Missing Las Vegas

Were it not for the ongoing NBA lockout, this blog post would come with a Las Vegas dateline. The thought has no doubt crossed the mind of NBA players, prospects, rookies, executives, and all manner of followers and scribes as we stand in place this first week of July.

“Dude,” (and I’m giving NBA players, prospects, rookies, etc. the voice of  Jeff Spicoli here) ” we should be in Vegas right now.”

For the past six years, NBA Summer League has set up camp at UNLV’s Thomas Mack Center and the adjoining Cox Pavilion, giving NBA big wigs — and the accompanying mob of beat writers — an excuse to set up shop for a working vacation in Sin City.

This year, we’ve all crapped out.

Summer League was the first official casualty of the lockout, scuttled before the lockout even became official. For sportswriters who had come to count on the annual Vegas trip as an easy way to fill both newshole and expense reports, it’s a bummer.

For NBA prospects who might have parlayed a nice run in Vegas into a full-time job, it could be devastating. Just ask Gary Neal, whose five-game run in Las Vegas last season was the final straw in securing him a contract with the Spurs.

“Summer League definitely sealed the deal for me,” Neal told the Express-News back in April, when it became apparent the 2011 version might be in jeopardy. “With no summer league, who knows what would have happened?”

Certainly, the cancellation of  Summer League reduces the chances that the Spurs — or some other team — can ferret out this year’s version of Neal, a diamond-in-the-rough who went on to earn a solid spot in Gregg Popovich’s rotation and first-team All-Rookie honors.

“It’s an opportunity taken away from a guy trying to get into the league,” Neal said in April. “It can close a couple doors for some guys.”

Truth be told, the Spurs weren’t counting on mining another Neal out of the Las Vegas desert. That kind of jackpot doesn’t comes around all that often.

Still, Summer League had become an integral part of the Spurs’ player development program, for rookies and young returning veterans alike. There will be a void this offseason.

“It’s been huge for us, actually,” Popovich said in April, before the event was shuttered. “There have been a large number of people who have started their knowledge of what the NBA is all about in summer league. We really get a good feeling about players there.”

With that in mind, here are some Spurs players for whom the loss of summer league might be particularly harmful:

* Kawhi Leonard and Cory Joseph. Summer League is generally a rookie’s first real exposure to anything approaching an NBA game. The Spurs’ two first-round picks in the June draft won’t have that luxury. They’ll basically have to hit the ground running in training camp.

* James Anderson. In terms of NBA service time, Anderson isn’t a rookie, but might as well be. He missed his first crack at Summer League in 2010 with a strained hamstring, and that absence set him back once the real season began. After appearing in just 26 games as a rookie, Anderson could have used a nice run in Vegas this summer.

* Danny Green and Da’Sean Butler. Green made fans in the front office last season with his willingness to shoot the basketball. He could have used a solid Summer League to bolster those good feelings about him. Butler, meanwhile, is the wildest of wild cards, having not played in an organized game since blowing out his knee in the 2010 Final Four. In short, he’s the kind of guy for whom the Vegas stage was built.

* Gary Neal. On the surface, Neal 2.0 isn’t the type of player normally dispatched to Summer League. As a rookie, he established himself as a rotation staple. He’s not a kid looking for exposure. However, with George Hill now playing for Indiana, the Spurs are in need of someone to eat up minutes behind Tony Parker at point guard. Las Vegas would have been the perfect place for Neal to put his work-in-progress point guard skills into practice.

Leave a Reply