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Most years, summer league has a certain non-premium feeling to it. Oh, sure something great always happens (cue your favorite Pops Mensah-Bonsu highlights) but let's be honest: this is not the NBA. Teams won't even let these scrubs sully the regular team uniforms. A typical game, in years past, has meant players no one has ever heard of ballhogging their way to playing time in the NBDL, before half-empty stands.
But this year feels different. A weird combination of a strong 2007 draft, the appearance of plenty of returning NBA players, the expansion of the Las Vegas Summer League to feature 22 teams, and a nice mix of interesting stories makes the 2007 Vegas Summer League the most promising in recent memory.
Not to mention, this year for the first time you can watch every single game either online or on NBA TV. The games start this afternoon (at 4 p.m. ET), and run through next weekend.
Here the top ten storylines I'll be watching:
You just have to watch him. We all know this already, right? It's the lesson of his lone season at Texas, which was quite possibly the best freshman season in NCAA history. With his not-quite NBA physicality, it's possible he won't play super long minutes, but when he's out there he'll be up there with Randy Foye (who'll be auditioning as Minnesota's regular season starting point guard) as the most dangerous scorer in Las Vegas.
Also, everyone is pointing to the last night of the summer league as the big highlight, when Kevin Durant's Sonics will face off against Greg Oden's Trail Blazers.
Don't wait for that game to watch Durant. Traditionally, the best young prospects play heavy minutes early in the week, but as the tournament winds down, they yield to the fringe players who are trying to impress the scouts, GMs, and coaches ringing the floor.
Greg Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge
Portland's front line of the future. Not only will #1 pick Greg Oden be here (except for Portland's Wednesday game against the Lakers, which Oden will reportedly miss to attend the taping of the ESPY awards) but so will LaMarcus Aldridge, newly freed, thanks to the trade of Zacn Randolph, to play power forward. Portland's championship dreams hinge on these two finding ways to work nicely together.
One thing to watch: does Oden's need to be around the basket on offense keep Aldridge from catching the ball near the hoop, where he can be very effective? Because if Oden turns Aldridge into a jump-shooter, a lot of Aldridge's talent would be wasted.
(As a bonus, when watching Portland watch out for Sergio Rodriguez. He's probably the most creative playmaker in the summer league, and I'd be making him a headliner in my preview if I didn't know that he's really focused on playing well for his national team later this summer, and might be saving a little something.)
White Clipper Backup Guards
Jared Jordan was a legend long before he made it to the NBA. No one disputes that he is a fabulous point guard who can run a team, win games, and score like it's going out of style. But the doubters point out that at Marist he played against mediocre competition, and at the pre-draft camp he measured out at a scrawny and unathletic 6-0 and 183 pounds. He has become one of the most divisive names in sports. Half the NBA thinks his play will overcome all. The other half thinks guys with his physical profile essentially never make it to the NBA, so why bother.
Jordan's joined on the Clippers by another former college legend who is fighting long odds. Mike Gansey, formerly of West Virginia was, he felt, on a course to make the NBA. Then he got up close and personal with a nasty brand of antiobiotic-resistant staph infection that plagues locker rooms and hospitals these days.
It can be deadly, but Gansey wrestled the microbes into submission, and nearly a year later he's getting the shot at the NBA that he missed last year.
Two great guys you should watch now, because it's a good bet you won't see much of them in the NBA during the regular season.
A couple of years ago in the playoffs I started calling Alonzo Mourning "feist." He came into games and delivered 100% pure and unadulterated feistiness every single second he was on the court.
That wins games.
Young Ron Artest did that once too (now he spends a distressingly large percentage of the time loafing around the high post, calling for the ball.) Last year before he broke his wrist ten games into the season, Kyle Lowry was an easy pick to succeed Mourning as the most persistently feisty player in the league. In his first regular season NBA game -- remember, he's a 6-foot-nothing point guard -- he grabbed ten rebounds.
Not long ago, Memphians considered Lowry their clear choice as the point guard of the future. But while he was on the sidelines, his team went out and drafted another point guard of the future in Mike Conley, Jr.
Somehow I doubt that'll make Kyle Lowry any less feisty (and I'd hate to be Mike Conley in practice over the next season). Vegas is step one of Lowry's comeback.
Also, one thing I really like about watching Memphis at summer league: they will be led by new head coach Marc Iavaroni. Most teams will have assistants at the helm.
Chauncey Billups says it's no secret that then Jason Maxiell gets the ball, he has bad intentions. He wants to dunk it even when he has no business dunking it. I support that. The Piston squad also features Rodney Stuckey who promises to be one of the most exciting guards in what is traditionally a guard's league. Piston fans have been hanging their hopes on Amir Johnson for some time, who some have compared to a young Kevin Garnett. Former UCLA standout Arron Afflalo will be making his pro debut, too.
Denver's "Here They Are" Team
The NBA has a fat "Where Are They Now" file. The answer for a lot of those players is: Denver's summer league team.
Randy Kim of AOL says it best: "The Nuggets have invited el bustos Dajuan Wagner, Jelani McCoy and Nikoloz Tskitishvili to play for their summer team. And who's the player this trio will turn to for sage advice? Shoot-first-pass-later forward Lamond Murray. Here's to hoping that NBA TV keeps the cameras rolling on these four guys for their entire stay in Vegas."
(For what it's worth, the Denver Post says Wagner will not be playing.)
Last year Ammo was perhaps the rookie that fans were most excited about, and then he turned out to be one of the worst players in the NBA (Insider). Everyone agrees he can get better, however, and he says he is doing just that. Las Vegas is his chance to prove it, in an effort to earn regular season touches and minutes on a team with a roster that, thanks to the addition of Jason Richardson, the emergence of Walter Herrmann, the drafting of Jared Dudley, and the re-signing of Matt Carroll has more scorers than ever. If free agent Gerald Wallace returns, it's officially going to be tough for Morrison to get his minutes unless he has something new to show the world.
Not Enough Rod Benson
The NBDL's Rod Benson is the black Paul Shirley, I guess: minor league talent, major league humorous writing skills. He runs a great site that I have linked to a million times before called Too Much Rod Benson.
Here's a little sample from a recent post about his free agent audition with the Warriors: "Before we started the workout, I heard one of the two greatest things I've ever heard. Don Nelson made it a point to say that on the Warriors, the posts don't post on the block, they post on the elbow or not at all. They set ball screens and run the floor. GREAT news. That's like telling a fat girl that there is a free buffet all night! After the workouts, I heard second of the two the greatest things I've ever heard. Don Nelson walks up to me (already awesome because I'm pretty much starstruck by a man with so much basketball clout) and says: 'Rod, I really enjoyed watching you play. You're in pretty good shape, huh?' I didn't really know how to respond. It was like those T.V. shows where a hot girl approaches the guy who has been eyeing her but is clearly not on her level, then the guy stumbles over his words and looks stupid. I said back: 'I mean, umm yea, I could be better.'
Then Don Nelson replies: 'Well, you're in better shape than these guys. You run the floor really well.' I stood there kind of awkwardly as he walked away. I was so giddy that I couldn't really put myself together -- I might as well have just been propositioned by Jessica Biel."
Benson is on the Memphis summer league team.
If you followed TrueHoop's Just Pick Me Already series leading up to the draft, then you know that the Virginia Tech guard with the long arms (per pre-draft camp measurements, Dowdell's 6-3 with shoes on his feet, and his wingspan -- without shoes on his hands -- is 6-10) and the outstanding mental approach was in the mix to be picked in the late first round or early second.
Dowdell ended up going undrafted, but isn't down about it because he has real conviction that Seattle (widely rumored to be shopping Luke Ridnour and/or Earl Watson) will find a place for him on their roster. Summer league is his chance to make it so -- otherwise his dream of a basketball career will get a lot more complicated.
The Vegas Summer League features 21 NBA teams ... and the Chinese National team, which is working hard to get things together for an impressive home showing at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The schedule makers have spared Team China a showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks who, much to the chagrin of his handlers, drafted Yi Jianlian sixth overall at last week's draft.
There are several mysteries about this player and whether or not he'll play for the Bucks is just one of them. The other is: is he worth all the fuss? Although no one is too sure of his age, Yi's probably too young to write off as a disappointment if he doesn't perform well here. But if he impresses, presumably the offers the Bucks are hearing for him will only get sweeter.