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September 2, 2014

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Local basketball heroes take their shot at the NBA

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Former Palo Verde High basketball player Bryce Cotton, who played collegiately at Providence, will play for the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Summer League.

All Bryce Cotton needed was a chance.

Las Vegas NBA Summer League

When: Through July 21

Where: Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion at UNLV.

Who: The league features 23 NBA teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. But don’t get too excited. You won’t see Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant. The games will feature young veterans, drafted rookies and rookie free agents looking to make a splash.

Schedule: Typically, four games are played each day at each facility. The venues are connected, and fans can move freely between each court. Visit www.nba.com/summerleague/ for team-by-team schedules.

Price: Daily general admission tickets cost $25 for adults and $15 for children. Each ticket covers up to eight games daily.

The former Palo Verde High basketball player had no college recruiting interest and was days away from enrolling at a community college in 2010 when his life changed with one unexpected phone call. Providence College coaches were searching for a guard and stumbled on his highlights on a recruiting service website.

“I didn’t even have a Division-II offer at the time — nothing,” Cotton said. “I knew I could play and was just being overlooked. I was praying for a chance and kept working hard. Providence called, and my prayers were answered.”

Three days later, Cotton was enrolled at Providence, accomplishing his dream of becoming a college player.

Four years later, he was one of the Big East Conference’s best, averaging 21.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game last season to lead Providence to the league tournament title and an NCAA Tournament appearance. It was one of the best seasons in the school’s history.

Now, Cotton is moving on to his next dream, the NBA.

He wasn’t selected in the draft but did sign a two-year contract with the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. He’ll be on the roster this week for the Las Vegas NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion.

The summer league features mostly young veterans, drafted rookies and rookie free agents playing to impress professional scouts. Only a handful will make NBA rosters.

“It’s a rags-to-riches type of story,” former Palo Verde coach Jermone Riley said. “That kid was blessed with so much God-given talent. On top of that, he was one of the hardest, if not the hardest, worker we had on the team.”

Cotton went from averaging four points during his freshman season at Providence to leading the Big East in scoring at 19.6 points per game as a junior. He was the Big East tournament MVP in leading the Friars to the tournament title in 2014, becoming one of the best players in program history.

“It was a wonderful feeling,” Cotton said of winning the tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York. “It was my first time winning a championship in anything, and winning on that stage was just a blessing.”

It was very nearly his second title.

As a junior at Palo Verde, Cotton committed a foul with two seconds remaining in the state championship game, sending a Bishop Gorman player to the free throw line to score the winning points.

A few months later, he moved to Arizona and played as a senior at Tucson’s Palo Verde High.

“I had just got off the recruiting trail myself,” said Riley, a former college coach. “I knew that kid had the ability to play at the next level. I pulled him aside one day after practice and told him he was coming into his own and how he could play in college. He was wide-eyed and kept saying, ‘Thank you, Coach. Thank you.’ ”

Despite Riley’s contacts, nobody was interested in Cotton, who, at 6-foot-1 and 165 pounds, was considered undersized.

“I called some friends, and they questioned if he had the height,” Riley said. “It got to the point where it became personal.”

Cotton credits the time he spent with Riley at Palo Verde for helping him become a college player.

Perhaps another brief stay in Las Vegas, for the 10-day summer league, can ignite another turning point in his career.

“I’ve always believed in myself,” Cotton said. “I knew somehow, some way, my time would come.”

Oden vs. Durant

This was the most-anticipated game in the decade-plus history of the Las Vegas NBA Summer League.

It was standing room-only at Cox Pavilion in 2007 when the summer teams of the Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle SuperSonics played, pitting No. 1 overall draft pick Greg Oden for Portland against No. 2 selection Kevin Durant.

Seattle won 84-78 behind 32 points from another rookie, Jeff Green from Georgetown.

Still, the show belonged to Oden and Durant. Whenever they played, fans flocked to see the players billed as future stars.

Maybe Oden’s efforts in Las Vegas were a sign of things to come. In his initial summer league game, Oden scored six points with four turnovers and fouled out with 10 personals.

Durant, of course, has become one of the league’s biggest stars most and accomplished players. He was the MVP in 2014.

Durant isn’t the only notable alumnus of the summer league. Seven of the past nine rookies of the year have played here, including Damian Lillard, Durant, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving.

Locals projected to play

Led by Anthony Bennett of the Cleveland Cavaliers (the top pick in the 2013 NBA Draft after just one season with the Rebels), four former UNLV players are scheduled to play.

Bennett, who averaged 4.2 points and 3 rebounds per game in his 2013-14 rookie season with Cleveland, missed last year’s summer league because of an injury. That theme carried into the regular season, where he averaged just 12 minutes on the court in 52 games.

Khem Birch, who turned professional after his junior season but wasn’t drafted last month, will try to make a splash with the Washington Wizards. The 6-foot-9 forward was the two-time Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year at UNLV.

Also, former UNR product Deonte Burton will play with the Wizards.

Roscoe Smith, who left UNLV with eligibility remaining, is on the L.A. Lakers’ summer roster. He also was undrafted.

And Nick Johnson, who played at Findlay Prep, is on the Houston Rockets.

Also, former Bishop Gorman High player and second-year professional Shabazz Muhammad is expected to be on the Minnesota Timberwolves’ summer roster.

Other locals projected to play include Cheyenne High grad Elijah Johnson with the Philadelphia 76ers and Cimarron-Memorial grad and former UNLV player Kevin Olekaibe with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Rule differences

The summer league isn’t only for players who want to prove themselves. Up-and-coming referees hoping to earn league jobs are used to officiate, frequently turning games into free-throw shooting contests with the frequency of fouls called.

Because of the whistle-happy officials, players foul out after 10 fouls. During the regular season, it’s six.

Other differences between the summer league and regular NBA season:

• Summer games are four 10-minute quarters. Games have 12-minute quarters during the regular season.

• Overtime is two minutes. It’s five minutes in the regular season. And if play goes to a second overtime, it will be sudden death — the first team to score wins.

• Each team receives two 60-second timeouts per half in the summer league, and there are two mandatory timeouts per quarter. During the regular season, teams have six 60-second timeouts and two 20-second timeouts.

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