LAS VEGAS — With the first quarter of the Dallas-Phoenix matchup dwindling down to a close, Mavericks guard Josh Adams dribbled up the floor, received a screen from Ding Yanyuhang and drove left. The Suns’ Mike James and Dragan Bender, charged with protecting the pick-and-pop attack, trapped Adams, leaving Ding wide open from beyond the arc. Adams swung the ball over, and the 2017 Chinese Basketball Association MVP swished a straight-on 3 to the tune of hundreds of elated Asian-American fans busting out in applause.
All the while, Satnam Singh — a 7-foot-2 center and the first Indian-born player drafted into the NBA — stared on from the end of the Mavericks bench. Challenged with igniting hoops enthusiasm halfway across the world, he must climb a steep ladder to catch the attention of his home country.
While Ding merits his own acclaim, it is hard to imagine that an arena full of fans would have trekked to Las Vegas in the dead of July for NBA summer league had Yao Ming not come before him. But what happens when you’re not a bona fide All Star such as Yao?
The truth is, two years after being selected by the Mavs in the second round of the 2015 NBA draft, Singh — the face of Indian basketball — is still toiling away, fighting for minutes in the NBA’s development league with the Texas Legends.
However, Singh’s resolve remains steadfast. And even if he hasn’t increased his minutes or on-court opportunities, observation alone has proved an invaluable experience. He spent two anxiety-ridden years champing at the bit, watching the clock and wondering when his name would be called. He now has learned not to focus on what he can’t control.
“I was stressing my mind,” Singh said. “Always thinking, ‘I need time. I need time.’ Whereas now, nothing is happening. If I waste my time like that, I get too much pressure on my mind. I lost everything.”
It helped that the Mavs were a wrecking squad en route to the summer league championship in Orlando this year, providing the garbage-time minutes Singh so desperately craves to hone his abilities.
“If I get a couple minutes, I just rebound and finish the shot,” he said. “Focus on running, keep running up and down the court.”
In that game against Phoenix, which Dallas won 88-77 on Sunday, Singh played In the final two minutes, boxing out and putting the hurt on any Sun who dared venture near the rim.
Toiling away in the background and hustling up and down the court in the hopes of maybe one day becoming the fourth big man in an NBA rotation isn’t exactly the easiest sell. But to understand Singh’s potential, you also must understand how far Singh has come in such a short period of time — and against what odds.
Born in Ballo Ke, a tiny village in the state of Punjab, he was destined to a life of wheat farming, until his father took a life-defining chance at the suggestion of a friend and sent Singh to Ludhiana, a nearby city, to play basketball. It was there that the IMG Academy in Florida granted him a three-month scholarship that eventually stretched out to the day he declared for the draft. Starting at 14 years old, Singh not only was tasked with perfecting a new sport among lifelong prospects but also learning to speak English, a language with which he had no familiarity. In many ways, it is remarkable that he is even here at all.
In the documentary “One in a Billion,” which chronicled his rise to prominence. including a pre-draft visit back to India, Singh stood atop a dust-covered pathway in his home village and proclaimed that one day, he would build a basketball court in that very spot. This summer, Singh will return to the homeland to represent the Indian national basketball team in the FIBA Asia Championship.
“In the last three years when I was drafted to Dallas, I’ve never been back home,” he said. “Becoming the first Indian-born player who gets drafted, other kids they can see we have a great opportunity, we can go play in the NBA.”
Singh isn’t taking anything for granted.
“It’s not easy to play over here,” he said. “It’s pretty hard. You need to work every single day. You need to work every summer, nonstop.”
Inch by inch, he is clawing for the chance to play in his first NBA game. If and when that happens, those size 22 feet — the same ones that nearly a decade ago wore raggedly cushioned shoes cut in the middle and held together by duct tape — will take a giant leap, both for his career and, perhaps more importantly, his nation.
With all due respect to the city of New York, there is an increasingly valid case to be made that Las Vegas, in the early weeks of July, is the true mecca of basketball. The Vegas edition of the NBA summer league is home to every variant on the scale of basketball skill. You can find blue-chip prospects like Lonzo Ball — who can summon pilgrims from all over the nation — playing alongside mid-second rounders hustling for a rotation spot in the regular season.
And then there are the relative cellar-dwellers — the bottom 10 percent of the top 1 percent of basketball talent in the world — hoping against hope, peering from outside the pane-glass window for a shot at donning the esteemed uniforms. If the NBA is the cream of the crop, its summer league displays a more full range.
That brings us to 28-year-old Corey Webster, who carries on his shoulders not only his hopes of making an NBA roster, but the cause of basketball in his home country, New Zealand. The 6-foot-2 guard hopes that his quest to follow in the footsteps of Kiwi NBAers Steven Adams and Aron Baynes will inspire a new generation of ballers in his homeland.
“You can get your opportunities over here if you play well back home,” Webster said. “Just keep pushing and follow their dreams.”
Webster’s dreams — as well as his brother Tai’s, who is playing for the Golden State Warriors summer league squad — were buoyed by the basketball pedigree of the family’s patriarch, Tony Webster, an All-WAC collegiate athlete who went on to play professionally in New Zealand.
However, the road map for young proteges who don’t find a basketball encyclopedia sitting across the dinner table every evening is more complicated. Webster believes a lack of investment stands in the way of a basketball explosion in his rugby-obsessed nation.
“If more money goes into the game, more kids are going to play,” he said. “They’re going to have more opportunities, more coaches.”
Still, Webster finds himself on the outside looking in, for the second time. For fringe prospects, the margin between success and failure is thin. And in the two years since his short stint on the New Orleans Pelicans’ preseason roster, all the momentum he once possessed has cratered.
Plagued by hip and back injuries, his production plummeted. Last November, on the day of his birthday, he was arrested and charged with assault in a nightclub. The investigation is ongoing, and though Webster denies involvement, it was enough for the NZ Breakers to part ways with him.
“There’s a lot of distractions,” he said of Vegas. “But you gotta stay locked in and do the right thing. I don’t wanna make any mistakes from being out or any of those kinds of things.”
He bounced back in a big way, signing with the Wellington Saints and posting a 26-point average that led the team to a 16-0 record and cemented his second MVP award. But the ghosts of stunted progress are not easily shed.
“I was a little bit shocked at the time, a little bit overwhelmed by it all,” he said of his earlier shot at the NBA. “The second time around, I’m being myself out there. I’m more relaxed.”
While that’s certainly true, playing within himself is unlikely to translate to a golden ticket to the NBA. Through three games, the two-time NBL MVP is averaging just 4.7 points in 16.8 minutes off the bench behind Dennis Smith Jr. and Yogi Ferrell. Any hopes he has of playing in the NBA are contingent on his ability to transition to the point guard spot. If his NBA dreams don’t pan out, the soft-spoken shooter will compete for a spot in the EuroLeague. And the NBL, of course, would welcome its MVP back with open arms. (After signing a two-year deal with the Perth Wildcats in March, Webster was granted a request to be released on Wednesday so he could pursue opportunities overseas).
The NBA summer league, in recent years, is increasingly viewed as the breeding ground for future phenoms. But this event is inextricably tied to the ethos of Las Vegas, where there are more long shots than sure things.
For every Markelle Fultz there are 10 Corey Websters, trying desperately to weave together enough ragtag contracts and slight opportunities to turn their passions into their livelihood, fueled by nothing but consummate love for the game.
Which players have been most impressive so far at the NBA summer league in Las Vegas? Whose careers have gotten off to slow starts?
We’re midway through summer league action, with the tournament portion of the competition beginning Wednesday. With each team having played three games — and some of the big names already shut down for the remainder of the competition — now is a good time to take a preliminary look at the most impressive (and most disappointing) players in Las Vegas.
LAS VEGAS — Dennis Smith Jr. didn’t play cards with his teammates, put on a pair of Beats by Dre headphones or catch a nap during the first team flight of his NBA career. He wanted to work, not that he had much choice in the matter.
Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle sat side by side with Smith and spent the two and a half hours it took to fly to Las Vegas putting the No. 9 pick in the draft through a video tutorial. They watched a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, with Carlisle particularly emphasizing details of the Dallas point guards’ defense against MVP Russell Westbrook.
Smith upstages Jackson in matchup between Western Conference lottery picks
Josh Jackson was drafted five spots ahead of Dennis Smith Jr., but Smith got the better of the matchup at summer league. Kevin Pelton scouts their performances so far in Las Vegas.
Ball’s absence opens up opportunity for Caruso to upstage Fox
Lonzo Ball’s absence opened up a window for Alex Caruso’s breakout performance in Las Vegas for the Lakers, which came at the expense of Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox.
Top takeaways on Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, more in Lakers-Celtics
All eyes were on Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum on Saturday night, and they delivered — along with another pair of rookies.
They studied some of the Mavs’ offensive sets and discussed Smith’s responsibilities, how he’d fit and situations he should expect to see, the rookie impressing Carlisle with his intellectual curiosity for the game.
“His eyes light up when you turn on NBA film,” Carlisle said proudly a couple of days later, fresh off watching Smith light up the Phoenix Suns’ summer league team for 25 efficient points in 27 minutes, driving and finishing in electrifying fashion for several buckets.
“I like your point guard,” a Western Conference coach told Carlisle as they greeted each other after the game.
The Mavs, whose draft room erupted with glee when the New York Knicks selected Frank Ntilikina with the previous pick and left Smith on the board for Dallas, really like their point guard. So much so that Carlisle, without prompting, declared on draft night that he projected Smith as an instant starter and impact player.
“I appreciated it,” Smith said. “That’s one of the great minds in basketball. He’s one of the best coaches in the league, if not the best. When he said that, it’s high praise, but that means I’ve got to come in and put in the work, if he’s got that much faith in me.”
There is a buzz around the Mavs, who haven’t had a draft pick develop into a long-term starter in Dallas for more than a decade, that the 19-year-old Smith might be the franchise player they so desperately need with Dirk Nowitzki (the No. 9 pick in 1998) entering his 20th season and in the midst of his twilight.
“I think that he has amazing ability that needs to be brought along the right way,” Carlisle said. “That’s on all of us. That’s on Mark [Cuban], on me, on our coaching staff, our training staff, our strength and conditioning staff. You don’t just declare a guy a franchise cornerstone player. You help put him in the position to get there. That’s going to be our plan.”
Smith says he sees the glass as half full when asked about slipping to No. 9 in the draft, stressing that he’s ecstatic with his situation, landing with a franchise that features one of the NBA’s premier coaches and respected, unselfish veterans to help groom him. However, he can’t deny that he felt it was a slap in the face to see eight players picked before him, including four point guards.
“You could say that, because I believe that I’m the best player, as should everybody else,” Smith said. “They do their work, but I definitely took it as an insult.”
It’s never wise to come to grand conclusions during the first week of summer league, but Smith certainly looked like a Rookie of the Year candidate while leading the Mavs to wins in the first two games, averaging 19.5 points on 50 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists. Everyone in the league knew that Smith, whose vertical leap measured at 48 inches, possessed elite athleticism. He has impressed in Vegas with a rare blend of aggressiveness, poise and discipline.
“He’s strong, plays with force, but he also plays with great vision and good discipline,” Carlisle said. “That’s a really unusual thing for a young guy like that.”
The Mavs, who have had 14 players start at point guard in the five seasons since Jason Kidd’s Dallas departure, identified the position as their primary need early in the draft preparation process. Carlisle, who started studying for the draft in March with the Mavs out of playoff contention, instantly fell in love with Smith’s game.
“The one thing that I remember thinking to myself right off the bat is, there’s no way this guy’s going to be there at No. 9,” Carlisle said, chuckling at the Mavs’ luck. “I thought he was a top-five talent for sure.”
Some questions about Smith’s character might have contributed to the Mavs’ good fortune. North Carolina State went 15-17 in Smith’s lone season, with coach Mark Gottfried getting fired in February, and frustration was frequently evident in Smith’s body language. He got a bad rap for being a lazy, unwilling defender and there were whispers about him being a bad teammate.
Smith never fell out of the top five on Dallas’ board, and the Mavs did extensive homework on his character when it appeared that he could be available when they picked. Their findings reinforced that he was a player they wanted, according to Mavs owner Mark Cuban.
Cuban had Don Kalkstein, the Mavs’ sports psychologist, interview Smith and expected to get a mixed review afterward. Kalkstein instead told Cuban that Smith was one of the best interviews he had ever done.
Smith never visited Dallas before the draft, but Carlisle, president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson and team executive Michael Finley asked him several pointed questions during a 30-minute FaceTime conversation days before the draft. Smith struck them as “a kid that was very confident but had an appropriate level of humility,” as Carlisle put it.
“It was perception over reality,” Cuban said. “We talked to people around him, talked to people he had played with, people who had worked with him. None of those [negative] things came out. It was the exact opposite — great teammate, tough situation with the coach getting [fired late in the season]. The perception wasn’t reality. We just had to find out for ourselves.”
A perception of Carlisle is that the coach is particularly tough on rookies and on point guards.
“I’m both,” Smith said with a big smile. “It’s cool, though.”
Carlisle scoffs at his reputation regarding point guards and rookies: “I think if you ask Yogi Ferrell, he’d say that it was a pretty good situation meeting up with me.” Ferrell, a midseason call-up from the D-League, was a second-team All-Rookie selection last season.
Smith says he’s fine with being coached hard, pointing to his background as a football player, a cornerback who had a scholarship offer from Wake Forest and interest from many other programs before deciding to focus on basketball after his sophomore year of high school. He’s eager to learn and is grateful that Carlisle’s commitment to him is strong enough that they’ve had individual sessions in the gym every day that Smith has been in Dallas.
Smith also readily admits that he needs to be taught how to play defense. He believes that. He also understands that orchestrating the offense to make sure that established players like Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews are getting the ball when and where they want it is the key on-court factor in determining how impactful he can be as a rookie.
“I don’t have to hunt for buckets,” Smith said, figuring he’ll score plenty within the flow of Carlisle’s pick-and-roll-intensive system. “They’re going to come naturally. I’m going to get to the rack. That’s a given.”
Carlisle has butted heads with point guards over playcalling in the past, most notably Rajon Rondo, and has perhaps the thickest playbook in the league. But, as he did for Ferrell, Carlisle plans to scale things back significantly this season. He wants Smith to operate within a simple structure that allows him to focus more on making plays than running plays.
If Smith coasts, Carlisle won’t hesitate to start Ferrell or veteran J.J. Barea at point guard and make the rookie earn the job. But the reality is that the Mavs are in the early stages of a rebuilding process, and the development of their prized lottery pick is as important as anything this season. Carlisle insists he can deal with Smith’s anticipated rookie growing pains because the potential short- and long-term gains are so promising.
“He’s got a unique skill set and unique ability level athletically that we haven’t had at that position in my nine years,” Carlisle said. “Fans are going to see a different element to our game because of him. There’s no question about that. It’s a different kind of force that he brings to the game at the point guard position. We’re excited.
“This is great for our franchise. I’m a loyal franchise guy, and this is something that we desperately need.”
LAS VEGAS — During the second half of Sunday’s NBA summer league game between the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns, fans at the Thomas Mack Center on the UNLV campus got the matchup they wanted, as No. 4 overall pick Josh Jackson of Phoenix began guarding Dallas point guard Dennis Smith Jr., drafted ninth.
Jackson did a much better job defending Smith than the first two players the Suns tried, second-year wing Derrick Jones Jr. and second-round pick Davon Reed. Ultimately, Smith got the best of him to complete an efficient 25-point performance.
Phoenix began the game switching most screens, allowing Smith to get more favorable matchups with bigger defenders, often 7-foot-1 Dragan Bender. Smith used his quickness to blow past them and get in the paint, then showcased impressive body control to finish when he encountered help defenders around the rim.
Twice, Smith audaciously attempted to dunk over defenders. His effort to dunk on Jackson didn’t count because he had stepped out of bounds catching the ball on the sideline, while a subsequent drive against Marquese Chriss resulted in a shooting foul.
When Jackson moved on Smith, the Suns stopped switching, counting on Jackson using his near-6-foot-10 wingspan to keep Smith contained while fighting over screens. Smith certainly had to work much harder to score after the switch, but he found a way, scoring eight points on 2-of-3 shooting in the fourth quarter.
Smith was able to draw a shooting foul on Jackson and bank in a runner over him. And, on one memorable play, Smith isolated Jackson on the wing and caught him leaning backward with the threat of the drive. That gave Smith enough room to step back and knock down a 3-pointer.
Through two games, Smith has been as impressive as any of this year’s rookies in Las Vegas. On Saturday, Smith’s performance (14 points, seven rebounds and six assists) was marred only by 1-of-6 3-point shooting. Those shots went down Sunday, with Smith making three of his five 3-point attempts.
Decision-making was an issue at times, with Smith forcing the issue on many of his five turnovers, but Smith was active defensively and showed no sign of the indifference that plagued his desultory single season at North Carolina State. Instead, he looked much more like the prospect ranked fourth overall in my consensus draft projections — two spots ahead of Jackson.
Sunday’s game started much worse for Jackson, who missed his first four shot attempts, including getting rim checked on an uncontested dunk.
So far, Jackson hasn’t answered questions about his outside shooting that persisted despite making 37.8 percent of his 3s in his lone year at Kansas. Jackson shot just 56.6 percent at the free throw line, which is historically a marginally better predictor of NBA 3-point shooting than college 3-point percentage, and his form is inconsistent. He missed six of his seven attempts from beyond the arc Sunday, bringing his two-game total to 1-of-9 on 3s.
Still, Jackson fought through the poor shooting to contribute at both ends during the second half with his energy. He relishes the challenge of defending opposing high scorers, a trait that will make Jackson valuable in Phoenix alongside Devin Booker, who would rather conserve his energy for the offensive end of the court.
In addition to one-on-one defense, Jackson is also active as a help defender. He may not be big enough to truly protect the rim, but that hasn’t stopped Jackson from aggressively trying to get between opponents and the basket.
With his shot not falling, Jackson has found other ways to make an impact on offense. He’ll sneak in on the offensive glass when his opponent doesn’t box him out, and has come up with seven offensive boards in two games.
Toronto Raptors last season in terms of percentage of field goals off assists.
There will surely be plenty more meetings ahead for Jackson and Smith as Western Conference rivals. And while Smith had the upper hand the first time they squared off, Jackson will have his opportunities to even the score in settings with more on the line.