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Summer League load management? Zion among many top picks sitting in Las Vegas

New Orleans Pelicans v Chicago Bulls

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 08: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans looks on from the bench against the Chicago Bulls during the 2019 Las Vegas Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center on July 08, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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LAS VEGAS — This was the most anticipated Summer League ever.

For the first time in its history, the first two days of the NBA’s July convention were completely sold out days in advance — more than 17,500 fans filling an arena in the middle of the desert, in the hottest part of the year, to watch a rookie play basketball. More than 1,000 media credentials were issued. The Zion hype was palpable. In an NBA that has become more about off-season chess moves than the games themselves, here were fans buying scalped tickets into a sold-out arena to watch a young star burst onto the scene.

Or not.

Zion Williamson has spent most of his Summer League in street clothes, and he is not alone: Only one of the top six players in the last draft has played regularly in Las Vegas (R.J. Barrett of The Knicks), and other stars never touched the court. A quick rundown:

• No. 1 pick Williamson played nine minutes in one half of one game before New Orleans broke out the bubble wrap, citing knee-to-knee contact and an “abundance of caution.”

• No. 2 pick Ja Morant had arthroscopic surgery to get his knee cleaned up at the start of June and was not rushed back for any games in Vegas.

• No. 4 pick D’Andre Hunter played in his first game Sunday night after missing the start of Summer League for Atlanta.

• No. 5 pick Darius Garland has not played and is unlikely to suit up for Cleveland (nor has the Cavs’ high profile No. 30 pick, Kevin Porter Jr.).

• No. 6. Jarrett Culver officially signed with Minnesota on Monday but is not expected to play for the team in Las Vegas.

• No. 10 pick Cam Reddish is not suiting up for Atlanta in Summer League.

• Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. — a guy thought to be a steal in the 2018 draft who sat out last season to get healthy — was going to make his debut at Summer League but sprained a knee just a day before games started and is out.

Las Vegas has been robbed of some of its star power, but most of that was about Zion.

Summer League felt deflated after Williamson was put in street clothes.

“It was a crazy experience, the gym was sold out, I didn’t expect that many people to be here,” Williamson said of his one game, adding that his being sidelined for Summer League “was more precautionary.”

The impact of him being out could be seen immediately.
By the time word started to circulate through the arena he would not play in the second half of that July 5 game, fans had begun to file out of the building. There were a lot of empty seats in the Thomas & Mack arena by the time an earthquake shut the night down. Beyond that, a couple of Las Vegas residents I spoke with talked about people they knew who were planning to come for Summer League games turning around and deciding to stay home instead.

The concern among Summer League observers is this is the start of a trend of sitting stars.

Call it “Summer League load management” — or risk management may be more accurate — but what happened with those top players could become more of a norm.

With the larger rookie-scale contracts in the new CBA, meaning teams making substantial investments in these players, will teams start to reduce or eliminate the amount of time their prized young players are on the court in Las Vegas? If that happens, it would begin to erode what has become a happening — and for some fans a pilgrimage — in the middle of the offseason. With Summer League — much like the NBA itself — fans come to see stars.

This year, teams had reasons not to suit up their rookies. Ask coaches or team officials about the guys being out and you got some variation of the Pelicans’ “abundance of caution” statement.

“The guys are a little beat up. We don’t want them to get hurt, then we could never develop them,” Cavaliers Summer League coach Antonio Lang said of Garland and Porter not playing.

From the teams’ perspective, this is logical — what are they risking these players for? Summer League do not matter. In fact, plenty of teams quietly will tell you there are too many games — go to the Summer League Tournament Finals to play for the title and team will have played in eight games. Often after four or five games teams are shutting down their best players. Or, as some of the veteran players get offers from teams overseas, they shut themselves down to avoid injury risk (as Jimmer Fredette did this year).

There is no financial incentive for teams to play the best guys. Teams do not make a lot of money in Summer League (teams basically want to break even, which happens if they make the tournament) and many executives don’t want to be in Las Vegas longer than they have to be.

That said, there is value for teams in seeing their top players in different settings. For example, the Wizards have No. 9 pick Rui Hachimura on the court playing in Las Vegas for developmental reasons.

“Just to have him see different situations, to be exposed to the NBA game,” said Robert Pack, Wizards’ Summer League coach. “He’s going to see different coverages, schemes that he may not have seen in college, and you want him to get a taste of that before he gets into vet camp and into the regular season. Playing here he’ll get a lot more touches than he’ll probably get in the regular season.”

Coaches have long seen Summer League as a chance to get a baseline on players — what are they good at, and what needs to be worked on the rest of the summer. It’s a starting point to build from. Cavaliers coach John Beilein said to NBC Sports, during the Salt Lake City Summer League, that with Garland and Porter out it gave him a chance to put the ball in No. 26 pick Dylan Windler’s hands and see what the Belmont star could do as a playmaker.

“That’s why you put [Hachimura] in different situations, you’re seeing where he can go strong right, go strong left, is he good in the midrange, is he ready for the NBA three,” Pack said. “Those are things you get to see, you get film on, you can teach him and study film with him on things. These minutes are so valuable to us as a staff to continue to develop him.”

Is it valuable enough to keep star players on the court at Summer League?

Or, as it has during the NBA regular season, will the “load management” trend of keeping players out for health and risk-management reasons start to impact Summer League? If it does, will the NBA league office start to get involved in an effort to keep an event where games are broadcast on ESPN and NBA TV going strong?

The NBA loves the buzz, the sold-out games for Summer League. It loves the way the event has grown. Which is why this summer’s reduced-star version has been a bit deflating for everyone.