Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2019

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Thomas & Mack Turns 25:

No. 13: NBA finds a summer home in Vegas

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Memphis Grizzlies' O.J. Mayo moves the ball down the court during NBA Summer League Basketball in Las Vegas on Sunday at UNLV's COX Pavilion. The Grizzlies suffered their first setback in an 85-76 loss to the Lakers. Mayo did score a team-best 15 points.

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Beyond the Sun

Editor's Note: In conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the Thomas & Mack Center's opening on Nov. 21, 1983, the Sun is celebrating the building's colorful history with a top 25 countdown - to No. 1 on Nov. 21, 2008 - of the biggest events held inside the arena located on UNLV's campus.

While the potential existence of an NBA franchise in Las Vegas someday is a complete mystery, the league over the past five years has established unique roots in Sin City.

Each July dating back to 2004, the Thomas & Mack Center and the Cox Pavilion have played home to one of the NBA's three summer leagues.

There, the most loyal of die-hard fans go to watch stars in the making, plus some guys you may never hear from again ... at least not on this side of the Atlantic.

Scouts from around the NBA and overseas come to scope out both the stars of tomorrow and the potential diamonds in the desert rough. And for some players, it's a chance to get noticed and earn a living the way many dream to, but only few can.

And if one thing rings true for the summer league, it's that anything can happen in a setting where games are far from pretty and most of the talent is very raw.

It's the place where, for two weeks in the summer of 2004, former first-round washout Nikoloz Tskitishvili — yes, the guy the Denver Nuggets selected sixth overall in 2002 ahead of Amare Stoudamire and Chris Wilcox — looked like a roundball god.

He was the league's first true star, averaging 25.7 points per game in year one. But, that was when the league was in its early stages, as it was six teams playing a total of 13 games.

The league has seen plenty of legitimate stars come through, though, such as Portland's Greg Oden and Memphis' O.J. Mayo.

Now, 16 teams send squads and scouts to Vegas for a 10-day, 40-plus-game marathon which has seen crowds grow steadily over the years. The league currently averages roughly 3,000 fans coming through the gates per day.

This past summer saw a showing as good as any on the UNLV campus. While games can get a bit ugly and foul-ridden, there's a few gems each summer in terms of individual showings which keep the fans coming.

Trailblazers guard Jerryd Bayless - a first round pick who Portland acquired via trade from Indiana - averaged a league-best 29.8 points per game, including a memorable 36-point explosion on the league's final day. He hit 13 of his final 18 shot attempts that afternoon as Portland pulled off a thrilling 74-73 victory over Phoenix.

His 29.8 ppg average would be a league record had former UNLV standout Marcus Banks not scored 42 points in his lone league showing for the Suns in 2007.

Bayless, of course, put on said show knowing full well that an NBA roster spot was guaranteed for him come training camp.

But that's not the case for the vast majority of the guys at the summer league.

And that's the beauty of it. Las Vegas is a city almost every visitor comes to expecting to win. That rings true on the hardwood, too.

"Obviously, a lot of people are looking for jobs and whatnot, but the main focus is to win," he said after that game. "(Summer league players) know if you win, the more opportunities you're going to get."

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