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Following the bouncing ball at Summer League

New Orleans Pelicans' Zion Williamson runs upcourt during

New Orleans Pelicans' Zion Williamson runs upcourt during the team's NBA summer league basketball game against the New York Knicks on Friday, July 5, 2019, in Las Vegas.  Photo Credit: AP/Steve Marcus

When the basketball world converged on Las Vegas last week — not just coaches and executives and scouts and reporters, but a who’s who of NBA stars packed into the front rows — it was for one main attraction. Everyone was there to see Zion Williamson.

But Williamson’s stay lasted just long enough for a pregame layup line of dunks and nine minutes of action before he was done for the Summer League. A knee-to-knee collision put him on the bench at first and then out of action for the rest of the session in what the New Orleans Pelicans described as a precautionary measure.

That brief showing didn’t exactly reinforce the notion that he is a generational talent. One Western Conference coach shook his head and noted, “He’s not in college anymore. He wants to bull his way in — you saw Mitchell Robinson just say, ‘OK, I’ll meet you up there’ and block his shot with no fear.” An Eastern Conference scout said, “His conditioning was not what you want to see from a kid trying to make an impression.”

Williamson may be fine with a 6-7 frame carrying 285 pounds — or more, if you listened to the guesses on his weight coming from the observers who were happy to pounce on his flaws. But Williamson, in his absence, became an afterthought.

While the event once was a place for executives to move into the shadows to negotiate free-agent deals, nearly every deal was done by the time this Summer League commenced. This time they were mostly talking about deals already done and a handful of blockbuster trades that came out of the ether.

Would one of them have wandered into one of the sports books in casinos to place a bet that Paul George would be recruited by Kawhi Leonard, and that in a matter of days, a deal would be completed to pair them together with the Clippers? Or that a week later, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul would be trading places?

The structure of the league shifted under the feet of those executives who found that their power paled in comparison to the might of the players who suddenly were flexing their muscles. 

Acceptance was the mood in Vegas. At least it was among the teams who would speak — a group that included nearly every team and not the Knicks. While news conferences were being held in various corners of the Thomas and Mack Center, Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry contributed not more than a wave to the media. They refused to speak about the free-agency letdown that was reflected in the team statement just hours after the market opened or even address the six players they have signed.

David Fizdale was the very public face of the franchise last season as the talent was ripped away and he was left to coach a team for a franchise that operated with the intention of collecting as many Ping-Pong balls as possible. But after being the voice throughout the season, he was kept quiet in Vegas. Asked after the fourth and final game before the playoffs and consolation rounds if he would speak, Fizdale laughed and said, “When they turn me loose. They’re holding me hostage.”

Maybe it’s understandable that they’d like this to pass by. Let the players arrive. Let someone star in Summer League. And maybe the promises and assurances that the stars were coming this summer will be forgotten. Maybe even by the time they have to talk, there will be some trade for a star and it will all seem as if that was the plan.

They aren’t saying, and when asked for a comment as to why they weren’t speaking, the Knicks passed on that, too.

A handful of the new players spoke in Vegas. No one played well enough to make you forget what had passed the Knicks by, particularly when the Nets were holding a news conference one day to discuss landing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and the Clippers were holding court another day to talk about Leonard and George. So maybe this won’t be forgotten by the time Mills or Perry or Fizdale speak and it will all be dredged up again.

Two of a kind

The last major move of the summer — so far — was the deal that reunited Russell Westbrook and James Harden, who began their careers together in Oklahoma City and now will be teammates again in Houston. And that also brought up an interesting question — how is this going to work?

Westbrook is well-liked by many of his teammates off the court and not so much on it as he dominates the ball. So how is Harden going to pry the ball out of his hands to do what he likes to do — dominate the ball?

The Showcase

Even if Zion wasn’t around to be put on display, other players were happy to step into the void and grab the spotlight.

Rookies

  1. Nickeil Alexander-Walker: While his cousin, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, unexpectedly was a center of attention as part of the trade that brought Paul George to the Clippers, Alexander-Walker opened eyes, too. In his first two games, the Pelicans' other rookie averaged 24.5 points and 7.0 assists per game. 
  2. Tyler Herro: The Heat rookie showed a shooting touch and athleticism, averaging 19.5 points per game and, with the ball in his hands, showing that he had more than he showed at Kentucky.
  3. Jaxson Hayes: Hayes was regarded as a raw project — sort of a Mitchell Robinson type of rim runner and shot-blocker who didn’t score 20 points once at the University of Texas and topped 15 only once. Then he scored 28 points in his first Summer League game for the Pelicans.
  4. Chris Clemons: Maybe it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Clemons is scoring easily in Vegas, given that he led the NCAA in scoring last season for Campbell University and is the third-leading point-total leader in Division I history (to be fair, averaging 19.4 points per game less than Pete Maravich).

Veterans

  1. Chris Boucher: The Raptors just happen to have an opening with the departure of Kawhi Leonard, and the 6-10 G League MVP opened eyes, averaging 22.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
  2. Lonnie Walker IV: After barely seeing the court as a rookie for the Spurs, Walker was one of the best players in Vegas, averaging 30 points per game there and 24.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game overall.
  3. Anfernee Simmons: The second-year Trail Blazers guard has shot 64.7 percent from three-point range and averaged 22 points per game.
  4. Kendrick Nunn: Maybe not exactly a veteran, given that the Heat signed him out of the G League on the final day of the season, but he has performed, averaging 22.0 points and 5.2 assists per game.

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