Making it to the “big show” of the NBA is nice. Everyone wants to stay there obviously. Life on the fringes does not make that task easy. Usually a young player just on the edge of falling into or out of the NBA has to prep up for a grueling tour through Summer League to cement that roster spot.
Experience is key. It gives a hunger to get back there and a knowledge of what it takes to make the NBA — even for the brief glimmer of a moment.
Summer League is a strange time for those in the NBA family. The focus turns to the unproven rookies and picks just entering the league and then the veterans and young players trying to scratch their way back into the league. For many, they are just fillers for practice, trying to make the most of what little opportunity they have left.
For some, this is their showcase. The games in Orlando and Las Vegas actually matter and create or break careers in the NBA.
That can be a nerve-wracking thought, especially for young players short on experience. Having to come back to Summer League each year only makes that process harder. But the fact they have been here before is a bit of a calming experience, especially if you have that NBA experience.
“It’s like a calming factor,” said DeQuan Jones, who played for the Pacers in Orlando before joining the Pelicans in Las Vegas. “It takes the nerves off because you have been in this predicament before. You’ve played in front of thousands of fans. It kind of gives you a notch on your belt. To me, it kind of gives you a mental edge of the other guys.”
Jones knows how big Summer League can be as much as anyone. He was a virtual unknown coming out of Miami (Fla.) before earning a roster spot with the Magic in 2013 thanks to his play in Summer League and continued impressive performance in preseason. He was back in Summer League last year but did not get a second training camp invite to Orlando, ending up in Sacramento instead. Last year, he played for Reno in the D-League.
Jones is hardly alone in making his break into the league using Summer League and using the week-long schedule to show the improvements he has made in the game.
“It helps me out a lot because I am able to go out there and use what I learned previously and playing against the NBA guys is actually a lot tougher than playing out here,” then-Pistons guard Peyton Siva said of how his NBA experience helped him in Orladno. “Just use what I learned and play hard.
“[I'm] definitely more relaxed out here. Not trying to press it, but just trying to go out there and play. Just trying to do that, stick with it, play hard and try to listen to whatever coach says.”
Siva got caught in a roster squeeze and was let go by the Pistons earlier this week (the team had just signed D.J. Augustin and Jodie Meeks to play guard). Seva though put in a good showing in Orlando averaging 10.0 points and 5.0 assists per game before injuries cut his week short. It seems certain he will find a spot somewhere in the league for training camp.
For those playing their second Summer League, there was a bit of that relaxed feeling and a bit more leadership coming from them. The whole process — and even the fact of being a professional basketball player — had become old hat.
For these experienced players, Summer League works to become a time where the players can refine their skills. There is no longer a learning curve trying to learn a system or a new role with a new team. These guys take on, perhaps, larger roles than they would during the regular season but they still find ways for them to fit within the system for the regular season.
This is an important area of growth for young players — working and improving individually within a system.
“Last year, I had to just adopt the system and figure out how I could help the team,” Thunder center Steven Adams said. “That was really defense. It still stands. I still need to really work on my defense. That’s my number one goal. I still need to work on the offensive end. We worked on it all last year. Same thing, man. I’m just trying to be a sponge.”
There is still so much learning even for a player who contributed as much as Adams did. Players can never forget that as they enter this opportunity.
It is a competitive environment, but players still have to find where they fit into a team. And teams want to see how they fit into the team landscape and mentality. That growth in leadership and off the court is as important as anything else.
“We have a lot of guys coming straight out of college,” Jones said. “I told them the biggest thing is playing professionally and in the league is pace. It’s slow to set up into the move, but you go fast to initiate it. Just talking those guys through it and letting them know to take advantage of the opportunity and just come out and have fun.”
Phil Pressey, who reportedly has just signed a guaranteed deal to join the Celtics this year, echoed those sentiments. He said he worked hard with Marcus Smart at the team hotel and share what he learned as a rookie last year (even at the end of the bench). Player after player talked about needing to share that knowledge with some of the young players too. It is a major part of that mission that comes with having so much experience.
Their play is also more relaxed which typically means they perform better. They are armed with knowledge they can not only share, but can also use to their advantage to improve themselves.
Summer League results and stats really do not matter in the long run. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will not average 18.8 field goal attempts per game when the regular season starts. The confidence and experience he gained will matter though when push comes to shove and the ball tips off for real.
That is the value and purpose of Summer League.
“Just being here before, you playing here and getting a lot of minutes during the regular season and then coming back here, it only helps out,” Pressey said. “You get to work on some of the thing syou worked on all summer. Playing here is allowing me to show some of the things that I have been working on.”