Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, July 11, 2014 | 2 a.m.
With all of the excitement surrounding LeBron James’ not-so-secret meeting at the Wynn on Wednesday in between his stops at the camp bearing his name at the Cashman Center, it was possible to forget one of the other things that makes Las Vegas the center of the basketball world in July.
Starting today and running until July 21, the NBA Summer League takes over UNLV’s campus with games at the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion. This year’s event features the past two No. 1 picks — on the same team, no less — and a plethora of other interests from future all-stars to homegrown talent trying to make a roster.
It’s an affordable chance to get an up-close look at the future of the NBA while also taking note of the guys fighting for their professional lives. The games are often typical of offseason performances, but they're almost always entertaining and contain plenty of intrigue for fans wanting to watch former Rebels.
Later this month, college coaches will be here by the hundreds on the recruiting trail to scout during AAU tournaments. Also, Team USA will again train here, further staking Las Vegas' claim as hoops king for the month. For now, the focus is on a guy like former Rebel Anthony Bennett, who's hoping to bounce back from a poor first season in the once (and future?) home of James.
Like last season, the event starts with group play that develops into a playoff bracket. Here’s a look at several players with local ties and the schedule for their first three games:
Anthony Bennett, F, Cleveland Cavaliers
Drafted: First round, first overall in 2013
• 5 p.m. Friday vs. Milwaukee, Cox Pavilion
• 1 p.m. Sunday vs. San Antonio, Cox Pavilion
• 5 p.m. Monday vs. Philadelphia, Cox Pavilion
After what was statistically one of the worst rookie seasons ever for a No. 1 overall pick, there’s nowhere to go but up for Bennett. At least that's what he and his supporters hope. The former Rebel missed last year’s Summer League because of a shoulder surgery and then appeared in only 52 of 82 games, averaging 4.2 points and 3 rebounds in 12.8 minutes per game for the Cavaliers.
A lot of eyes will be on Bennett to see how he’s developed physically in the offseason. But he’s not the only No. 1 pick on the roster, as fellow Canadian Andrew Wiggins will come in with a chance to make his first impression as a professional.
And if that’s not enough intrigue, Rebels fans could also show up to boo former New Mexico Lobo Alex Kirk, who’s attempting to make a roster after going undrafted.
Khem Birch, F, Washington Wizards
Undrafted in 2014
• 1:30 p.m. Saturday vs. Atlanta, Thomas & Mack Center
• 7:30 p.m. Sunday vs. Minnesota, Thomas & Mack Center
• 3:30 p.m. Tuesday vs. Miami, Thomas & Mack Center
It was a disappointing draft night for Birch, who left UNLV with one year of eligibility remaining and wasn’t selected. That won’t matter nearly as much if he’s able to play his way onto a roster.
Birch and Wizards teammate Deonte Burton, the former UNR guard who also went undrafted, are in a similar position. They’re talented players with holes in their game who are essentially auditioning for the entire league while in Las Vegas. The Wizards, clearly, have interest in both players, but solid performances could catch the eyes of any of the other 29 teams in the league, too.
Birch’s defense is his ticket to a roster spot either within an NBA organization or abroad. How well will his shot blocking translate to bigger, more athletic pro players? We’ll get an indication this week.
Roscoe Smith, F, Los Angeles Lakers
Undrafted in 2014
• 3 p.m. Friday vs. Toronto, Cox Pavilion
• 1:30 p.m. Sunday vs. New Orleans, Thomas & Mack Center
• 7 p.m. Monday vs. Golden State, Cox Pavilion
Like Birch, Smith left UNLV with one year remaining and wasn’t drafted. However, that wasn’t much of a surprise as Smith had almost no chance of hearing his name called.
Smith’s decision to leave was likely more about maximizing his value than jumping at an opportunity. He wasn’t going to average a double-double again, and with a national championship already on his resume, it’s understandable that he would want to get on with a pro future.
The Lakers always have a home-court advantage at the Summer League, so picking up a former Rebel will only help that. Most of the attention will be on No. 7 overall pick Julius Randle out of Kentucky.
Kevin Olekaibe, G, Milwaukee Bucks
Undrafted in 2014
• 5 p.m. Friday vs. Cleveland, Cox Pavilion
• 7 p.m. Sunday vs. Phoenix, Cox Pavilion
• 7:30 p.m. Monday vs. Utah, Thomas & Mack Center
Olekaibe, a Cimarron-Memorial grad, came back home for his final season. Thanks to Milwaukee, he hasn’t played his final game in the Mack.
Olekaibe’s future seems far less clear than Smith's or Birch's. He can shoot decently from outside and has flashed some athleticism in the Desert Reign Pro City League, but what will that mean for his professional future?
Whatever happens, this should be a fun team for Rebels fans to follow as Olekaibe suits up alongside No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker from Duke.
Nick Johnson, G, Houston Rockets
Drafted: Second round, 42nd overall in 2014
• 7 p.m. Saturday vs. Miami, Cox Pavilion
• 5:30 p.m. Sunday vs. Portland, Thomas & Mack Center
• 3 p.m. Tuesday vs. Los Angeles Clippers, Cox Pavilion
Johnson has already turned some heads with the Rockets during the Summer League in Orlando. His dunk over Detroit big man Tim Ohlbrecht made the rounds Saturday afternoon and he’s done well overall, averaging 16 points through four games.
The Rockets are major players in the free-agent market, so their roster could end up a lot different than it looks today. But based on his draft position and his Orlando numbers, Johnson would appear to have a great chance of making the roster.
Elijah Johnson, G, Philadelphia 76ers
Undrafted in 2013
• 7:30 p.m. Saturday vs. Utah, Thomas & Mack Center
• 5 p.m. Monday vs. Cleveland, Cox Pavilion
• 5 p.m. Tuesday vs. Phoenix, Cox Pavilion
Johnson, a Cheyenne High grad, is back for his second Summer League after going undrafted in 2013. He didn’t get a lot of minutes with the Clippers last year but was able to sign with Polish team KS Roma Radom in October.
It’s unfortunate news for another local product that could actually open up a few minutes for Johnson as Desert Pines High grad Pierre Jackson injured his Achilles while playing in the Orlando Summer League. One day after a solid performance in the Desert Reign Pro City League, Jackson was traded on draft night and appeared in great position to reach the NBA this year. The severity of the injury will determine his short-term future.
Elsewhere on the 76ers’ roster, former Lobo big man Drew Gordon is attempting to make an impression while last year’s first-round pick Nerlens Noel is expected to play only in Orlando.
Cameron Bairstow, Tony Snell and Kendall Williams, Chicago Bulls
Drafted: Second round, 49th overall in 2014 (Bairstow); first round, 20th overall in 2013 (Snell); undrafted in 2014 (Williams)
• 5:30 p.m. Saturday vs. Los Angeles Clippers, Thomas & Mack Center
• 5 p.m. Sunday vs. Denver, Cox Pavilion
• 1:30 p.m. Tuesday vs. Minnesota, Thomas & Mack Center
The four main pieces of arguably New Mexico’s best recruiting class in recent history will all play in this year’s Summer League, and only Kirk is exiled from enjoying it with the rest of the Lobos.
Last year, the Bulls took Snell in the first round, then this year, in a bit of a surprise, snatched Bairstow in the second round. Add free agent Williams to the mix and you’ve got a crew that, at minimum, knows it can play well together.
Snell and Bairstow will be interesting to watch, especially with first-round pick Doug McDermott around too, while Williams will just take whatever minutes he can get and hope it leads to more opportunities.
Bryce Cotton, G, San Antonio Spurs
Undrafted in 2014
• 7 p.m. Friday vs. Sacramento, Cox Pavilion
• 1 p.m. Sunday vs. Cleveland, Cox Pavilion
• 3:30 p.m. Monday vs. New Orleans, Thomas & Mack Center
Cotton, who helped Palo Verde High reach the state championship game in 2009, went on to star at Providence. Here are a few other players with local or Mountain West ties to keep any eye on over the next 11 days:
• Myck Kabongo (Findlay Prep/Texas) and Darington Hobson (Las Vegas native/New Mexico), Toronto Raptors
• DeAndre Liggins (Findlay Prep/Kentucky), Los Angeles Clippers
• Josh Davis (San Diego State) and Jarred Shaw (Utah State), Charlotte Hornets