Throwback Thursday: The Evolution of NBA Summer League


Immediately following the final session of 2016 Pac-12 football media days, a friend packed into my Toyota Prius and we hit the road for Las Vegas. We’re no rookies to the Southern California-to-Las Vegas drive, but this was the first expedition we were making specifically to see rookies.

Basketball replaced the usual Sin City M.O. of blackjack, the swimming pool and beers. OK, Thomas and Mack Center serves beer, so that tradition held up. Otherwise, this was a new experience; my first time in attendance at NBA Summer League.

NBA Summer League came along way from its early days to the bonafide attraction it was a year ago. The entire lower-bowl of UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center was full for Saturday’s session, which — as a college basketball journalist and fan — was everything I’d hoped for. I had the chance to see stars of the previous college season, like Denzel Valentine and Tyler Ulis, playing significant minutes.

Bobby Portis was on the court, tearing it up as he had in his time at Arkansas en route to All-NBA Summer League recognition. Stars of college basketball’s recent past, like Jimmer Fredette, also made appearances.

As a college basketball fan, NBA Summer League was an exciting throwback. For NBA hardcores, this was the perfect introduction to the next generation of the pro league — like Devin Booker, who averaged 26 points per game during his stay in Las Vegas, an indicator of things to come.

What a gem, I thought as we took in a full day of basketball. Why wouldn’t any college or NBA fan want to make this trip?

Evidently, others had the same thought. If the evolution of NBA Summer League since its earliest incarnations to 2016 was fascinating, the jump in popularity from 2016 to 2017 is downright mind-blowing.

18,000-seat Thomas and Mack Center sold out over the weekend, for what are essentially scrimmages. UNLV basketball and the Mountain West Conference Tournament struggle to fill the same venue. How many NBA regular-season games are witnessed live by hundreds (if not thousands) of empty seats?

Compare this to 1998. While the formal NBA Summer League is recognized as beginning in 2001, with the Las Vegas league opening three years later, the offseason rookie-and-free agent showcase finds roots in the 1990s.

In the early days, games were played at practice facilities and other, smaller venues — and even then, failed to attract much of a crowd. A 1998 session in Long Beach, played at Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid, attracted 835 fans.

Shame organizers of the FILA Summer League didn’t think to hire the Anaheim Amigos’ office assistant, who was tasked with spinning the turnstile to generate fake attendance figures during the ABA franchise’s one, ill-fated season.

The league did, however, feature an exhibition pitting NBA hopefuls against NFL players like Terrell Owens back in 2001.

As the linked Los Angeles Times suggests, disinterest in the precursor to NBA Summer League could be tied to a general malaise hovering over the NBA as a whole. The only group of basketball fans NBA die-hards battle as much as college followers are other NBA fans; specifically, they fight the exhaustive debate between the quality of today’s game and the 1990s.

Some of the greatest players in the NBA’s history flourished during the ’90s: David Robinson, John Stockton and Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Gary Payton, and most notably, Michael Jordan.

By the summer of 1998, Jordan put a period that later became an ellipsis on his stellar career. At the time, however, it appeared the legend was bowing out just before a lockout.

Jordan’s retirement, the ensuing lockout and the aging of several of the mega-stars of the era — the most prosperous era in NBA history to that point — ushered the NBA into a new millennium on a sour note.

NBA Summer League in its present form was rooted in a decided down-time for the entire league. The prevalent brand of basketball in the era wasn’t particularly exciting, and the sheer volume of stars was lower than compared to the first half of the 1990s. The explosion in popularity of Summer League is a directly reflection of growing interest in the NBA, which may well be nearing an era of prosperity eclipsing even the ’90s.

This particular Summer League is special in that the incoming draft class looks like one of the best in recent memory — maybe even rivaling 1996, if you might indulge my hyperbole. Las Vegas is fortunate to have had both No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball in the fold, as well as Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox and Summer League breakout star Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell was this draft’s No. 13 selection, the same spot in which Kobe Bryant was taken 21 years ago. Not sayin’, just sayin’.

Nothing about this particular edition of NBA Summer League has done anything to quell growing excitement, either. In fact, Lonzo Ball’s star turn on Wednesday night, made in an atmosphere that seemed to rival UCLA’s NCAA Tournament games, only serves to further enhance the mystique of NBA Summer League.

The next draft class is unlikely to have the star power of the 2017 edition, but I suspect NBA Summer League will continue to host thousands in the years to come — not a few hundred, like it did in its inception.