The first weekend of the NBA 2K24 Summer League in Las Vegas is in the books.
The event has given fans a look at the San Antonio Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama, the Charlotte Hornets’ Brandon Miller and the Portland Trail Blazers’ Scoot Henderson, the top three picks in the 2023 NBA draft, in their first NBA action. Eight of the top 10 picks from the 2022 class also have participated in summer league.
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Chet Holmgren, who missed his entire rookie season due to a right foot injury, has proved he made the most of his time rehabilitating the injury, averaging 12.5 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 blocks through three summer league games in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.
Off the court, NBA commissioner Adam Silver officially launched the new in-season tournament in high fashion.
What else are players, coaches and front office personnel buzzing about in the desert? Here’s what our NBA insiders are hearing.
Chet Holmgren taking advantage of second rookie year
Holmgren sprinted the length of the court as Dallas Mavericks guard Brandon Randolph pushed the pace in transition, staying a couple of his long strides behind the ball. Randolph’s Eurostep in the lane allowed Holmgren to close that gap at the last split-second before elevating off the floor and swatting the layup attempt off the glass, a block that elicited loud gasps from the crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center.
That sort of play from Holmgren, who is gifted with a 7-foot-5¼ wingspan and rare mobility for his size, is no surprise. Those who aren’t that familiar with Holmgren’s game, or who make assumptions based on his frame that beefed up to 208 pounds since he was selected second overall in the 2022 draft, might have been taken aback by what he did a moment later.
As a corner 3 was launched after the Mavs chased down the loose ball, Holmgren aggressively fought for rebounding position. He was at a disadvantage, standing under the basket with his back to the baseline, before he put his shoulder into the chest of 234-pound rookie big man Dereck Lively II like a tight end blocking on a run play. That allowed Holmgren the leverage and room to execute a fundamental boxout, although the shot was good.
“You don’t have to take a second look at me to know that I’m not the biggest dude width-wise, so I’ve got to be physical,” Holmgren said after the Thunder’s win Saturday. “Otherwise, the game’s not going to go in my favor when it gets physical, so I’ve got to hit first.”
Holmgren’s combination of tools and toughness gives him a good chance to make an immediate impact in a rookie season that was delayed a year by a Lisfranc injury to his right foot that had to be surgically repaired. After an 11-month layoff, he’s chipping off rust, working on conditioning and learning from live game action with Oklahoma City’s summer league team.
It’s hard to find anyone who questions whether Holmgren will be a major force right away as a rim protector, filling a glaring need for a young Thunder team that made the play-in last season. He has nine blocks in three summer league games between the Salt Lake City and Las Vegas leagues.
There are doubts about how Holmgren can hold up against the few elite post-up threats. (“Anthony Davis is going to put him in the basket,” one Western Conference scout scoffed.) But the Thunder can pair him with 6-foot-10, 245-pound Jaylin Williams, a steal of a second-round pick in the 2022 draft, who can take most of those matchups and allow Holmgren to thrive as a help defender.
Oklahoma City also has the luxury of not needing Holmgren to be a primary offensive option. He can play a complementary role off All-NBA shooting guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Rookie of the Year runner-up wing Jalen Williams and point guard Josh Giddey. Holmgren has struggled with his shot this summer (1-of-9 from 3-point range) but projects as a player capable of spacing the floor or serving as a lob threat. He’s a threat attacking closeouts but acknowledges that he’s gotten himself into trouble this summer (11 turnovers) by driving into crowds too often.
“I’ve just got to get a feel again for when I should [attack off the dribble] and when I should get off the ball and make a play elsewhere,” said Holmgren, who has averaged 13.7 points and 10.0 rebounds in the three games. “We have a great group of guys with a lot of different talents, and I feel like I can complement a lot of these dudes, and these dudes complement me as well.”
— Tim MacMahon
Sophomores showing up in summer league
With 2:02 remaining in the second quarter of the Houston Rockets’ eventual 113-101 win over the Detroit Pistons Sunday, Jabari Smith Jr. dunked over Jalen Duren and punctuated the slam with a bit of a stare-down before backpedaling down the court.
It was yet another summer league highlight for the No. 3 pick of the 2022 NBA draft. He scored 38 points against the Pistons, and he ended up stealing the show before Wembanyama’s debut on Friday, hitting a catch-and-shoot buzzer-beating 3 off an inbounds pass to give him 33 points and a win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Smith has become the unofficial spokesman for the rising group of sophomore players participating in summer league, rather than graduating out of the ordeal after one go-round the summer before their rookie years.
“Just coming out here and competing, just taking advantage of it, not thinking I’m too good for it,” Smith told ESPN’s broadcast crew during an in-game interview Sunday. “Just coming out here trying to get better. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Friday’s matchup against Portland also featured Shaedon Sharpe, the Blazers’ No. 7 selection in 2022.
And Las Vegas summer league was preceded by the California Classic in Sacramento, California, where the Kings’ Keegan Murray — No. 4 in 2022 — scored 70 points in two games with Sacramento’s summer league squad.
All told, eight of the top 10 picks of the 2022 draft have participated in summer league action, with only the Orlando Magic’s Paolo Banchero and the San Antonio Spurs’ Jeremy Sochan abstaining. Both players have good reasons, too, with Banchero playing for Team USA this summer and Sochan recovering from a knee injury that caused him to miss the end of the regular season.
Compare that to last summer, when all of the top five picks from 2021 — Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes and Jalen Suggs — did not play in Las Vegas (Cunningham, it should be mentioned, did practice with Detroit’s summer league team last summer). That led to Giddey, who went No. 6, standing out for his participation.
Lakers summer league coach JD DuBois, who has presided over rising sophomore Max Christie’s breakout performance, said there’s an obvious advantage to having second-year players suit up in the summertime.
“I just think you can’t substitute reps and live reps with referees and just situations that they can develop that they may not have to focus in on with their main team,” DuBois told ESPN. “I think it’s huge for second-year guys to play, regardless of how high you were picked or how much you play with your main team.”
— Dave McMenamin
Jose Alvarado gets FaceTimed by Brandon Ingram during interview
Jose Alvarado receives a FaceTime call from Pelicans teammate Brandon Ingram while he’s being interviewed at summer league.
The Pelicans could run it back with same squad
The New Orleans Pelicans have mostly stood pat so far this summer.
The team declined a team option on Herbert Jones, then signed him to a four-year contract worth $54 million. The Pelicans also converted the contract of two-way forward E.J. Liddell to a full three-year deal and added veteran center Cody Zeller on a veteran’s minimum deal. Outside of that, the only other move was drafting UConn guard Jordan Hawkins with the No. 14 overall pick.
The idea of running it back for a team that missed the playoffs sounds perplexing on the surface. However, the Pelicans are hoping to get more than 172 minutes combined with their big three on the court this season in Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and CJ McCollum.
Those three have played in only 10 games together since McCollum was added in a trade at the deadline in February 2022. Health — always a big if — could make the Pelicans look more like the team they were in December, when they were near the top of the Western Conference standings, rather than the one that lost in the play-in tournament to Oklahoma City.
There are still some moves the Pelicans could make around the edges.
One thing to watch for is the team is currently above the luxury tax. New Orleans is one of two franchises to have never paid the tax (Charlotte is the other), but the Pelicans currently sit just shy of $3 million above the line right now.
Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin has said the team wanted to add rim protection and shooting this summer. It addressed the shooting with the Hawkins pick, but the other need is still there.
Pelicans ownership has made it clear they would be willing to pay the tax when the team was ready to compete at a high level, but it remains to be seen if this will be the year they finally dip their toe in.
New Orleans has some avenues to get under the line, such as moving the $5.7 million salary of Kira Lewis Jr. and replacing it with a minimum deal.
But the Pelicans could also look to make one more move. If they wanted to get rim protection, the easiest route would be packaging Lewis and center Jonas Valanciunas, who is on a $15.4 million expiring deal, in outgoing salary.
The Pelicans would be perfectly fine holding on to either player, but the team did go more to switchable defenses late in games, something that doesn’t play to Valanciunas’ strong suits.
If not, the Pelicans would indeed run it back and hope improved health will be key this season.
— Andrew Lopez
How Adam Silver is leveraging the new in-season tournament
The NBA spent the past couple of days loudly proclaiming that commissioner Adam Silver’s long-standing pet project, the in-season tournament, had finally arrived.
The tournament’s new logo was splashed all over Las Vegas, including on New York Knicks owner James Dolan’s $2.2 billion Sphere entertainment venue, a giant new orb in the middle of the iconic landscape that is the Las Vegas Strip. The NBA’s unveiling of the six five-team groups for the tournament was accompanied by appearances from several NBA luminaries, including Wembanyama, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards.
The tournament’s rollout was a success, but it left the most important question unanswered: Will the players and teams involved ultimately care about it?
It’s safe to say there wasn’t a palpable level of excitement inside Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion about the arrival of the NBA Cup as a second trophy for teams to win. For the NBA’s entire existence, teams have been focused only on winning the end-of-season championship. Why would they suddenly care about a new tournament that wraps up at the start of December?
The NBA has gone out of its way to remind everyone of this, too. The messaging from the league up to and through the announcement was one of patience. These things take time to gain significance, and the expectation is that this won’t be any different.
Still, for the tournament to be a success, it needs only to add a modicum of interest to the early part of the regular season. The NBA did not make this a standalone event that was separate from the regular-season schedule. By building the schedule for the in-season tournament with regular-season games, it has created a built-in incentive for teams to compete to win.
It also should be said that there was similar skepticism about the introduction of the play-in games a few years ago — an innovation that has firmly taken root and is now a permanent part of the league’s calendar.
The NBA’s hope is that the in-season tournament will have a similar level of growth. The telltale sign of how teams feel about it will come in November when the group stage games begin.
— Tim Bontemps
New teammates Steph Curry, Chris Paul enjoy some NBA summer league
Steph Curry and Chris Paul sit courtside to watch the Pelicans take on the Warriors.
What replacing Jordan Poole with CP3 means for the Warriors
The Chris Paul era of Golden State Warriors basketball has officially arrived.
Paul was introduced as the Warriors’ newest point guard Sunday night ahead of Golden State’s second summer league game. Given Paul’s history with the Warriors, several sources noted to ESPN how it’s a bit weird to see Paul’s name and number on a Golden State jersey.
A source also told ESPN they are still curious about how Paul will fit with the Warriors, especially playing alongside Draymond Green.
Paul has been extremely eager in his first few meetings with the Warriors, a source told ESPN, telling them he’s ready to embrace their ball movement, organized chaos style of play, and do whatever it takes to win. But during Paul’s introductory news conference, he said he hasn’t discussed what his role will look like yet. He also wouldn’t fully say if he would be comfortable coming off the bench.
What the Warriors want from him is to keep it simple: don’t turn the ball over, make assists and organize the second unit, sources said. It’s presumed his job would be a bench role, as he arrived in San Francisco in a trade that saw the Warriors ship former sixth man Jordan Poole to the Washington Wizards.
Poole was also officially introduced as a Wizard at summer league.
“I kind of was preparing if something would happen,” Poole said.
“We’re in Washington now. Playing with [Kyle Kuzma] now, great duo. Being able to really flourish, and expand your game. It’s a new team with an entirely new group of guys. It’s a challenge that we’re up for.”
Poole wouldn’t answer questions about how the altercation with Draymond Green at training camp last season impacted his own time with the Warriors. A source told ESPN that Golden State handled the trade well and that Poole was excited for his opportunity in D.C.
While there are always emotions and a sense of shock following a trade, the source said, Poole is settling down and looking forward, not back.
— Kendra Andrews