Zion Williamson's Debut and the Top NBA Summer League Storylines to Watch

Pelicans phenom Zion Williamson will make his long-anticipated debut on Friday but there is a lot more to look forward to in Las Vegas. The Crossover on the biggest storylines to keep an eye on from the 2019 NBA Summer League.
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The annual circus that is the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League kicks off on Friday morning. What was once an inside-basketball week of sloppy offseason scrimmages and hopefuls pedaling resumes to executives milling the concourse, has morphed into a sell-out event. With No. 2 pick Ja Morant and No. 5 selection Darius Garland sidelined, the spotlight immediately beams upon Zion Williamson’s Pelicans vs. R.J. Barrett’s Knicks at 9:30 p.m. ET. We’ll touch on the former Duke teammates shortly, and bounce around the top storylines heading into the festivities in Sin City.  

Zion’s Predictive Pelicans Debut

ESPN requested New Orleans play in the network’s primetime slots on Friday and Saturday evening, multiple sources told SI.com. The move will likely put the week’s marquee player, No. 1 pick Zion Williamson, on the Pelicans’ bench for their second outing. In the opening moments of a momentous rebuild, you can bet New Orleans will rest their franchise cornerstone on the second leg of a back-to-back when the Pelicans play the Wizards. And so on Monday, after the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis Blockbuster becomes official over the weekend, we may actually be gifted a glimpse of Williamson playing alongside fellow first rounders Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Walker-Alexander. 

New Orleans’ trio of rookies probably won’t share much time on the court during the regular season, but with all three players boasting NBA length and athleticism, the style the Pelicans and summer league head coach Fred Vinson utilize could showcase a nice glimpse at how Alvin Gentry’s staff hopes to deploy Williamson in the half court. We know the phenom will shine in the open floor, especially with Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram all boasting the ability to initiate fast breaks off the defensive glass. And now adding J.J. Redick, New Orleans suddenly has a bonafide outside threat to stretch opponents for Williamson’s attacks on the rim. Perhaps we’ll see a preview of what’s to come this winter. 

Coaches Challenges

The NBA will experiment with allowing coaches to challenge a personal foul charged to their team, called out-of-bounds violation, a goaltending violation or a basket-interference violation during all three Summer Leagues, including the four-team outfits in Sacramento and Salt Lake City already underway. No other calls may be challenged. A team will have to call timeout and coaches must immediately twirl their index fingers toward the officials to trigger a challenge. It will likely be very insignificant to fans tuning in from home, sleepily flipping on a meaningless offseason battle on a humid evening. But if the alarming rate of replay reviews affected your postseason viewing experience this spring, this potential amendment could be a notable introduction for the 2019-20 season. 

Data may prove otherwise, but the NBA’s review system in Secaucus has done very little to palpably speed up in-game replay situations. That became especially apparent during the repeated stoppage of gameplay in the final two minutes of Finals game after Finals game. If this Summer League experiment goes well, all signs point to an immediate implementation this fall. Here’s to hoping everything goes off without a hitch, and this system actually speeds the replay process to a rate that benefits the NBA’s growing global fanbase. 

A Real New York Knicks Starting Lineup?

All of R.J. Barrett, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier and Ignas Brazdeikis are likely to play on New York’s Summer League outfit when the Knicks take the Las Vegas stage against the Pelicans. While the Knicks drew (rightful) mockery for releasing a statement incredibly early into free agency, acknowledging the franchise’s failure at landing splashy stars, New York has pivoted nicely into adding supplementary players for the team’s young pieces. And we may actually witness a starting lineup David Fizdale unveils at one point during the regular season in Las Vegas, featuring the five players listed above. 

Signing Kevin Durant and another All-Star would have been an objective victory for the Knicks. Yet this alternative direction may present a prolific path for Barrett to flourish at the next level. Scouts who are high on Barrett maintain his aggressive, driving style will translate better in the NBA, where half-court offenses are greater stretched than they were at Duke. Robinson will present an intriguing pick-and-roll partner. Trier and Barrett may also run a handful of high screen action together. And we’ll have a nice glimpse of Knox’s growth as a shooter playing off-ball in Las Vegas, where last year’s No. 9 selection absolutely exploded a year ago. The Knicks’ summer unit may be the closest thing we’ve seen in July to a team’s true roster. And it will be very interesting to get a glimpse of New York’s next iteration. 

Warriors Developing Key Rotation Pieces 

Golden State swiftly reversed course after Kevin Durant announced his intention to join the Brooklyn Nets, adding All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell in a blockbuster sign-and-trade. The Warriors managed to re-sign Kevon Looney to a three-year, $15 million deal as well, but were forced to trade Andre Iguodala to create room for Russell’s massive contract. And with Shaun Livingston’s future still uncertain, Golden State suddenly faces a season without three of its top seven rotation players—DeMarcus Cousins surely out the door as well. The Warriors’ depth was already an issue, and Steve Kerr, by default, will be forced to lean on his slew of inexperienced recent draftees, in addition to big man Damian Jones. 

He will start by looking at Jacob Evans, last year’s No. 28 pick out of Cincinnati who played sparingly as a rookie. This year’s No. 28 pick, Jordan Poole, and second rounders Eric Paschall and Alen Smailagic will also likely be relied upon to help plug holes in the Warriors’ perimeter rotation. Las Vegas will be the first step in that group’s development. It’s very possible three of those youngsters experience stretches of playing roughly 20 minutes per game in the regular season as Klay Thompson rehabs from a torn ACL. Evans was a rugged defender in college, but brings more questions than answers offensively. Poole can be a dynamic secondary scorer, capable of sniping off the catch and attacking closeouts off the bounce. His potential is rooted on learning a more patient, detailed style. Paschall’s defensive versatility should translate immediately, but just how effective can he be guarding NBA frontcourt players in the Warriors’ patented smaller lineups? Smailagic arrives from the Warriors’ G-League unit in Santa Cruz as, our draft expert Jeremy Woo deemed him, a low-cost project for Golden State. If the Warriors can strike gold with a 6’10”, perimeter-inclined talent, Smailagic could be critical in fortifying Golden State’s murky frontcourt situation. 

Welcoming the Chinese and Croatian Teams 

In the latest example of the NBA’s global expansion, this Summer League will feature national teams from China and Croatia. China actually played in Las Vegas in 2007, but is also using this year’s event as a warmup for the FIBA World Cup this August. China remains an imperative market for the league’s growth. The NBA is the country’s most followed sports league on social media, approaching 200 million followers. Yet the league has seen little influx of Chinese talent since Yao Ming’s arrival, with only Zhou Qi and Ding Yanyuhang holding roster spots this season. 

Croatia currently has six players representing their nation in the NBA. With three of the NBA’s top-seven finishers in MVP voting hailing from overseas, the path for an international player to rise to stardom is shorter than ever. Summer League has long posed as a premiere audition for top overseas clubs. If this dual-international team setup is a success, perhaps Las Vegas can morph into a breeding ground for contracts in both directions, bringing top Euroleague prospects to an NBA offseason event search of roster spots as well.