dennis Smith Jr. should be more athletic than most of the guys out there. Blowing by defenders in July is a lot different than trying to get around Avery Bradley or Patrick Beverly in March. I’m interested to see how his athleticism translates to the NBA, and how his knees hold up, over the 82-game NBA season.
As captivating as this trip had been for me up to this point, it wasn’t until the third quarter of that Day Two Bulls-Mavericks game that I really reached peak Summer League ecstasy. There is a certain trance many sports fans fall under while they are watching a game. They’re simultaneously zoned-out and focused and I was just hitting that point when cheers erupted around the arena, snapping me out of it. Nothing spectacular had happened, and yet, applause? I turned to Spitz and asked what I missed, but he was looking at the jumbotron replay also looking for an answer.
In the video, a Maverick player had grabbed a routine defensive rebound and then started to casually walk the ball up the court… and that was it. They replayed this in slow motion and people rejoiced. Spitz and I looked at each other. Cheers flared up again as the Maverick set a screen at the top of the key, then popped, receiving a pass for an open three. The arena cheered like crazy when he caught the ball in that moment, then booed when he didn’t shoot it. Hurriedly, he executed an unnecessary shot fake, took a hard dribble to the right elbow and then pulled up, nailing a jump shot for two. The roof blew off! Frantic cell phone googling revealed that player to be Ding Yanyuhang, the 23-year-old Chinese Basketball Association MVP. Ding was number 8 in Summer League programs, but as it turned out, was number 1 in Summer League hearts.
Ding started the Fourth quarter back on the bench, and when they showed his face on the Jumbotron everyone cheered again. Sitting, he looked up at the big screen high above the court and gave a shy wave and a smile. The place went bonkers. A few minutes later, after chants of, “Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!” the Summer League coach of the Mavs, Jamahl Mosley, relented and told Ding to go back in the game. Everyone in the Thomas & Mack Center was visibly happy. Shortly after, Ding set another screen at the top of the key, and once again popped out behind the 3-point line, but this time he confidently stroked the 3-ball, swish. The rest of the game went just like that: every time Ding was open or got the ball, the place cheered; if he wasn’t passed to, or if he passed the ball, everyone booed. It was never quiet. The best moment was when he got tangled under the basket and pulled down a monster rebound, ripping it away from another player. In games later in the tournament, he would shoot free throws to echoes of “MVP! MVP! MVP!”
Beginning in the 2017–18 season, the NBA added two-way contracts between NBA teams and NBA G-League (used to be called the D-League or Development League) affiliates. Players on two-way contracts can spend up to 45 days in the NBA and spend the rest of the season in the G-League. Against the Bulls, Ding played 10-minutes, scoring 5 points and pulled down 3 rebounds, but something about him resonated with people that day. I really hope that he earns one of the Mavericks’ two-way spots. The world is a weird place these days, and with the NBA’s assertiveness with their international presence, I think it would be good for them to add a lovable underdog to the big show. How about adding a Chinese shark to your tank, Mark Cuban?
After a sleeper between the Raptors and Wolves, the electricity was back, and Laker Nation was back too. The Celtics marched out, greeted by defensive anger and hostility. The Lakers came out to a thunderous reception. I have to give Lakers fans props. It’s easy to be a fan when you have Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Shaq, or Kobe carrying your team, but the last few years have been really tough and people have held loyal. Full disclosure here, despite being a fan of the Pistons I’m also a fan of the league as a whole and have a few teams I favor a smidge. Los Angeles is one of them. Growing up, the Lakers always seemed to be in the second game of the weeknight doubleheader and it was a blast to stay up way too late and watch them. Frankly, I like when the Celtics are great too. This is an awesome rivalry, and The League is a better place with both fires fully stoked.
Boston’s premier rookie, Jayson Tatum, who notched 27 points and 11 rebounds in the win, did a fantastic job deflating Laker spirits. He shined through a series of calculated drives, spins, leaners, and floaters that showcased an ironic Kobe-esque footwork and touch. Tatum creates a lot with very few dribbles and seemed surprisingly comfortable. At the end of the half, he banked in a three from the half court logo too. Despite the loss, that game served as a sigh of relief for the Lakers thanks to Lonzo Ball’s triple-double redemption of 11-11-11, and the incredible play of Kyle Kuzma.
Kuzma had 31 points in 33 minutes and showed again and again in the two games we saw him why he would later be Summer League MVP. I’ll go as far as to say the Lakers getting the 27th pick in the draft and picking Kuzma out of Utah may end up being the exact swing moment that takes them from rebuilding to rebuilt. His energy is contagious, he’s got an awesome 6’9”, 220-lb NBA frame that he hauls down the floor looking for fast break points before retreating to the perimeter. In what I saw, he passes unselfishly but doesn’t overthink possessions, satisfyingly stabbing defenses with his buttery J if they leave him open. The 22-year-old Flint, Michigan native has a chance to make a serious impact early, and his skillset is a fantastic complement to Ball’s. I always love a good NBA ‘what if?’ and I already wonder what would have happened if the Lakers hadn’t traded D’Angelo Russell to Brooklyn.
After the third game, Spitz and I were pretty much toast. My eyes felt like burnt-out matches, worn from hours of staring at the court below. We fidgeted in our seats and glanced at our watches. Did we really have to stay? Markelle Fultz, the number one pick in the draft was about to come out for the 76ers and I didn’t think I could forgive myself if we left before seeing him. We stared patiently as Fultz swooped into the lane, releasing the ball with delicate accuracy. Soon, we couldn’t take it anymore and had to leave. But how many times in my life had I turned a game off a little too early, only to later hear about the magnificence that followed? How many players have left the poker table in a slight lull, only to hear how hot the table became after? Who cares?
Walking out, though reluctant, we had no regrets and found peace in the warm summer air.