On Monday afternoon in Las Vegas, the Sixers and Cavaliers carried more of a buzz than I've felt for most 76ers regular season games in the last 2 seasons. The crowds arrived more than an hour early to the cozy Cox Pavilion, which the summer league watered-down version of the Palestra (in that there was air conditioning, even if ineffective). Cox fits 2,500 people, and few could squeeze in once the game neared.
The Mavericks and Hornets played in the game just before, and with a growing crowd the teams tried to put on a show in what was a blowout. The Mavs' Jackie Carmichael basically stopped playing real basketball to put together a highlight reel. Dunks and blocks and spin moves just kept happening.
But that was only the kickoff to the real treat: Wiggins versus Noel, a battle of the most highly-regarded draft picks of the past two draft classes, was about to start. Cleveland supporters made their presence known early and often, no doubt louder and more boisterous with The Return. Sixers fans were more muted, but they were definitely present, cheering loudly whenever Nerlens did anything.
But NBA super-fans overshadowed both, willing to crowd themselves into a Las Vegas gym to see top draft picks duke it out for the first time, ready to be entertained. You couldn't breathe without invading someone's privacy. Media row was jam-packed, not a seat to be found on either end. Even the sealed off bleachers for additional media seating looked occupied.
NBA players and personnel also shuffled in and out of the gym, trying to get a glimpse at Wiggins and Noel for the first time. People watching may be my favorite part of summer league so far. George Karl kept entering and exiting through the tunnel under the bleachers. Oh hey Kenyon Martin, how are you doing? Kyrie Irving and Michael Carter-Williams sat behind the benches to support their teammates. Marv Albert was brought in to announce. It was a big deal in the NBA, let alone the summer league junkie universe.
The game lived up to some of the hype. Cleveland ultimately won, but what mattered to the crowd were the highlight blocks from Noel (3 in total) and the moments of shock-and-awe that Andrew Wiggins provided, including a crazy baseline jam over Noel's outstretched arm which brought the house down.
On Tuesday afternoon in Las Vegas, the Sixers and Suns played in the same cozy arena. The Suns brought a strong team to summer league, featuring the team's starting center (Miles Plumlee), two rookie first round picks, and other fringe NBA players with skills particularly useful in summer league.
The Sixers were, well, not remotely the same team as the one which played on Monday. Nerlens Noel sat out as part of his reconditioning program, K.J. McDaniels sat out to rest his previously sprained ankle, and Casper Ware must have still had jet lag. The starting lineup featured three new players, one who hadn't played the day before.
There was no must-see basketball here. A thousand seats were empty, and media row looked sparse. You could breathe and not invade someone else's air space. The junkies settled in, but few fans of either team were identifiable. The celebs were hard to find. I got the seat I wanted, at center court near the top of the arena, with no issues. It was a different game, and a different team, without Nerlens Noel.
The Sixers again lost, bringing them to 1-2 in summer league play. Fewer highlight plays occurred, and the crowd was mostly quiet throughout the game, with a few strong Plumlee plays providing the most entertainment.
But as I sat and watched the game from up top, I began to appreciate that, hey, this is what the Sixers are all about: giving guys a chance to come in and compete for a job. The Sixers are probably the only summer league team where you can think anyone that is on the summer league roster has a shot at a camp invite. Brandon Davies has been a 76er for nearly a year, so really anyone can do it. Nerlens may draw the attention, but the other guys in camp are the where the real stories can be found.
In between friendly arguments about basketball philosophy and Ronald Roberts Jr. with Jake Fischer and Jake Pavorsky over dinner at the local In 'N Out, Fischer said something which kind of inspired the idea of this post, one day early. He said something to the effect of "every second a basketball player spends practicing or playing, it matters." While not necessarily a game-breaking view here, summer league is a great reminder of this.
It's easy to complain when Nerlens Noel sits out, because it means the centerpiece of the team, and the most entertaining player, won't be there to entertain me. It's easy to say that playing back-to-back games won't hurt him. And it's easy to shrug off the playing time the NBA's fringe players get for NBA coaches and in front of NBA personnel.
Sitting Nerlens matters, because playing too many back-to-back games increases a player's chance at suffering a stress- or exhaustion-related injury. Playing Tim Frazier or Scottie Wilbekin or Jamelle Hagins matters, because they might not get a better chance to show off their skills. And not just for NBA teams, either: international scouts joined me in the top row of the Pavilion to scout some of the talent, and even brought two summer leaguers that I didn't recognize up to discuss ways they could improve their games.
As much as the first game drew such anticipation, and delivered on occasion, the second game meant something. It mattered more. Nerlens Noel is just trying this NBA thing out for the first time, with a guaranteed contract and marketable flattop in hand. Andrew Wiggins just signed with Adidas and is set for life. They're just trying out for the first time, wading in the waters. They'll have more important games. These games matter for them, but not as much as it means for the fringe guys fighting for jobs and livelihoods.
Nerlens twisted his ankle in the Monday game, and I was worried upon seeing him limp and upon the replay. Obviously, the future of the franchise is super important. But I felt worse about Jordan McRae, who landed awkwardly near the right side media row after a block attempt late in the Phoenix game. Helped off the court by trainers and later diagnosed with a sprained ankle, I felt worse because I knew what he was playing for. I knew how much it mattered for him, coming in here as a late second-round pick playing for a contract with the Sixers.
Luckily, the ankle sprain is not as bad as feared based off the angle at the top of the arena. McRae has been arguably the most impressive Sixers second round pick in the combined summer league play, using his long arms on both ends to strong results, making plays in the passing lanes and drawing fouls while attacking the rim. This summer league mattered because it may have shown he deserves a spot on the team. At the 58th pick in the draft, there's no guarantee for that. He could have just as easily been undrafted.
McRae certainly will be out for the rest of summer league play, but the rest of the Summer Sixers will play on. Nerlens will be back on Wednesday night in the first (cue Pitbull) "playoff" game against the Summer Lakers, led by 7th overall pick Julius Randle. That, of course, is the selling point to get you to watch the game. It's why it should matter enough for you, the viewer, to watch.
Even though, while it matters, it doesn't matter nearly as much as the stories of guys just trying to live a dream and play in the NBA. Those dreams are the reasons why summer league exists in the first place, and while those dreams fail to provide a selling point, they make even the least buzzworthy games worth the experience.