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What to watch at the NBA’s 20th anniversary edition of Las Vegas Summer League

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What to watch at the NBA’s 20th anniversary edition of Las Vegas Summer League

Summer League 1

Wade Vandervort

LeBron James arrives at the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack on Friday, July 5, 2019.

The NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League seems to gain in popularity every year, and this year’s 20th anniversary edition at the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion is no exception.

Each of the league’s 30 franchises are again slated to bring a roster of rookies, other young prospects who need more seasoning and veteran professionals with the dream of sticking in the NBA for the 11-day competition. From July 12 to July 21, there’s basketball virtually around the clock with games starting as early as 11 a.m. local time and wrapping up as late as midnight.

A finale championship game is set for 6 p.m. July 22 on ESPN.

All 76 games throughout the event are now televised, either on ESPN’s family of networks or NBATV, and available to bet at local sports books. Tickets are general admission daily and start at $45 for adults and $35 for children and seniors with upgraded packages available at unlvtickets.com.

There’s plenty to look forward to in the annual festival of hoops, but here are five of the most notable things to watch as the NBA world descends upon Las Vegas.

Rookie rankings

A clear overall No. 1 pick has emerged in most recent drafts. Think Victor Wembanyama last year, Anthony Edwards in 2020 and Zion Williamson in 2019.

That wasn’t the case this year.

The Atlanta Hawks reportedly didn’t make a choice between French wing Zaccharie Risacher (their ultimate pick) and Kentucky sharpshooter Reed Sheppard (who went No. 3 to the Houston Rockets) until hours before the draft. And some believe No. 2 overall pick Alexandre Sarr, a versatile French big man, would have gone to the Hawks if he didn’t refuse to work out for them and pave his way to being taken by the Washington Wizards.

Ron Holland (G-League Ignite swingman who went No. 5 to the Detroit Pistons) and Donovan Clingan (Connecticut center who went No. 7 to the Portland Trail Blazers) were among another group also rumored to go No. 1 at different points of the scouting process.

Arguments are going to rage for years over who’s the best in the 2024 draft class, and they will start at Summer League where all the candidates are expected to be in action.

Dynastic forces face off

Clingan is not the only UConn product who’s in the conversation for Rookie of the Year next season. College teammate Stephon Castle, a point guard, went No. 4 overall to the San Antonio Spurs and has plenty of buzz of his own.

It’s no wonder the Huskies wrecked college basketball for the past two years, becoming the first team in 17 years to win back-to-back national championships. Las Vegas got a close-up look at UConn’s dynasty last year when it blew out two opponents to win the West Region of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at T-Mobile Arena and reach the Final Four.

Now the city will be center stage again for UConn when Castle and Clingan square off at 6 p.m. July 13 when the Spurs and Trail Blazers play at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Meanwhile, UConn’s 2024 Final Four Most Outstanding Player Tristen Newton, a guard, will suit up for the Indiana Pacers as a second-round draft pick.

The Lake Show

Las Vegas always best lives up to its reputation as a “Laker town” during Summer League.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ traditional opening-night game has sold out on a couple occasions in recent years, and this year’s 7:30 p.m. showdown with the Rockets on July 12 must be the most anticipated yet. The Lakers landed two of the most high-profile players in the draft—Tennessee wing Dalton Knecht in the first round and USC shooting guard Bronny James in the second round.

Knecht was a heavy favorite to be drafted in the top 10, but free-fell down the board with several teams expressing concern about his age (he’s already 23 while most top prospects are teenagers). He might have been the most electric scorer in college basketball last year, and should be set up to ignite in a similar fashion at Summer League.

James is, of course, a lightning rod of attention because of his father, Lakers superstar LeBron James. The latter has long shared a dream of one day playing with the former in the NBA, and now gets his wish.

Look for the elder “King” James courtside to catch some of the first professional action out of his firstborn son.

Championship race

Perhaps no scene was more illustrative of how far Summer League has come than two years ago when the league handed out rings for the first time and held a celebration ceremony to crown the Portland Trail Blazers champions.

The Summer League may not be a fraction as meaningful as the NBA Finals, or even the new Las Vegas-based In-Season Tournament, but the games are no longer mere exhibitions. There are real stakes and prizes present for the players, including awards, all-tournament teams, and yes, championship rings.

Each team gets three games to start, and then the four teams with the best records advance into a single-elimination playoff bracket in the new format.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are the defending champions, while the Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings are the only teams to have won Summer League twice since a champion started being named in 2013.

Locally pertinent updates

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver traditionally speaks at some point during Summer League, and based on history, it would be wise to heed his words.

It was five years ago during Summer League when he shared a vision for the league to hold an In-Season Tournament that culminated in Las Vegas. The event debuted last year to great success with the Lakers knocking off the Pacers in the championship game at T-Mobile Arena.

Last summer, Silver regarded as it no secret that the league was seriously considering Las Vegas as a city for one of two expected expansion teams. With the NBA’s new media rights deal now negotiated and settled, Silver seems likely to update the expansion efforts this year—especially with LeBron James also expected in town. James is considered the frontrunner to eventually head an ownership group of the Las Vegas franchise.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

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