NBA Summer League First Timer's Diary (Part One)
An account of 2022 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas from a first-timer's perspective.
I am certainly not the first person to say this, but I feel like I do have to echo it: there is no experience in sports like the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. I could not have been more excited to go for the first time this year, and the experience somehow managed to live up to the hype.
I guess that this technically wasn’t my first Summer League experience—I attended both the 2018 and 2019 versions of the California Classic in Sacramento. Still, there’s a difference between a couple of days in Golden 1 Center and entering the center of the NBA universe for a few days in July in Las Vegas.
Throughout it all, I tried to take notes as well as I could while soaking in the Summer League experience. There’s nothing quite like having that experience for yourself, but I did my best to describe what I could in this Part One of a two-part Summer League first-timer’s diary.
I’ve added time stamps where I could to give some idea of what happened during those days in Vegas, but since Summer League is chaotic in the best possible way, those time stamps will be few and far between. The important parts were the time I spent with the No Ceilings family and the Summer League basketball we saw along the way.
(5:00 PM, Thursday, July 7th)
I didn’t end up going to any games on Thursday night, the first day of Summer League in Las Vegas, but I got to do something even more special that night. After months of Zoom meetings and jokes fired off in the No Ceilings group chat, I got to meet some of the crew in person for the first time. After making the nine-hour drive down from Sacramento, I got to hang out and watch some of the Utah Summer League games with Albert Ghim and Tyler Rucker. We saw some great passes from Caleb Homesley and were astounded by how big Bruno Caboclo looked. Apparently, Bruno was four years away from being four years away, so this season should be a breakout year for him.
After a surprisingly dramatic Costco trip, the three early arrivers drove to the airport to pick up Nathan Grubel and Corey Tulaba, rounding out our group of five for the Summer League experience. After the airport trip, we settled in and watched the first night of games as a group. The fun had begun, but our group was just getting started.
(10:00 AM, Friday, July 8th)
Before setting out for a full afternoon of basketball, we had to record ourselves chopping it up about the previous night’s games and preview the action that we were about to watch unfold on the big stage. After some technical difficulties preceding that morning roundtable, it was time to set out for the Summer League stadiums.
The first thing to note about Summer League in Las Vegas: basically everybody in the NBA is there. And I mean EVERYBODY. I’m not the name-dropping type, and I’m not about to start now, but let’s just say that we saw a veritable who’s who of NBA movers and shakers before we even made it into the arena.
The first game of the day was the Chicago Bulls vs. the Dallas Mavericks in the Thomas and Mack Center, the larger of the two arenas. We got there in time for the tail end of warmups before the games actually began.
The first thing I noticed was that Justin Lewis looked HUGE in person. I wasn’t as high on him as some of my No Ceilings colleagues, but I thought that he was one of the better players in the 2022 NBA Draft class who ended up going undrafted; it was encouraging to see how impressive he looked in person.
The other two players I was most interested in watching in that game were Jaden Hardy and Dalen Terry. Hardy had slipped further than I expected in the draft, and Terry was one of the prospects I was most excited to see in person after his meteoric rise up draft boards late last season.
The game itself started off with an early run for the Bulls behind some buckets from Marko Simonovic. Dalen Terry blocked Jaden Hardy early on in the game, and Terry did basically everything you could have wanted early on except score. He played lockdown defense, brought the ball up the court, looked comfortable running the show, and dished out some exceptional dimes.
Justin Lewis had moments during the game when he looked a bit lost, but he was quite impressive for the most part. He just looked bigger than the players who could match his quickness and faster than any big man tasked with tagging him for a moment or two; he also locked down a few of the Dallas players on some of his possessions. It’s not as if one game from Summer League play is enough to draw definitive conclusions, but he definitely looked like an NBA player out there.
For Jaden Hardy, he started out slowly; Terry’s block was not the only early miss from Hardy. Still, by the second quarter, Hardy looked settled in, making good reads as a passer and getting to his spots with ease. He actually ended up with 28 points in that game, but most of those points came in the second half, when I was no longer in attendance—with about 3:00 left in the second quarter, we moved over to Cox Pavilion to watch the San Antonio Spurs vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Those who have watched Summer League on TV over the years, like me, know the concept of the multiple stadiums in Vegas. However, it’s a slightly surreal experience in person to pick a moment in one game to leave, walk down a couple of hallways packed with some of the most famous people in the NBA world, and end up in another gym watching another Summer League game.
For those like me who had only experienced Summer League on TV before this year, the two gyms offer remarkably different experiences—even beyond the obvious differences you can see on the screen. The Thomas and Mack Center feels like most NBA arenas, albeit with much more movement in the stands due to general admission for seating. The Cox Pavilion feels more like a high school gym, which makes for a much more intimate experience.
That change in environment became clear almost immediately upon reaching our seats. Before the game, I saw Ochai Agbaji and Isaiah Mobley (two of my favorite prospects in the 2022 class) gathering their teammates for a pre-game huddle. Mobley made the international hand sign for “make sure to talk on defense,” which I certainly appreciated.
The hand signaling and the discussions in the huddle clearly worked out early on, as the Cavaliers jumped out to an early lead. Mobley made a point of facilitating to start the game, and Ochai Agbaji knocked down some early triples to get Cleveland’s offense going.
On the other side, the first thing I noticed about the San Antonio lineup was that Dominick Barlow looked gigantic, and Jordan Hall looked huge as well. That was particularly important to me for evaluating Barlow—after his time with OTE last season, I wanted to see how he looked against NBA athletes. The early results were certainly positive.
The other player who stood out to me for the Spurs early on was Blake Wesley. Unfortunately, he did not stand out in a good way. During his first few minutes on the court, he shot the ball basically every time it touched his hands, freezing his teammates out on multiple possessions to put the ball up himself. The Spurs pulled him from the game with more than half of the first quarter remaining, and all of my concerns about his shot selection unfortunately appeared to have been pretty well-founded.
Then, Wesley came back in late in the first quarter—and everything changed. He quickly knocked down a jumper, dished out a couple of nice assists to Darius Days and Josh Primo, and drove to the rim for a bucket instead of settling for a mid-range shot. His defense, my favorite part of his skillset heading into the draft, was on-point, and he looked impressive after that shaky start.
Wesley knocked down a three-pointer to start the second quarter, and he continued cruising from there. After Cleveland pulled ahead to a double-digit lead in the first quarter, Wesley got up to 15 points early in the second quarter and helped push the Spurs to a 35-28 lead before he went back to the bench. As someone who was admittedly skeptical of Wesley throughout the draft process, it was easy to see why he ended up going 25th overall when he went on that mini-run.
The Cavaliers cut into the lead pretty quickly, thanks to some stellar all-around play from Luke Travers and some scoring punch from Andrew Nembhard, and San Antonio’s lead vanished by halftime. Isaiah Mobley made a ridiculous behind-the-back pass in the final seconds (which sadly didn’t lead to a bucket), and Travers blocked Wesley to close out the half.
Unfortunately for Spurs fans, the third quarter looked a lot like the first quarter. The Cavaliers played disciplined, talkative defense, and the Spurs were flummoxed. Cleveland’s 48-45 halftime lead quickly ballooned back into double-digits, so we made the executive decision to head back to Thomas and Mack to watch the Indiana Pacers against the Charlotte Hornets.
This game was a shocker before the ball was even tipped, as Nick Richards stepped out to jump center instead of 15th overall pick Mark Williams. There were certainly some murmurs among the No Ceilings crew about whether or not Williams had been injured in practice or something, and we frantically looked around for a last-minute injury update.
The game started out just fine for Richards, who opened the game’s scoring with a dunk off a nice pass from Bryce McGowens. Richards was another player who looked massive in person, and he was the story of the game early on for the Hornets, scoring all of Charlotte’s first seven points. Richards certainly looked the part of an end-of-the-bench NBA center in this one. He showed some flashes in Charlotte last season, and he might stick around as a rotation big if Year Three in Charlotte goes as well for him as the Summer League opener.
Bryce McGowens was the other notable Hornet early on in this game (barring Kai Jones and his…interesting evening from the floor), and he had a very solid night to open his Summer League campaign. He finished with 17 points on 13 shots, including 3-6 from three-point range, and added six rebounds and five assists. He struck an excellent balance between looking for his own shot and distributing to teammates—that was something that he looked much better at doing in the second half of the season last year for Nebraska, and it appears to have carried over to Summer League.
On the Indiana side, Bennedict Mathurin lit it up for Indiana. He finished with 23 points and four rebounds in just 20 minutes of playing time, looking every bit the part of the sixth overall pick. Isaiah Jackson also impressed in flashes, even though he faded into the woodwork at times—he finished the night with nine points, 12 rebounds, and four emphatic blocks in just under 19 minutes of work.
Mark Williams did enter the game midway through the first quarter; as many might have expected, he had an unspectacular but solid performance in his Summer League debut. He finished with five points, eight rebounds, and two blocks, and he ate up space on the interior. It was interesting to try to read the tea leaves about his place in Charlotte—especially since Nick Richards started Charlotte’s second game as well—but Williams did what he was expected to do when he played.
While there were some fun moments in the Pacers-Hornets game, especially early on, the game started to flag a bit down the stretch as Mathurin helped get Indiana out to a double-digit lead. Still, we decided to stick around at Thomas and Mack Center. The final game of the night was one that we had been looking forward to all day: Knicks vs. Warriors.
Sadly, we received a tragic blow to our enthusiasm right before tip-off. We knew that James Wiseman would be held out of that first game before we made it to the arena, and we sadly knew that No Ceilings favorite Ryan Rollins would be out with a foot injury. However, we were all fascinated to see how newly minted Golden State first round pick Patrick Baldwin Jr. would perform in his first NBA minutes. It quickly became apparent that we would be disappointed on that front when Baldwin Jr. walked out onto the court in a gray Warriors long-sleeved shirt rather than in warmups.
Still, our enthusiasm (or mine, at least) would not be deterred—there were still quite a few exciting prospects to watch in this game. The Warriors might not have had this year’s first round pick in the lineup, but they did have both of their lottery picks from last year—Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody.
Every year, there is always at least one second-year (or older) player who shows up to Summer League when they maybe didn’t have to play, and then that player absolutely dominates the proceedings and gets shut down a couple of games into their Las Vegas experience. This year, the first clear-cut candidate for that title was Moses Moody. In spite of a couple of poor performances in the California Classic, Moody appeared to be a level above everybody else in his Las Vegas debut. He finished with 34 points, five rebounds, and two blocks, and he bullied his way to the free-throw line repeatedly, going 15-17 from the charity stripe. It wouldn’t ultimately be enough for the Warriors to win the game, but Moody was the most impressive player on the floor.
On New York’s side of the floor, Deuce McBride and Quentin Grimes were the clear early winners. Grimes, in particular, elicited the most “should he really be playing in Summer League?” comments, running the show and getting to his spots comfortably even when the shots didn’t fall. Jericho Sims also looked like he was playing against high schoolers at times; then again, his physical gifts look out-of-place at times in NBA games as well as Summer League contests.
For the rookies, both of the young guards for the Knicks looked very impressive on the defensive end and inconsistent on the offensive end. Trevor Keels nabbed four steals and locked down his matchups, but he also went just 1-of-8 from the floor and turned the ball over four times. Jean Montero only played nine minutes, but his defense was quite impressive. He hounded the Warriors around the court when he was out there, and the quick hands that he showed for OTE and Barcelona clearly translated on the defensive end in the Summer League setting.
We decided to head back to our rental home to watch the last couple of games of the night. Our group left the arena a little after 6:30 following a chat with some friends of the other No Ceilings crew members before heading back home.
Before we left, though, I made sure to buy some Summer League merch before calling it a night. Even though the main event for me—the Sacramento Kings and Keegan Murray against the Orlando Magic and Paolo Banchero—wouldn’t happen until the next day, I really wanted to make sure that I got myself a memento that night in case I forgot to later.
I knew before we left the arena that I would never forget my first day of Summer League. Still, there was something about buying that T-shirt and sweater that really drove the point home for me. Every time I see those articles of clothing from now on, I will remember that first night of meeting the No Ceilings crew and that first day of games. Those certainly weren’t the only Summer League memories that will stay with me, and I’ll be back soon to talk about the rest.
Still, what happened in Vegas will not stay in Vegas when it comes to my Summer League memories. I look forward to re-visiting the rest of those memories in more detail soon in Part Two of this diary, and I’m already looking forward to doing it all again next year. I have taken those memories of my first trip to Las Vegas Summer League back home with me, and I will cherish them for many years to come.