Success on a basketball court, whether it's in the NBA or on a summer circuit, is as much about what you can do as having the opportunity to do it.
Jon Greenberg thinks of the San Francisco Pro-Am Basketball League, which he founded 36 years ago, as "an opportunity league."
In truth, the same could be said of just about any summer pro-am league. Like most of its kind, Greenberg's circuit provides opportunities for fans to watch quality basketball during the summer, for young officials to learn NBA rules and, most of all, for players to hone their skills and perhaps be discovered.
Pros have long played at the San Francisco Pro-Am; the Los Angeles Lakers found Kurt Rambis there in the league's early days.
By the mid-1990s, established NBA standouts such as Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Antonio Davis were regulars at the San Francisco Pro-Am—all on the same team no less.
Nowadays, audiences in the Bay Area often find themselves as awe-struck by the show-stopping shooting skills of a bona fide superstar such as Stephen Curry as they are by a relative unknown such as Los Angeles Lakers sophomore-to-be Jabari Brown's spectacular scoring exploits.
"It's a big misconception [about the talent level in the NBA]," Brown, an Oakland native, told Bleacher Report. "A lot of people you'll just hear like, 'Oh, so-and-so's not getting it done.' I'll be like, 'Man, a lot of these people can ball. Just because their 2K rating isn't 85 or something, the guys that you sleep on, they're the guys that'll give you 25 on that night' and you'll be like, 'What happened?' You know what I'm saying? Everybody in this league is capable."
It's a reminder that just about every player who fills one of the NBA's 450 roster spots each year, even the ones who rarely suit up, were the best on their high school squads and were among the finest prospects at the collegiate level—assuming they didn't skip that step entirely.
Brown fits that description to a T. He was a Jordan Brand All-American in high school and an All-SEC performer at Missouri, but he didn't hear his name called on draft night in 2014.
His two outings in the San Francisco Pro-Am this year—50 points in his lone regular-season showing, 32 points in a playoff loss—were on par with the 50 points he put up in an NBA D-League outing in January and the 32 points he scored in the Lakers' season finale.
Stories like Brown's aren't at all unusual on the summer circuit. Each year, in cities across the country, opportunities abound for NBA players of every stripe, supposed scrubs and All-Stars alike to not only play major minutes but to also excel outside of the typical pro constraints and within more familiar local confines.
In doing so, players such as Brown demonstrate the depth of talent that's constantly on display in the Association, even if it's not always readily detectable.
A Leg Up in the League
Nowadays, no summer showcase—aside from the ones put on by the NBA and USA Basketball—draws as much top-tier talent from as many corners of the hoops world as does the Drew League in South Central Los Angeles.
The latest season, the 42nd in the Drew's storied history, featured a flood of NBA talent, from relative unknowns (Jerome Jordan, Austin Daye, Bobby Brown, Malcolm Thomas) and can't-miss personalities (Nick Young, Andre Drummond) to certified All-Stars (James Harden, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan) and beloved throwbacks (Baron Davis, Cuttino Mobley, Metta World Peace).
"The Drew League is the best pro-am in the world," said Detroit Pistons rookie Stanley Johnson, now with two Drew League campaigns under his belt. "There's no competition."
The overall talent level at the Drew is still far from on par with that seen in the Association. For every participant with significant NBA experience on his resume, there's a handful of others who've scratched and clawed their way overseas (Pooh Jeter) and through the D-League (Victor Rudd), and more still who are regular workers (Franklin Session, who works for Sprint) when they're not basketball hobbyists or local street legends.
"We spend all day, all night, putting our time and energy into perfecting our craft, getting better at what we do," Johnson explained. "You find guys that work 9-5 jobs don't have the time, guys that go to college don't have the time to do [what we do]. Therefore, we're going to have the little things better than them, on and off the court.
"Other than that, God has blessed us with the talent to be good already, so with that talent and work ethic put together, it's going to be hard for guys to compete with us that don't play on our level."
Hard, but not impossible. Mike Williams, a scrappy guard who spent last season with the D-League's Sioux Falls Skyforce, played a pivotal part in the Drew League title game, scoring 15 points for the Most Hated Players (also known as MHP) in a losing effort.
But Williams, for all that he did, was hardly that particular show's star. Harden, at the helm of LAUNFD (pronounced L.A. Unified, like the local public school district), controlled the proceedings to the tune of 37 points and five assists.
Young, Harden's opposite number on MHP, poured in 28 of his own and went toe-to-toe with the Players' Choice MVP down the stretch. During a furious third-quarter rally, DeRozan, Young's most recognizable running mate, used his world-class hops and body control to stir the attendant crowd into a tizzy:
Even Jordan, who's yet to play 500 minutes in the NBA, made his presence felt for the Drew League champions. At 7'0" and more than 250 pounds, Jordan, who spent the 2014-15 season with the Brooklyn Nets, has few peers in this or any summer pro-am in terms of sheer size, strength and length.
"I've got the advantage for sure," said Jordan. "I try to use that whenever I'm playing. Just rebound, block shots and be a defensive presence."
That's all Jordan needed to do to change the game for LAUNFD, which took home its fourth Drew League trophy in six years. Jordan would be fortunate to have such a clear advantage in the NBA, where seven-footers continue to stalk the landscape, despite the growing popularity of "small ball."
Bending to the NBA
In the Drew, Jordan played crucial minutes for a championship team. In the NBA, he was Brooklyn's third-string center, behind Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee. That disparity in role is a function not just of talent, but also of coaching, of which there is almost none in summer pro-ams compared to the iron fists that rule the sidelines in the Association.
"I don't really believe it's the competition on the NBA courts. I believe it's more so the coach is not allowing them to be themselves," said Greg Marius, the CEO and commissioner of the Entertainers Basketball Classic (EBC) at the famed Rucker Park in New York City. "You've got to realize, most of these guys come from urban areas. They can't display the type of game [in the NBA] that they would normally display at our parks."
This is true pretty much across the board, even for NBA superstars.
Take the case of Kevin Durant. The four-time scoring champ has topped the 50-point mark four times in the NBA, including a career-high 54-point eruption against the Golden State Warriors in January 2014. But never has Durant approached the single-game total he once tallied on the Big Apple's most famous playground.
In 2012, fresh off leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to the NBA Finals, he dropped by the EBC at Rucker Park and dropped 66 points—43 in the second half alone—on those who deigned to defend him.
"I still watch that footage sometimes," Marius remarked.
Of course, playing at Rucker Park in the summer is practically night and day from starring in Oklahoma City during the fall, winter and spring. At the former, Durant doesn't have to worry about deferring to the likes of Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka—or to his coach's instructions that he do so.
"You've got to realize, he can do that on any given night," Marius said, "but look who he's got on his team."
Free to Be
As much of a constraint as this may be for an elite talent like Durant, it's a far greater challenge for an NBA role player like Young to get up his favorite shots (in volume) when he has to acquiesce to a scorer of Kobe Bryant's stature.
Not so at the Drew, where Young can be himself and play his game without fear of scowls or reprimands.
"In the summer league, there's no NBA structure, there's no play calls, no head coach who's being employed to put his stamp on a certain offense," said Dino Smiley, the Drew League commissioner. "So what you have now is the pureness of the game, and that's what we love about him."
The same purity shines through to the Pacific Northwest, as well. There, Jamal Crawford, whose own game is tailor-made for summer showcases, runs the Seattle Pro-Am at Seattle Pacific University. It's the closest thing the Emerald City has to NBA basketball, now that more than seven years have passed since the SuperSonics last played at Key Arena.
The playing style on display in Seattle (and elsewhere) during the summer hearkens back to basketball's coming-of-age as a showman's game in America's inner cities. It's in looser, more informal settings like these that natural-born scorers like Zach LaVine and Isaiah Thomas, no longer asked (if not forced) to adapt to more traditional roles as shooters and passers on their NBA teams. They can each pop off for noteworthy nights while getting the local crowds riled up, as they did at different times this summer.
"You get that feeling that the superstars get—like Kevin Durant, Westbrook, those types of dudes—where you can kind of take any shot you want," said Thomas.
The 5'9" point guard seems to have that feeling more often than not at the Seattle Pro-Am. He's been playing there since he was 16.
This summer, the 26-year-old Thomas turned in a pair of 50-point performances at his hometown league while showing off a newly honed one-legged jumper, a la Steve Nash.
Even those impressive outputs don't top Thomas' personal-scoring list. By his count, he surpassed the 60-point mark in Seattle last summer.
"I just think that's expected, especially out of myself, so I'm not surprised," Thomas explained. "I'm just trying to build on it and score even more points. I told them I'd hit 75 this summer before it's over with."
If Thomas is to reach his lofty goal, he'll have to do so on Aug. 28, when his league plays host to the Drew League's finest in Seattle:
LaVine may have an opportunity to do the same, assuming he partakes in that tilt. If not, he'll have to rest his laurels on a 49-point outburst that featured much more than just highlight-worthy slams—including a game-winning three at the buzzer.
"He's not just a dunker," Thomas insisted. "The dude has a real good basketball game. Has good IQ, can make the right play. He can shoot the ball at a high level, and people are probably never going to realize that just because of how high he jumps and how special his athleticism is. His game just opens up in that type of setting."
Those electric outings might've surprised some NBA fans, but they barely phased 15-year veteran and former Sacramento Kings swingman Doug Christie.
"For them, putting up 50, not a big deal," said Christie, who founded the Seattle Pro-Am at Seattle University in 1996. "I know they can do it, and you're going to see that from a lot of guys whenever you go to a summer league in Washington. They're going to get 20 or 30 easily."
Know the Ropes
It helps that LaVine and Thomas, among others, came up under Crawford's wing, just as Jamal once did under Christie's. Those who've been brought up within a particular basketball environment by a key member of that community—as with Baron Davis' many proteges at the Drew (e.g. Harden, Young, DeRozan, Brandon Jennings, etc.)—know the ins and outs of the scene from which they come because they've navigated those challenges themselves before.
"When you grow up and become the best in your neighborhood, wherever you may go, they're coming for you, but especially when I got to the NBA," said Christie.
For Christie and countless others who've returned to their home turf as neighborhood boys made good, the NBA crown often inspires those still dreaming of the Association to up their games in pursuit of on-court validation.
"When an NBA guy comes, that's everyone's aspiration," Christie went on. "That's where everyone wants to go. So now, all of a sudden, you're looking at the pinnacle. That person that's in front of you, you're going to give your absolute best."
Matt Barnes experienced that for himself in his summer sojourns. In his younger days, Barnes, newly of the Memphis Grizzlies, spent his offseasons at pro-ams in San Francisco and Sacramento, with a bull's-eye presumably slathered on his jerseys.
"When you're a pro, you raise the level of competition because everyone wants to say, you know, 'I did this to so-and-so,' or, 'I did that to so-and-so,' so it was always a battle," said Barnes while hosting his annual basketball camp in the Pacific Palisades.
Barnes was well-equipped for those attempts at comeuppance. He used to relish the physicality and emotion that attended those challenges—that is, before he gave up summer ball to preserve his body, now 35 and preparing for a 13th slog through the NBA schedule.
More importantly, Barnes was aware of what he'd be up against, took those threats seriously and responded with the requisite effort.
Not every NBA player who's set foot in a summer pro-am has been so attuned. There's a learning curve to these offseason scrimmages, even (if not especially) for those who get paid handsomely to play with and against the world's best.
"There's street, and then there's the league," said Miles Rawls, the commissioner of the Goodman League at Barry Farms in Washington, D.C. "Can't bring the league game into the gates. You've got to have some street stuff on you when you step in those gates."
According to Rawls, Gilbert Arenas may have been lacking in that department when he first set foot at the Goodman, shortly after signing with the Washington Wizards in 2003.
"Back then, he took the league for granted," Rawls recalled. "He came down to the league that first time and got a good, old-fashioned ass-whooping. After that, he was Gilbert Arenas."
That is to say, he won over the local crowds and made the Goodman League his own. He had little trouble lighting up the scoreboard, and, soon enough, he had even less with luring his Wizards teammates to Barry Farms.
DeShawn Stevenson showed up. Andray Blatche did, too. Donell Taylor, who washed out of Washington (and the NBA) after just two seasons, poured in 56 points on one afternoon.
Nowadays, you won't find the Wizards showing up en masse to the Goodman. What you may see, though, is Bradley Beal bringing his game to the streets, albeit in fits and spurts. Last year, Beal blew up for 33 points in his Goodman debut.
This time around, the St. Louis native was on the wrong end of Denver Nuggets swingman Will Barton's 30-point explosion. Barton hails from the Beltway.
"Nobody cares about the name on the back of the jersey," Rawls went on. "Here, everybody's trying to get their own, get their bragging rights. You have to play a little harder when they come in here. They can't come in here cruising."
Another (former) Wizard, Jerry Stackhouse, learned that lesson the hard way. In the summer of 1999, Stackhouse, in the lead-up to the first of his two All-Star nods in Detroit, dropped by the EBC at Rucker Park to play some summer ball.
"He came and thought, because he was Jerry Stackhouse, he could just be there and just run up and down the court," Marius said.
Instead, Stackhouse got a wake-up call on the asphalt. Junie Sanders, a New York City street-ball legend, "gave him the business." Sanders scorched him for 39 points. Stackhouse, on the other hand, struggled to crack double digits.
"That's not to say he's not a great player. He's definitely a great player," Marius continued. "But by the time he realized it was for real out there, it was game over."
Nets point guard Jarrett Jack found himself in similarly dire straights at the Drew League this summer.
Not that Jack didn't try, but the heat—of both the sweatbox-of-a-gym at King/Drew Magnet High School and the competition at hand—proved too much to bear. Even while flanked by Young and DeRozan, he struggled to free himself from dogged defenders who believed they belonged on his level.
"A lot of guys from out of town are tentative to play in the Drew League because guys aren't comfortable," said Johnson. "They don't know who's who. They don't know what's what.
"Everybody has a bad game every now and then, especially coming into South Central. A lot of guys just aren't used to being in that rough of an area."
Jack isn't alone in this regard. Steve Blake, Michael Beasley and Ed Davis have all seen their NBA pedigrees swatted away on the hardwood.
"Some guys can play off the ball; some are good spot-up shooters," said Smiley. "But when you're down at the Drew, you're going to have to put the ball on the floor, you're going to have to defend, you're going to have to move your feet, you're going to have to be able to score and play defense.
"Some of these guys, they're not built that way, and it shows. It can definitely expose you, and it does at times."
Pros and Cons
Josh Smith had all the skills to succeed at the Drew when he played there in 2011. What he lacked, at least at the outset, was the urgency to put his abilities to proper use. The fans in the stands and on the sidelines, vocal as ever, could tell, and let Smith know about it.
"Hey Josh, you've got to show us something," they shouted. "This is the Drew League! You can't come down here Cadillac-ing, Josh!"
Smith's response? "I get paid for this."
Needless to say, the fans didn't take kindly to Smith's retort. "They lit into him," Smiley remembered.
Smith's position, though, wasn't an entirely unreasonable one. For many NBA guys, the reward of earning a crowd's respect by showing out in the summer can't compete with the risk of potential injury and the part that can play in irrevocably altering someone's professional career.
"It's a matter of how much they're willing to put out, whether they want to give their all or give a part of themselves, and I understand that," said Greenberg, the founder of the San Francisco Pro-Am. "It's a simple case of, I want to be here for the fans, I want to show what I can do, but on a limited basis for fear of getting hurt."
Ultimately, Smith decided that the pros of bringing his A-game to the Drew outweighed the cons. He came back the next week, ready and eager to peddle his wares, and it showed. Smith, a notably poor long-range shooter, knocked down six three-pointers while playing alongside Harden.
On one sequence, he blocked a shot, sprinted back the other way, went up to catch a lob and finished through contact with authority. As he stepped to the free-throw line, Smith turned toward those fans who'd previously panned his effort and shouted, "I came to play today, goddamnit!"
Such a serious approach can pay dividends for an NBA player beyond that day's proceedings. There's a certain street cred that comes with shining during the summer. Pros can use relatively loose, unpaid settings as launching pads for their profiles in the basketball world.
The name doesn't matter; the game does.
"Something about Rucker Park, after they do that, the next season, they're All-Stars from there," Marius insisted, pointing to Arenas, Baron Davis and Crawford as shining examples.
"Once they get over those jitters in Rucker Park, they go on an NBA court, and it's like, 'If I could do it up there, I know I could do it here.'"
And if every NBA player had the same opportunity to strut his stuff during the season that he does over the summer, the true depth and breadth of talent within the Association would be that much more evident. But there are only so many minutes and shots in a game and only so many games in a season.
"I think people always get that misconstrued," said Barnes. "'He doesn't play' or 'he's a benchwarmer.' He's still one of the best players in the world."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Photos courtesy of Nike, Jon Greenberg and Cassy Athena.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.