I decided to take in the second Victor Wembanyama game from the Thomas and Mack Center’s upper deck to give myself a little more room to stretch out. Right before tip-off, two guys — one in a Raptors Olajuwon jersey, the other in a Bulls hat and a T-shirt with Detlef Schrempf’s face everywhere — sat down near me, stumbling into their seats and spilling half their beers. Olajuwon immediately began screaming at Detlef that they needed to meet up with his friend, who had 40 beautiful ladies of the night (I’m paraphrasing) waiting for them. Detlef bolted upright like he’d been struck by lightning, spilling the rest of his beer, and sprinted out into the concourse. Olajuwon sat there, confused, before following, much to the relief of two guys sporting big “TEAM PERSONNEL” lanyards and the nice family with three kids decked out in Wembanyama jerseys sitting behind me. The whole interaction took 30 seconds, and then the game tipped off, and the focus was back on basketball.
That’s Summer League in a nutshell. You get a peculiar crowd. Fans, for sure, but also so many people who work in and around the NBA: agents, scouts, media, players and their partners and their would-be partners, kids who want to be there someday, retired players reminiscing about their glory days. All of them are there for the basketball, but many (most?) are also enjoying Vegas and its attractions.
Summer League is also the networking event of the year, the place to see and be seen. Jayson Tatum stopped by for some words with Erik Spoelstra, who dapped up Deuce with a smile. Shams Charania was there, immaculately coiffed and chatting with the GM of the Stockton Kings (his sources run deep, and his sources run wide). Former superstar David “Skywalker” Thompson was taking in games a few seats down from fellow legend Cheryl Miller. Executives, scouts, and coaches mingled with each other, socializing, gossiping, and juuuust maybe trying to glean some insider information to file away for a competitive edge later.
Speaking of legends, I had the chance to attend the National Basketball Retired Players Association media event. The NBRPA (which includes NBA, WNBA, and Harlem Globetrotter members among its crew) has its annual meet-up during Summer League every year, which is when players can reconnect with old teammates and rivals, play some golf, get a free health screening, learn about potential business and investment opportunities, and party.
At media day, you sit at a table as players circulate through. You can request to speak with certain players, but some just come in to chat and hang out. My partner Ray and I were waiting to speak with Charlie Ward when a mountain of a man came in wearing dark sunglasses and not wearing his nametag and sat down across from us, creating a minor blip on local seismographs. He had a booming, contagious laugh and a wonderful personality. We had absolutely no idea who he was.
For ten minutes, we chatted. I lobbed up pointed questions to try and zero in on his identity. (How was your rookie year? Who were your favorite teammates? What are you up to now? You live in Las Olas? I used to live right near there!) It was a lovely conversation.
After he amiably rose, like a fresh summit erupting from the earth, and ambled to the next table, we did some quick googling and discovered it was Mark Blount. So Mark, I’m sorry for not recognizing you, but I’d love to chat again sometime!
Shawn Marion was there, and we snuck in a few questions. He owns three professional sports teams, including a basketball team in New Zealand and a professional pickleball team in Washington, D.C. I asked, why pickleball? He laughed and answered that it was one of the few sports that was both growing but still small enough that non-billionaires could afford to buy and sell teams — having a clear exit option is important.
We spoke with Eddie Gill, who played in the NBA and countries worldwide (Italy was his favorite). Then, we discussed the transition from playing to broadcasting with the excellent Grizzlies color commentator, Brevin Knight (he’s ecstatic the Grizzlies added a “playing veteran” in Marcus Smart). Former Bulls center Scott Williams was a highlight. He just published a book, Through the Fire, detailing his traumatic childhood and how it shaped him into the man he is today.
Ray and I even spoke with Ollie Taylor, a former ABA player famous for his 46-inch vertical. Ollie is still upset about losing a youth tournament in which he later found out the referee who unjustly fouled him out (“[the ref] said I ‘kicked him in the face’ when I wasn’t near him!”) was from the same town as the team that beat him.
The NBRPA brings together a fascinating cross-section of professional basketball players who are there to reminisce and socialize. Many, particularly the older players, moved on to have different careers after basketball (Eddie Gill is a financial planner.). Still, regardless of age, the one thing they all have in common is a yearning for the old locker room camaraderie.
But now, let’s move on to some current players. I took in four days’ worth of games and caught most teams at least once. Plenty of guys stood out (Amen Thompson will be a superstar), but there are five I specifically want to highlight.
Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio Spurs
Thank the basketball gods that Wembanyama had an awesome second game, because the basketball discourse around Victor would have been unbearable if he’d put up two bad shooting performances in a row.
Wembanyama’s handle and fluidity are unbelievable at his size, and he displayed some surprisingly canny passing chops. It was obvious that Victor was not familiar with his teammates or the playbook, and he was rarely put in advantageous positions with the ball, particularly in Game 1. Too often, he was simply given the ball somewhere on the perimeter and told to score.
That first game, Wembanyma couldn’t buy a bucket, but the second contest showcased the breadth and depth of his arsenal. Pull-ups from the top of the arc, fadeaways from the post, catch-and-shoots from the elbow, dunks, a nice reverse-pivot layup.
Victor will have plenty of off shooting nights, particularly if he plays mostly power forward. But the defense is real — he averaged four blocks across those two games despite often guarding perimeter players — and the passing and ballhandling is already better than I expected. I’m not saying anything you don’t already know, but Wemby will be okay.
Jabari Smith Jr., Houston Rockets
Jabari started Summer League much like last year, with a brickfest of a first half that only a mason could love. But he looked like a different player after halftime of his first game, hitting tough bucket after tough bucket. He annihilated poor James Wiseman in the second game, hitting threes in Wiseman’s face and taking him to the rack like a Nordstrom’s employee.
Smith still is a shoot-first player, but he did show an improved passing touch that bodes well for the future. He also spent a lot of time handling the rock — it’s clear the Rockets coaching staff wanted him to have a lot of on-ball reps in Summer League.
Dribbling and passing are basic basketball building blocks, but Smith struggled with both last season. This year, Smith looks like a much more polished and confident player, and if it carries over into the regular season, he could begin to make good on the Chris Bosh potential he’s carried since college.
Hunter Tyson, Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets traded up for Tyson early in the second round, and he was immediately given a guaranteed long-term contract, a rarity for second-round picks. He’s proven why so far in summer league, averaging 18.5 points in two games and shooting 45.5% from deep.
Tyson is 6’8” and athletic, but what stood out was his quick trigger from deep and fiery demeanor. Nobody in all of Summer League was more emphatic after a big play. He was pumping fists, screaming, and chest-bumping constantly. I’m not sure how many minutes he’ll play (it took Christian Braun nearly an entire season to find a reliable spot in the rotation last year), but he deserves a shot at some backup forward minutes on a thin Nuggets roster.
At the very least, he should be a top-tier bench cheerleader.
Jordan Walsh, Boston Celtics
In his first game, Walsh looked like a future star. An unreliable college jumper weighed down his draft stock, but he nailed 4-of-6 triples on Day 1. In the second game, his shooting abandoned him, perhaps due to a knee-to-knee collision in the first minute, but the defensive intensity and hustle shined during both contests.
He flew around the court like ball lightning, bouncing from player to player with aplomb. Walsh defended point guards and power forwards with equal effectiveness, staying glued to ballhandlers and banging down low with the bigs (he may have been too physical, as he picked up a fair number of fouls).
Walsh even threw a couple of nice passes (Twitter still isn’t playing nicely with Substack, so click the link to watch!).
It’s hard not to see some Marcus Smart comparisons for Walsh. The Celtics don’t have much depth behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, so Walsh could see some minutes earlier than many of his peers. If he delivers on the promise he showed this weekend, he should quickly become a fan favorite.
Jarace Walker, Indiana Pacers
The big man looked even better on defense than Indiana could have hoped. A monstrous block was the highlight, but his defensive versatility and quick hands made a strong impression all weekend.
Walker stonewalled bigger players in the post, showed strong help-side instincts, and had numerous steals on smaller ballhandlers in the open court. The most impressive part? Walker did it without accumulating a mountain of fouls (see: his third-year teammate Isaiah Jackson).
The shooting and finishing remain a work in progress, but Walker also showed off his court vision, averaging 4.5 assists in two games.
Indiana was easily the best team I saw play in Summer League, and they should be frontrunners for the super-important Summer League Championship (Andrew Nembhard, one of my highlighted players from last year, might have the most well-rounded game of any SL attendee, and Bennedict Mathurin received Sixth Man of the Year votes as a rookie last season). The Pacers will be one of the most fun League Pass watches this season, and Walker is a significant reason why.