Hoops Hotbed

Vegas Summer League puts city at center of NBA offseason activity

With Washington Wizards rookie point guard John Wall, this year’s No. 1 overall draft pick following an All-American freshman year at Kentucky, ready to make his professional debut at the NBA Vegas Summer League, event organizers are bound to have another overwhelming success.

“I think his games will be packed; I think they’ll be sold out,” says Albert Hall, vice president of business operations for the Summer League. “I think people know that for a $25 ticket, I don’t think you can get a better value in sports.”

The Vegas Summer League, set for July 9-18 at Cox Pavilion and the Thomas & Mack Center, has established itself in just six years as one of the top places in the world to watch professional basketball. All-Stars such as Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and Al Horford headline the list of players who have taken the floor here on their way to NBA success.

With 10 of this year’s 14 top draft picks expected to play in Las Vegas this month, the city will once again become the hotbed of NBA offseason activity—excluding the hype surrounding this year’s star-studded class of free agents. The league is holding its Board of Governors meeting here for the second straight year, and NBA players, coaches and executives can be found daily getting a dose of Summer League competition.

With the Summer League growing from six teams in 2004 to 23 squads this year, Hall calls it a basketball powerhouse, with the only other NBA Summer League being held in Orlando, Fla., with just eight teams.

“The NBA is obviously the premier league; it’s the best league in the world,” Hall says. “We think this is the second-best league in the world.”

One major advantage the NBA holds over the NFL and Major League Baseball is that rookie salaries are determined entirely by draft order, which guarantees that there are no contract holdouts and all draftees enter training camp on time and participate in the Summer League.

“It’s very nice for us to ensure that the top players are going to be there,” Hall says. “And more importantly, the teams love them there. … It’s a great way for those rookies to get in, get situated, understand the system and really start playing at a high level.”

With so many people watching—all 58 Vegas Summer League games can also be seen on NBA TV and NBA.com—players give it their all during play, knowing that reputations can be made and opportunities can be found with an impressive showing.

“The reality is: Everybody plays hard,” Hall says. “The rookies are trying to impress; the seasoned guys are trying to make a team and get a job, and the overseas guys are trying to get some exposure.”

The Summer League is usually a good barometer on how well rookies will fare during the NBA regular season. Last season’s standouts were the Clippers’ Blake Griffin, the top overall pick in last year’s draft; Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans; Golden State’s Stephen Curry; and Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings. And while Griffin’s season was destroyed by injury, Evans was named NBA Rookie of the Year, while Curry and Jennings finished second and third, respectively.

While Wall and fellow rookies such as Minnesota’s Wesley Johnson, Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and Detroit’s Greg Monroe are expected to gain most of the headlines this year, it is often unheralded players who earn the most attention. A leading example of this is Golden State guard Anthony Morrow, who scored a Summer League-record 47 points last year against New Orleans after going undrafted out of Georgia Tech in 2008.

“The beauty of the Summer League is there are diamonds in the rough every year,” Hall says. “You have a really good idea who is going to make it [with the top draft picks], but it’s those second-tier guys that step up and make a name for themselves. The NBA is a lot about confidence, and if they can come out of the Summer League with a swagger, their play is accelerated and their learning curve is accelerated.”

Along with rising prominence, the Vegas Summer League attracts more and more fans each season. Last year, attendance was 4,370 per day, up from 4,036 in 2008, and Hall expects that number to grow again.

“Having both gyms allows us to continually have top action for up to seven and eight games per day,” he says. “So we just want to keep growing the model, growing the market, obviously provide great talent and continue to increase the fan experience.” Tickets for the Vegas Summer League can be purchased at the Thomas & Mack box office or through unlvtickets.com. All general admission tickets are $25 per day; seniors and children 3-12 are $15 per day; and children 2 and under are admitted free of charge. For the complete schedule of games, go to NBA.com.

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