Separating the real from the fake after four days in the desert
After four days in Las Vegas, it’s hard to differentiate between what’s real and what’s fake. Everything starts to look like a mirage. That goes double at NBA summer league, which has about the same relationship to NBA basketball as Elvis impersonators on the Strip do to the King. Nothing really counts, nobody really cares, and the most impressive accomplishments at the Thomas & Mack Center came from media members collecting assets on Pokémon Go. Nevertheless, there was a ton of semiprofessional basketball being played, and enough gossip going around to keep everyone entertained. Here’s a look at five things that caught my eye in Vegas.
The Suns Are on Their Way to Something
The Suns were the most watchable team, thanks largely to the ex-Kentucky backcourt of Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker. They join Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and Archie Goodwin as part of Ryan McDonough’s plan for world domination through collecting every John Calipari guard in the NBA. Ulis and Booker revived their connection from their Lexington days and outclassed most of the guys they went up against. Booker was completely overqualified for this summer run, lighting up whoever was guarding him, knocking down 3s from all over, and effortlessly creating separation off the dribble. Ulis had no problem adjusting to the size of the pro game, and dominated fellow mini-guards such as Russ Smith at their own game. Having a legitimate point guard on the roster was a differentiating factor in Vegas, and Ulis allowed everyone around him to shine.
The biggest story for the Suns was the play of Dragan Bender, who stood out by how well he moved and how well he carried his weight. He’s 7-foot-1, 220 pounds, and the Suns often had him playing out on the perimeter with Marquese Chriss and Alan Williams occupying the power positions. A player as tall as Bender shouldn’t be able to move as fluidly as he does, and his age (he doesn’t turn 19 until November) belies his on-court savvy. The game was never too fast for him. He knew where the ball was supposed to go and he knows how to get to his spots. The scouts and executives in attendance came away raving about him. No one in Vegas seems to believe in cross-racial comparisons, though, as I had one executive compare him to Toni Kukoc and another to a 7-foot-1 Mike Dunleavy Jr.