Players finally get the chance in Las Vegas. The 2020 draft class is hitting the floor at Summer League for the first time after last year’s edition was canceled due to COVID-19.
LAS VEGAS — “Don’t skip steps” is coaching and NBA mantra, a constant reminder that doing work in the proper order is the surest way to build an individual’s game, his team, or that team’s season.
Unfortunately, the Draft Class of 2020 skipped a huge step in their preparation for last season, through no fault of their own: For the rookies of 2020-21, there was no NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
Shutdowns from the coronavirus pandemic blew right through what would have been the league’s traditional time to descend on this city for all manner of business, including the 10 days each July when newly drafted prospects get their first real tastes of life in the NBA.
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Players finally get the chance
Competition, strategies, team “culture,” bonding — all of it got scuttled as the globe quarantined itself. Heck, the NBA went on hiatus in March and didn’t rev up what was left of 2019-20 again until late July, well past the usual Draft and Summer League dates.
When they finally were drafted in November, the NBA’s shiny new hires had less than two weeks to sign their contracts, move to the city they’d call home, and get to work at veterans’ training camp.
Strictly deep-end-of-the-pool stuff. Many swam. Some sank.
“We didn’t have this experience last year,” Detroit’s Saddiq Bey said Sunday. “I think it obviously could have helped us, because we would have had more game time. I think we’re trying to take it to be in the present moment and help us in the season to get better.”
Like college freshmen circling back to clean up an incomplete on their high school transcripts, Bey, several of his Pistons teammates, and a bunch of 2020 draftees are Summer League newbies after their NBA rookie seasons. Five of the top 10 picks from 2020 and eight lottery selections overall are here.
And while it’s common for players heading into their second seasons to participate along with the true rookies, undrafted hopefuls, and job-seeking veterans that fill their teams’ summer rosters, it’s highly unusual for them to be experiencing it for the first time.
“I was very curious,” New York forward Obi Toppin said about the experience and opportunity he and teammate Immanuel Quickley missed out on last summer. Both played 37 minutes in the Knicks’ opener against Toronto Sunday at the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus.
“So far it’s been a great experience. We lost. But we learned today,” Toppin said.
Toppin scored 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while Quickley — getting reps at point guard to build his decision-making — shot poorly (5-of-17) while finishing with 15 points, six rebounds, eight assists, and two steals.
“Any time you have a chance to get better,” said New York assistant coach Dice Yoshimoto, who handled the Knicks sideline Sunday while boss Tom Thibodeau and other Knicks brass sat across the court. “They are gym rats, both of them. Obi and Quick came right back after the end of the season. They started working. It’s a great opportunity for them.”
Other second-year players put their 2020-21 regular-season experience to good use. Boston guard Payton Pritchard had 23 points and hit seven of his team’s 15 3-pointers. Cleveland wing Isaac Okoro scored 17 points against Houston. And Phoenix forward Jalen Smith, a veritable ghost last season despite being the No. 10 picks, scored 13 points in 24 minutes for the Suns’ entry.
Detroit lost to Oklahoma City in both teams’ openers but the Pistons had several second-year guys making their Vegas debuts. Bey finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds. Guard Saben Lee scored nine points while guard Killian Hayes had six points, nine boards, and five assists.
The Pistons were largely dependent on rookies last season, including forwarding Isaiah Stewart who will miss Vegas after suffering a foot injury playing with the U.S. Select Team that prepped the Olympic squad. And now they’ve added wing Cade Cunningham, the 2021 No. 1 pick from Oklahoma State.
Cunningham (12 points on 5-of-17 shooting, six rebounds in 26 minutes) drew the usual throng of interested media and fans to his first professional game Sunday. But he was surrounded in Detroit’s starting lineup by a fairly seasoned group by Summer League standards: Bey (70), Hayes (26), Tyler Cook (45), and Sekou Doumbouya (94) brought 235 games of NBA regular-season experience. Their OKC counterparts had a combined 84.
The Class of 2020 wasn’t the first to miss out on the summer schooling ahead of their NBA debuts. Previously, lockouts in 1999 and 2011 wiped out the orientation opportunities in Las Vegas, Orlando, and elsewhere.
Both those years produced notable perennial All-Stars: Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, and Vince Carter in ’99, with Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Isaiah Thomas, and Nikola Vucevic in ’11. But how some of their peers might have fared with proper timelines and summer training never will be known.
Even this offseason, scrunched by about a month from the traditional NBA calendar, has 61 days from Draft to big-league camps. The 2020 version was all of 13 days.
“All of these guys have been working hard, but this is the first time we’ve played against another opponent,” said Toppin. “So having that opportunity to play with these guys on the court was fun, but we have a lot to improve on.”
Toppin, Quickley, and Bey, like Stewart, were part of the Select Team workouts as well, another chance to polish games that arrived rather abruptly in December.
“I’ve put in a lot of work this summer, and I’ve had a lot of guys helping me out,” the Knicks forward said. “Players, coaches, everybody’s been helping me out. Watching film and just improving my game all around.”
Better late than never, as far as the Summer League experience.
“I don’t think you can put a price on the value of Summer League, preseason, September with guys getting together voluntarily and working out together,” said Pistons assistant J.D Dubois, handling Detroit’s team under coach Dwane Casey. “To miss that, I know that was a real disadvantage for a lot of guys who came into our league last year.
“This is going to be a huge growing step for our organization. … We talk a lot about gratitude. Guys are being grateful for the opportunity to play this game. So for those guys to be here healthy and able to play together and grow together is huge.”