The 2014 Las Vegas Summer League showcases raw talent and NBA hopefuls, and for the second year in a row, it will culminate in a tournament to crown the winning team.
The Golden State Warriors will attempt to defend their inaugural title after beating the Phoenix Suns in last year's tournament, but each team's wins and losses are ancillary results.
The most significant takeaways from the Vegas Summer League consist in the evaluation of individual players. Is a top-10 rookie ready for the prime time on a team in desperate need of help? And can a bust from last season finally make good on his talents? Uncertainty clouds nearly all players heading for Vegas, except perhaps reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, whom the Philadelphia 76ers have curiously decided to trot out for the Sin City exhibition.
As shown by the marginal progress of 2013 Vegas Summer League MVP Jonas Valanciunas, summer success does not necessarily translate to a wonderful winter, but a breakout of Andre Drummond proportions remains possible for any of the top talents.
Questions abound in advance of the action in balmy Las Vegas, and these three players (including one university alum eager for redemption) will have a spotlight on them when they hit the court at UNLV.
Las Vegas Summer League Info
Dates: July 11-21
Watch: NBA TV (not showing all games live)
Stream: NBA Summer League Live (subscription required)
Where: Mack Center and Cox Pavilion, UNLV campus; Las Vegas, Nevada
Rosters: Via HoopsHype
Bracket: Full schedule via NBA.com
Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
For all the high praise of Jabari Parker as possibly the most NBA-ready player in the 2014 draft, one enormous question looms: Can he play defense?
Parker came out of Duke after one season, but he demonstrated all the offensive polish that one would expect from one of Mike Krzyzewski's charges. Parker averaged 19.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and better than a steal and a block per game as a freshman for the Blue Devils. However, he showed precious little consistency as a two-way player.
Parker fits best at small forward, but he's got the quickness to play the 2 and the size to play against smaller 4s. Per DraftExpress, he measures at 6'8" and 241 pounds, and his long arms should help him on the defensive end.
He's a high-IQ player, but his defensive discipline will have to improve if the Bucks hope (or care) to stay out of the lottery in 2015.
At any rate, July 14 will present the chance to watch Parker battle his former Duke teammate Rodney Hood and highly touted Australian point guard Dante Exum when the Bucks challenge the Utah Jazz:
Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers
The 6'9" forward out of Kentucky recorded 24 double-doubles as a freshman, more than any frosh in college history with the exception of Michael Beasley. A foot injury caused some teams to veer away from Randle, but the Lakers hungrily snapped him up.
At least one former Lakers legend considers Randle, not Parker, the best prepared rookie for the pros:
Randle has been medically cleared to play in the Vegas Summer League, and he told reporters in an interview posted on NBA.com that the foot "doesn't bother me at all."
However, Randle does not know if he'll play for the Lakers in Vegas, and his foot has nothing to do with that uncertainty. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times offered more clarity on the issue:
The Lakers begin summer league Friday in Las Vegas, but Randle will not be on the court until he signs with them. The team is waiting because it can save about $500,000 if his signing is delayed, money that could be used toward free agents such as Anthony and Pau Gasol. With the Lakers already allocating $23.5 million to Kobe Bryant next season and $9.7 million to Steve Nash, every dollar counts. So Randle waits.
With the team left razor thin in the frontcourt, Randle projects to be the regular starter at small forward or power forward, depending on how the roster shakes out for the regular season. Until then, Randle remains patient for his chance to take the court bedecked in purple and gold.
As he phrased it: "It's kind of really out of my hands right now. I'm ready to play whenever."
Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers
Forget about Andrew Wiggins for the moment. Yes, the Canadian phenom is indeed on the Cavs, but first things first: What about their other Canadian No. 1?
2013 first overall pick Anthony Bennett was widely maligned during his first NBA season, with some scribes digging through the bowels of Basketball-Reference to declare Bennett potentially the biggest No. 1 bust in league history. He'll return to UNLV, where he played college ball, with a year of pro experience under his belt and a huge monkey on his back for the Vegas Summer League, which offers a first step toward avenging his rotten rookie year.
Bennett averaged 12.8 minutes per game over 52 contests as a rookie. His 6.95 player efficiency rating ranked worse than every forward in the league except for Jeff Taylor's 26-game stint with the Charlotte Bobcats, per ESPN.
In 11 games after the All-Star break, Bennett appeared to find a rhythm, at least in comparison to his previous drudgery. He averaged 5.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in 13.6 minutes per game, while also raising his shooting by 15 percentage points, according to Basketball-Reference.
However, just because Bennett improved at the end of last season is no assurance that he can continue his effective play in the 2014-15 campaign or even at the Vegas Summer League. He recovered slowly from offseason shoulder surgery last year, and he had the misfortune of getting his tonsils removed in mid-May:
If Bennett can leave behind the awfulness he endured last season, it will serve as a massive boost to the entire Cavs roster, including the newly re-signed Kyrie Irving and the team's newest renowned rookie in Wiggins. However, if Bennett regresses, the Cavs could renew their all-too-familiar backslide in the East.