Hornets Insider: Seven Things to Know About NBA Summer League

The Vegas Summer League debuted in 2004, with six teams and a pair of basic objectives: To prove that the city of Las Vegas was a pro basketball hotbed, and to provide NBA teams with another viable summer-league option.

Now entering its fifth year, Vegas Summer League was officially renamed the NBA Summer League in 2007. The field has ballooned to 21 teams. Excluding Oklahoma City and the Utah Jazz – who host an annual summer league in Salt Lake City – the NBA’s entire Western Conference now competes in Las Vegas.

What began as a relatively modest enterprise now plays host to more than two-thirds of the league’s teams and receives extensive media coverage throughout its 10-day schedule. This year’s NBA Summer League takes place July 11-20, with New Orleans opening its slate on July 11 vs. Memphis.

For a behind-the-scenes look at NBA Summer League, Hornets.com talked with Dennis Rogers, the league’s director of communications. Rogers’ also serves as the Hornets’ director of basketball communications.

“Vegas is a world-renowned city and there is a high demand to visit,” Rogers explains of the rise in popularity of the site. “We went from six teams the first year to 16 teams in the second and third years. Teams want to play in a summer league where the competition is strong, and that’s what we have in Vegas, so more teams have wanted to be a part of it.”

Here are seven things you may not know about NBA Summer League:
1) It’s your first chance to see big-name NBA lottery picks compete against other pro players.

In two of the previous four summers, the NBA’s No. 1 overall draft pick has made his unofficial professional debut in Las Vegas (Orlando center Dwight Howard in 2004, Toronto forward Andrea Bargnani in 2006). Last year’s Vegas slate was the most highly anticipated in the league’s four-year history, due to the presence of franchise-changing players Greg Oden (Portland) and Kevin Durant (Seattle), the top two choices in the 2007 NBA Draft.

This year, the top two picks -- Derrick Rose (Chicago) and Michael Beasley (Miami) -- are playing in the Orlando summer league, but top-10 choices O.J. Mayo (Memphis), Kevin Love (Minnesota), Danilo Gallinari (New York) and Eric Gordon (Clippers) will appear in Las Vegas.

2) A player’s performance in Vegas can significantly affect his NBA future…
Even though a vast majority of the players who suit up in Las Vegas have already played countless games attended by pro scouts, success or failure there can drastically alter their perceived value. One prime example: In 2006, guard John Lucas III played so well for Houston’s summer-league entry that several NBA teams ended up vying to sign him to a guaranteed contract. The Rockets ended up winning the Lucas derby, inking him to a two-year deal.

“He was one of the top three players in the league,” Rogers remembers. “His play in Vegas pretty much got him a guaranteed deal.”

For NBA second-round picks, summer league can be a particularly make-or-break experience, due to the limited amount of opportunities second-rounders get to display their pro ability. One of the 2007 NBA playoffs’ surprise performers, Cleveland guard Daniel Gibson, greatly improved his chances of contributing for the Cavaliers after a stellar Vegas showing.

“Second-round picks’ contracts are not guaranteed, so Vegas sometimes can be their best time to shine,” Rogers points out. “Daniel Gibson played very well in Vegas. That can go a long way toward making an NBA roster, because you only have so many days in training camp to prove yourself before teams finalize their decision on who will be on the opening-night roster.”
3) … or lead to a lucrative career in a foreign hoops league.
While many Vegas participants harbor hopes of playing in the big leagues, the reality is that many NBA clubs already have 10 or more players signed to guaranteed contracts, resulting in few roster spots opening up each year. That means the vast majority of players who compete in Vegas will end up on a team overseas.

“Out of 12 guys on a summer-league team, maybe only three or four will make their NBA team’s roster,” Rogers says. “Most of the rest of the players will end up going to Europe or playing in the D-League.”

As a result, team representatives from international leagues regularly attend summer-league games to try to recruit players who may not be NBA material but are seeking a contract somewhere.
4) The players aren’t the only ones on the floor being scrutinized.
The three-person refereeing crews who work games are comprised of D-League officials who are trying to break into the NBA someday, along with young zebras in the early stages of their NBA careers.
“Vegas Summer League is used by the NBA as a training camp for referees,” Rogers says. “They’re trying to prove themselves, just like the players.”

During timeouts, crews often huddle with NBA officiating supervisor Ronnie Nunn and other evaluators, to discuss specific calls that were made moments earlier. Veteran NBA referees can also be spotted in the stands, helping to grade and teach their younger colleagues some of the finer points of refereeing.

5) What happens off the court in Vegas is sometimes just as interesting as the action between the lines…
… we know what you may be thinking, but we’re NOT talking about the famed Sin City nightlife. Since 2005, over half of the NBA’s teams have entered squads into the Vegas league, making it a must-attend event for all 30 franchises. As a result, the grandstands in Vegas are transformed into a virtual “Who’s Who” of NBA power brokers. During any given game, if you scan through the bleachers, you’ll spot head coaches, general managers and scouts, as well as prominent player agents seeking contract offers for their clients.

“There is at least one member of every NBA team present,” Rogers relates. “One of the unique aspects of Vegas Summer League is that it happens during the time period when teams can start talking to free agents (beginning July 1). As a result, all of the NBA’s heavy hitters and decision-makers are there.

“Discussions of potential sign-and-trades and big free-agency moves all take place in Vegas, because a lot of GMs spend time during the league talking to each other.”

Some NBA veteran free agents fly to Las Vegas during summer league in order to speak in person with teams that are interested in their services.

“A lot of the mid-level free agents come to Vegas, because it’s a great way to talk face-to-face with teams and meet with a GM,” Rogers says.

Numerous established NBA players also stop by to watch games and support their team’s summer-league squad, as Chris Paul has done each of the past two years. Other pros such as Paul Pierce, Shawn Marion and Baron Davis reside in Las Vegas during the summer, and are frequent visitors.
6) Everyone’s watching…
The days of summer-league games being played in near-empty arenas, with fans having only passing interest in the action, are long gone. Rogers receives media-credential requests from over 200 organizations each summer, including ESPN, Sports Illustrated and USA Today. Meanwhile, NBA TV is carrying live telecasts of 20-plus games this year, and individual teams such as New York and Portland broadcast their Vegas games locally on TV and radio, respectively.

Vegas games draw an average of over 2,000 fans per contest, and the league has signed several substantial sponsorship deals.

In addition, Western Conference teams such as Sacramento and Phoenix who play in nearby states often have large groups of fans in attendance.

“Several teams offer a vacation package that includes rooms in Las Vegas and tickets to games,” says Rogers, who has also seen vacationing Hornets fans at summer games in previous years.
7) No matter who you are, all players are equal in Vegas.
Even if you’ve got an NBA All-Star appearance under your belt, as Sacramento forward Ron Artest did when he played one Vegas game in 2006, your paycheck is the same as an undrafted rookie free agent. Each player receives the regular NBA player per diem roughly $100 per day, as well as a relatively small amount in salary. The salary is identical for everyone.

Even if things don’t work out for a player and his trip to Nevada fails to result in a contract, he receives a nice consolation prize: the equivalent of a two-week vacation, with all flight and hotel accommodations taken care of by the NBA team that invited him to Las Vegas.