LAS VEGAS — With the Timberwolves and Bulls set to face off in the championship on Monday night and the basketball world’s attention ready to shift to Kevin Durant and USA Basketball’s run to Rio, here’s a look back at some of the best and worst moments from Las Vegas Summer League.
There’s no better place than Summer League to witness players chasing their improbable hoop dreams: Everyone from the 5-foot-not-much Tyler Ulis to the 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye have been knocking on the NBA’s door over the last 10 days.
For pure love of and dedication to the sport, though, it’s hard to beat Steve Sir, a 33-year-old Edmonton native who suited up for the Bucks at Summer League. Sir, the son of a basketball coach and a well-traveled pro who has played professionally in Romania, Mexico, Germany and Switzerland, among others, popped up in Las Vegas nearly a decade after he completed his college career at Northern Arizona. For perspective, when the sharp-shooting Sir was hitting nearly half of his three-point attempts as a college senior in 2006–07, Brandon Ingram, the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft, was just nine years old.
According to his father, Paul, Sir was contacted by Bucks assistant coach Sean Sweeney, his high school teammate at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minn., to fill out the roster. While Sir saw little action in Las Vegas, given that the main point of the showcase is to get a look at young talent, his number was called late in a loss to the Rockets. Rather than walk through the final minute of what could have been a double-digit loss, Sir came out firing and drained back-to-back three-pointers, much to the Thomas & Mack crowd’s delight. Almost 20 years after he attended his first youth camp in Las Vegas, Sir was treated to enthusiastic chants of his last name despite the unsuccessful comeback.
While the loss to Houston dropped Milwaukee to 1–4 during a fairly forgettable week for the Bucks, Sir’s parents were still beaming the next day. “We were just so proud,” Paul said. “He’s played everywhere, but he never got his NBA shot. How many guys get to hear their name chanted like that?”
That’s the allure: a few minutes of court time, a couple of open looks, hundreds of scouts watching, and a million-dollar NBA contract dangling just out of reach. Sir, whose basketball journey could see him transition to coaching after he’s done playing, was this year’s quintessential Summer League story.
As tantalizing as it is, Las Vegas is an unforgiving place. True to its host city’s form, Summer League balanced out a heartwarming story like Sir’s with plenty of doses of heartbreak. The worst came in Saturday’s quarterfinals, when the No. 1 seeded Raptors were in the midst of blowing a late lead to the No. 24 seeded Timberwolves to bow out of a tournament they seemed poised to win. From Minnesota’s perspective, this was a monumental upset, given that they lost their first three games in Las Vegas and were without promising lottery pick Kris Dunn, who suffered a concussion.
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It was hard to focus on the Timberwolves’ plucky performance, though, when the game-deciding points came via an excruciating whistle in the game’s final second. Check this one out: Tyus Jones kicked his right leg out at a completely unnatural angle to sucker referee J.B. DeRosa into calling a shooting foul on Toronto’s Yanick Moreira. Was this a natural basketball play? Of course not. Should this have been a no-call or, potentially, even an offensive foul? Of course. Instead, the Raptors went home and the Timberwolves will play in Monday’s championship game.
This call was so bad multiple media members were begging for the play to be sent to the NBA’s video review hub in Secaucus, N.J. That never happens.
Here’s eight minutes of Ben Simmons highlights from the one and only Dawkins. Before you kill the No. 1 overall pick for his shaky jumper and lacking confidence on the perimeter, please marvel at the shovel passes, behind-the-back passes, look-away, bounce passes, misdirection passes, crossovers, ball fakes, turnarounds, and everything else. This mixtape might be the single best moment of the Sixers’ post-Allen Iverson era (including that playoff series win over the Bulls).
Frederic Weis alert! Getting hurdled on a dunk is a good recipe for infamy. Philadelphia’s Jerami Grant got Ivica Zubac bad when he dunked over the Lakers center and then swung his legs over the top of Zubac’s back on his follow-through. One jokester were quick to update Zubac’s Wikipedia page to reflect his untimely passing.
Remarkably, Zubac, 19, had a wonderful sense of humor about it. “We don’t have that in Europe,” Zubac told reporters. “I did [die] a little bit.”
Best free throw
Intentionally missing a free throw late in a game never works, right? Think again. Down two to the Blazers with 1.2 seconds left in overtime, Jazz guard Spencer Butterfield managed to intentionally brick his free throw wide left, perfectly setting up Trey Lyles for a tough tip-in through traffic to force a second overtime period.
Unfortunately for the Jazz, Pat Connaughton countered the rare magic trick with a game-winning three for the Blazers.
Worst free throws
Phoenix’s Dragan Bender, the No. 4 pick in June’s draft, had a nice showing in Las Vegas. On the whole, the 18-year-old prospect looked comfortable in the format—he willingly lined up jumpers (although he didn’t shoot particularly well), he didn’t shy away from contact, and he didn’t look like a fish out of water. That said, Bender sure didn’t look like he wanted any part of his two chances to knock the Nuggets out of the tournament. After drawing a foul on a jumper with 0.4 seconds left, Bender badly missed both of his two chances to give Phoenix the win, much to the crowd’s dismay.
There was a silver lining to Bender’s foul line misfortune. In overtime, Suns guard Tyler Ulis, a 2016 second-round pick, saved Bender by draining a (DEEP) buzzer-beating three-pointer on a pretty two-man inbounds play.
This one has to be a three-way tie. In no particular order…
1) Phoenix’s Troy Williams seemingly has both of his ankles broken simultaneously by Denver’s Axel Toupane. It’s a really bad sign when the crossover takes place at the elbow and the defender crashes out of bounds to the baseline.
2) Not to be outdone, Cristiano Felicio stood helplessly after San Antonio’s Jonathon Simmons cleanly nutmegged him with a crossover on his way to an easy layup. Felicio’s delayed realization and statuesque aftermath really set this one apart in the Basketball Vine Hall of Fame.
3) Finally, Denver’s JaKarr Sampson was completely discombobulated by a filthy crossover from Minnesota’s Kris Dunn. This one was so good that even the most bitter and highbrow media members in attendance didn’t bother to complain that Dunn missed the ensuing jumper.
There’s always too many to choose from, but this year’s winner comes courtesy of Jake Layman. Portland’s rookie forward managed to dunk over Phoenix lottery pick Marquese Chriss before taking a hard blow to the head and crashing hard to the court. Extra points for the high degree of difficulty, even though he didn’t stick the landing.
Golden State’s Keifer Sykes had designs on a layup in transition until Houston’s Montrezl Harrell wiped him off the face of the earth.
With apologies to Ulis’s great three, which came in overtime and had playoff implications, the top moment from Summer League was D’Angelo Russell’s game-winning three-pointer against Philadelphia.
From an atmosphere and narrative standpoint, this is about as grand as Summer League gets: Russell stole the show from the Ben Simmons/Brandon Ingram matchup, he atoned for his own poor defense on the previous possession, and he delivered in front of a raucous, Lakers-heavy crowd that is so, so ready for the franchise to field a respectable team again.
Of course, Russell had to follow up his jumper with an overzealous celebration that was lowlighted by his uttering of a profanity on live television. On the bright side, ESPN sideline reporter J.A. Adande’s “Bruhhhhh” head tilt was priceless.
In true Summer League fashion, Russell managed to hit on the good, the bad and the ugly in one three-minute sequence.