Two years ago, the overall economic impact of the Las Vegas Summer League in the city totaled $30 million, which included outside entertainment. This year? $50 million, estimates Albert Hall, who co-founded the event.
A big reason is not only the league itself, which has grown in the past 11 years to have an operating cost of more than $1 million, but also the widespread industry that has developed with its success. League and union programs. The Pro Scout School. Workouts at the Impact Basketball gym. Job placement for free agents and league personnel. Even the Korean Basketball League tryout and draft.
For a week in Vegas, Bleacher Report circulated around the landscape surrounding summer league to capture the unique behind-the-scenes basketball business throughout the city. Here's an inside look:
NBA Game and Player Development
The summer league is the biggest testing ground for the NBA, involving the game and gadgetry. In the past, based on experimentation over the summer, the league implemented updates to the shot clock by including the tenth of a second and to the court by adding different hash marks for charges and free throws. In-game player microphones were also first tested at summer league.
What could come about from this year's event?
Co-founders Hall and Warren LeGarie worked in conjunction with the NBA to test three things: a remote replay center for quicker call updates, wireless headsets for referees to communicate with each other easier (for the second straight year) and a clock for timeout length at the scorer's table and underneath the shot clock, so coaches and referees could manage huddles better. LeGarie believes the timeout clock will be ratified first for the upcoming season, with the headsets possibly following.
All of the testing was done to speed up play—Hall said the games averaged around an hour and 45 minutes—and LeGarie even imagines four referees during a game in the future. That could happen at next year's summer league.
"Everybody [within the league] is in favor of faster games," LeGarie said. "Our experience in Vegas was there were less calls and the games were quicker. Four referees, to me, you remove any blind spots on the court. Every ref has a position, so it's impossible for teams to hide things. Having four, not everybody is in favor with, but having games that end quicker with fewer fouls, everybody is."
There was also a meeting of the NBA's competition committee during the week. Among the topics, with insights from an NBA source:
- Hack-A-Shaq: League personnel see it as a strategy, not an impediment to the game. The overall sentiment: Why change it when it's not happening routinely?
- Playoff seeding: At least by next year, teams with the top eight records in each conference will make the playoffs, regardless if they're a division leader. An ongoing debate is whether to give the division leader an automatic bid, which hasn't been decided yet.
- Condensing the free-agency moratorium to five days: While the 11 days has been viewed as an even playing field for teams to attract a player, the question raised was: Is it too long? The discussion was about shortening the moratorium, so there's less time for a player to make a decision and back out of a verbal agreement.
- Changing the schedule by shortening the preseason and extending the season: This is still being examined. What will happen, however, is the reduction of back-to-back games next season. Because teams have expressed a desire to play less on Monday nights, there will be more games added on Thursday nights—typically exclusively for national TNT broadcasts—to help limit the back-to-backs.
- Baseline cameras: Remember LeBron James falling into a group of cameramen in Game 4 of the Finals, resulting in a bloody head? There was talk about reducing who's on the baseline to improve player safety.
Planning ahead for next summer, as the Thomas & Mack Center is about to undergo a $75 million renovation, Hall and LeGarie are in talks to test a digital court that will have in-lines lit and other built-in features.
"I think that will be a game-changer in the future, so we want to try it here first," LeGarie said.
Off the court, Hall and LeGarie hosted an enrichment program for front-office personnel to learn about leadership, an international coaching clinic for those looking for jobs (like former Thunder coach Scott Brooks) and younger ones looking to advance their careers; and the first-ever front-office combine for college students to learn what it takes to join an NBA team.
Nicki Gross, who recently became the first female assistant coach in the D-League for the Iowa Energy, helped Hall and LeGarie organize the combine, along with former Timberwolves general manager David Kahn. The Hawks actually used the event to look for a new hire for their front office.
The Players Association also hosted a leadership program, which was a crash course for several current players, including Matt Bonner, Trevor Booker and Dahntay Jones, to learn the business side of the game for future employment. During the summer league games, they scouted players, filed reports, interacted with GMs and participated in a mock draft.
"You get different perspective on what goes on behind the scenes with the draft," Jones said. "You get to talk candidly with people who are making these decisions, what the process is for that decision, what goes into each pick, what are the steps to acquire a pick, how long it takes to make a decision on your pick and learning the CBA."
NBPA deputy executive director Roger Mason Jr., who participated in the program several years ago, discussed the event's highlight.
"The really cool thing is the last day we have what we call 'speed dating' and we bring in over 10 team executives," he said. "You get to pitch yourself for about two minutes, and it's really cool because afterwards you get the feedback on the types of questions that you may be asked during the interview. It's a great networking opportunity for our players to meet NBA GMs and front-office personnel, and we love the mentorship that those guys provide."
Pro Scout School
Another avenue for breaking into the front-office ranks—becoming a scout—was discussed in detail at the two-day Pro Scout School at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino. Now in its second year, the symposium was again led by founder Pete Philo, the Pacers' director of international scouting.
This year saw sessions on analytics, X's and O's and evaluating guards, forwards and centers. A hot topic of discussion was the Warriors' winning style and the evolution of the game.
"The creativity levels are going up with NBA teams," Philo said. "It used to be floppy and pistol [action]. Now, there are more space-out schemes in half-court offenses—even flowing into some drag [action] and flowing into different offenses, rather than coming down and calling a set play. There is more flowing into offenses on the fly to create more pace. That stuff is very interesting right now."
Hundreds of attendees, ranging from high school coaches to NBA scouts representing 17 countries and 45 states, learned about several key elements of talent evaluation: identifying a player's body type, understanding translatable skills for his position, weighing good information versus general information, having good relationships with agents and power-brokers and managing travel that can be 220 days a year, according to Philo.
Philo said based on last year's school, eight people got jobs, with four more to come based on the last week. And that's not easy.
"We try to give them the right information on how to get in, because you don't apply for a scouting job," he said. "You apply for the business side—maybe sales and marketing. You get into scouting because of relationships, and this is a way to build relationships."
Overall, Philo said a big incentive for scouts is mastering the collective bargaining agreement.
"Nobody knows the CBA, and now you're right next to the GM and you're in the room," he said. "That's an advantage for anyone if they can learn the CBA—even scouts, too. If a scout knows the CBA, he becomes a general manager in five years."
Impact Basketball Training
The best basketball during summer league happens at the Impact Basketball gym, which borders McCarran International Airport. What was once a sports park with go-karts, batting cages and roller skating, trainer and founder Joe Abunassar turned into Impact in 2009. It's become such a landmark in Vegas that when you call for a cab and give the gym's address, the dispatcher says, "The sports complex?" as if there's only one in town.
"It's almost become the center of summer basketball in the U.S. between high school, summer league, Team USA and various coaching clinics," said Andrew Moore, Impact's director of professional player development.
Impact's biggest draw is the flow of NBA talent arriving for workouts and pickup games. During summer league, DeMarcus Cousins, Amir Johnson, Kyle O'Quinn and Lance Stephenson were getting in court work, weight lifting and playing five-on-five. Behind the scenes, Alan Anderson, Brandon Jennings and Rashard Lewis were rehabbing injuries. Toward the end of the month, Jared Dudley, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, Tayshaun Prince and Marreese Speights will be arriving at Impact, as well as Qatar's under-19 national team.
"What we do is pretty unique, being able to do the strength training, the nutrition and basketball," Abunassar said. "Our relationships go back 20 years, with Tayshaun, Al [Harrington], Ty [Lue], KG [Kevin Garnett] and Chauncey [Billups]. We're like a big restaurant franchise. We keep the quality up as high as we can, and if you can give the highest quality for a very reasonable price, that's how you grow."
Since 1998, when Abunassar started training NBA players, he's worked out about 300 of them, including seven of this year's top 12 draft picks. When he and his staff consult with Cousins and Co., they're also collaborating with the training staffs of each of the players' teams. During summer league, the Kings' John Welch checked on Cousins, and the Clippers' Sam Cassell and Dave Severns stopped by to see their new addition, Stephenson.
"We encourage it," Moore said. "[The teams] trust us to take care of their players. We learn from them what they expect a player to be doing. The more open communication we can have, that absolutely makes things more productive."
Over the last week week, Abunassar also hosted a workout session for agent Rich Paul to showcase his European clients. In addition, there was an NBA coaching clinic, the Chinese Basketball Association team Shanxi Zhongyu was there training and the afternoons featured a summer camp for kids from around the world. The campers experience Impact's "train like a pro" complete player development program that's offered online, encompassing 17 hours of video.
"The mission is to improve the quality of basketball by getting to coaches," Abunassar said. "There's 300,000 kids who play AAU basketball in the AAU organization. That doesn't include all the other clubs. And a lot of kids are getting hurt. You can't correct the kids, you have to correct the coaches, and that's what we're trying to do."
International Player Deal-Making
Some of the most intriguing action during summer league is not on the court, but in the stands, the concourse and quiet corners of the Thomas & Mack Center. That's where you see agents talking to their international partners or GMs of NBA and foreign teams, trying to secure the next deal for their clients.
"This is the agent convention," said Todd Ramasar, managing partner of Stealth Sports. "When it comes to the business of free agency, it's this and the predraft camp."
"Everybody in the basketball world is here," said Daniel Curtin, VP and director of player personnel for Three Eye Sports. "If you're not here, I don't know where you'd be."
Outside of the first-round draft picks, this year's second-rounders, undrafted players and summer league invitees will end up in the D-League, with most of the rest signing international contracts. Maybe only five of them will get an NBA deal for opening night.
"Most international agents are here," Curtin said. "It's almost becoming a prerequisite for any international agent to be here now just because there's so much happening, and it's such a high concentration of teams at one time."
Curtin said when the Vegas summer league started in 2004, Italian club teams were the first to attend to scout players. Now, the teams are from all over Europe, especially the bigger market ones—from France, Germany, Russia, Spain and Turkey—because they have the budgets to fly to Vegas, and most of the summer league players are A-tier for overseas but C-tier for the NBA.
Four of the most lucrative teams are BC Khimki and CSKA Moscow from Russia and Anadolu Efes S.K. and Fenerbahce S.K. from Turkey. What's additionally attractive to those teams are the players with European passports. "Guys that have that, they're gold," Ramasar said, "like Duje Dukan."
Agent conversations with GMs start before summer league, and Curtin said he'll come to Vegas with some deals that "may be 80 percent done and will try to cross the finish line while I'm here." That's what he did for Gani Lawal, getting him signed with Olimpia Milano. Other deals he'll initiate in Vegas—like for his biggest-name client, James White, who played for the Knicks—but may not finish for another five weeks. Sometimes interest grows for a player leaving Vegas, so agents may sit on a contract to land a richer one.
But nothing is ever official, and everything can change, until the talent evaluators see the players in person.
"They're evaluating your players, you're talking to your partners, what jobs are still available, what's the team's budget, they're asking you what do you want for the player," said Ramasar, who represents draftees Kevon Looney and Norman Powell. "You're just grinding away; there's never overkill. You're in meetings all day, wining and dining to build relationships and taking calls late with international teams. And then a lot of times if your client is here, like [my client] Tony Mitchell [from Alabama], we'll grab a coach or a GM and have meetings after the game so the coaches can ask questions, the client can ask questions."
Some of the interactions between agent and GM can be just a few minutes. "I say, 'OK, what's your email?' Bam, and I can send them the electronic profile with links for my client," Ramasar said. As for Curtin, he estimated that he had more than 50 meetings in a span of several days.
Overall, though, the mood for agents is unsettling.
"Until they've signed, there's no progress in my opinion," Ramasar said. "You're trying to get deals done by August because if the deals internationally are not done by then, or even NBA free agents, it's going to be a long, long summer. The pressure is on a lot."
Ramasar also noted all of the other business deals going down during summer league.
"It's not just agents," he said. "There are a lot of free-agent coaches meeting with front offices. You've got D-League coaches trying to get pulled on. You've got potential marketing deals. You've got the shoe companies out here watching guys. Adidas and Nike have their top executives out here. There are Panini deals. There's a lot of stuff going on."
Korean Basketball League Tryout and Draft
To explain the hidden setting of the Korean Basketball League tryout for its draft on July 21, Nicholas Bedard, a reporter for South Korea's basketball magazine called Jumpball, sums it up this way: "There's nothing out here except for cactus," he said.
Taking place at Desert Oasis High School, about 12 miles southwest of the Vegas strip, the three-day KBL tryout tipped off on Saturday, with the draft taking place on Tuesday at the Palms Casino Resort. According to Bedard, the only foreign basketball writer in South Korea, the KBL is the only overseas league that hosts a tryout and draft in the states, which started in Chicago in the late 1990s and moved to Vegas in 2007.
"Most of the coaches cannot speak English, so instead of negotiating with American agents, they do their own draft here in the states," Bedard said.
How does the KBL tryout and draft work?
First, 700 players registered online preceding Vegas for a fee of $100. Only 108 showed up to Desert Oasis on the first night of the tryout, where they were measured and signed up for another $150. Some of the players were college standouts such as Hassan Adams, Rod Benson, Andre Emmett, Rashad McCants, Gabe Pruitt, Ricardo Ratliff and Matt Walsh. Former Laker, Smush Parker, who once played with Kobe Bryant, and 2002 draft bust Nikoloz Tskitishvili also attended.
But some players were sent packing even before taking the court.
For years, the KBL, which has been around for 20 years, allowed two foreigners for each of the 10 teams with 15-man rosters, but those players had to be big men for putbacks and rebounding. The KBL game style is not low post-oriented, but point guard-focused with a lot of three-point shooting.
The new KBL commissioner, Kim Young Ki, who started last year and is a former player in the league, sensed that fans were getting bored over the low-scoring games that were ending in the 50s. So he changed the player rule to include a foreigner 6'4" or shorter as a slasher for more scoring, while the second foreigner could be any height above that. But because of KBL guidelines, any player who was just millimeters above 6'4" was automatically excluded from the draft. That eliminated seven players this year.
"Matt Walsh thought this was his moment. He even has a Korean adopted sister," Bedard said. "But he was four millimeters over and was shot down even before he took a shot or crashed a rebound. A lot of people were upset by that."
In addition, because the KBL favors their locally born point guards, the league is targeting foreigners who are undersized big men around 6'4" and taller inside players above 6'9". On top of that, players will be limited in what they can show because the second and third days of the tryout only include scrimmages in a tournament setting.
"It's the worst environment to evaluate talent," an NBA agent said. "All the teams already know the players anyway, so it's just wasting everyone's time."
The draft itself is two rounds, and Bedard said of the 20 foreigners chosen, 19 will likely be American and one, perhaps Tskitishvili, will be European. First- and second-round picks have set salaries over seven months at $30,000 and $20,000 per month tax-free, respectively, with added bonuses for home wins and other incentives. At $750,000 a year, Greg Stevenson, who's half black-half Korean and played college hoops at Richmond, is the league's highest-paid player. He received his Korean citizenship in 2011.
Looking ahead, there's talk about moving the draft before summer league or in June. "The KBL is getting the last call—the players people don't want—because their draft is after everything," Bedard said.
The KBL adjusted another rule for next season that will allow for the two foreigners per team to play together in the final six rounds of the league's games. Before, only one foreigner could be on the court at one time. Perhaps the adjustment will add some excitement and competition to the games because, as Bedard said, "The winner of the NIT can smoke a KBL team." However, the fan environment is positive.
"Each team has private ownership and an arena with 5,000 to 6,000 seating, and the fans come out to the games," Bedard said. "It's more like college kids, like a guy taking his girl out on a date. It's not a family event per se. But there are mascots, cheerleaders and K-pop music, and the fans seem to really enjoy it."
You know what they say: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But when it comes to summer league, many business relationships go a long way.