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Is Summer League Worth It?

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I know that Summer League is still a few months away, but rather than putting up another post of bullets I thought I'd discuss the Summer Leagues, and specifically whether they have any value for D-League players. Summer League is mainly used by NBA teams to see what their newly-drafted rookies can do and how they stack up to players with a season or two of experience. And then, because rosters need to be filled out, free agents get signed to short contracts. A lot of the players are D-Leaguers or other minor league ballers who are trying to catch a break and make it onto an NBA roster.

But how often does that happen? As I've been writing player profiles, and reading those that Scott has written, a pattern seems to emerge. A player will join a Summer League team, not get much playing time, and either get cut or, in some cases, get a preseason contract where he'll also not get a lot of playing time, then get cut. So why bother playing? What do D-Leaguers get out of going to Summer League?

The problem, as I see it, is that Summer League games aren't real. I don't mean that in the metaphysical/philosophical, "how can we be sure if anything is real" sense, I mean that they just don't matter. Summer League teams are usually coached by assistants (except in some cases, as with first-time head man Vinny Del Negro last year), and the head coach typically watches from the stands or isn't there at all.

Teams run basic plays, as again, Summer League tends more towards being a diagnostic tool to gauge how much work that lottery pick will need. There has been some research done into whether the outcomes or individual statistics put up in the NBA preseason have any bearing on the regular season, and if I recall the results have been somewhat mixed, but lean towards "no, they don't." Well Summer League games matter even less.

This is not to say there haven't been success stories. Denver's Dahntay Jones is probably the most obvious example of this. As D-League President Dan Reed pointed out in his interview with Scott:

He played in our league last year with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and didn't even get a 10-day, much less a contract for the rest of the season. Yet he caught a lot of NBA team's attention through his play for the Mad Ants, which led the Denver Nuggets to target him for their summer league team, which he parlayed into a starting role on the Nuggets, who are currently leading their division. Think he's upset he didn't have a 10-day or get signed for the remainder of the season? Probably not.

There are other examples, too. Anthony Tolliver is another guy who made an impression at Summer League and ended up playing in 19 games for the San Antonio Spurs.

More often than not, though, even if a "D-League guy" makes it past Summer League and plays his way into a preseason contract, NBA teams by that point have already mostly, if not completely, filled their roster with retreads, leaving anyone really working their ass off to get a shot with little chance of seeing a payoff.

I've mentioned it a few times here, but I follow the Washington Wizards. I don't even remember who was on their Summer League team last year, but for preseason they brought in DerMarr Johnson, Linton Johnson, and Taj McCullough. Now I'm not saying that any of those guys would have made a huge impact on the team this past season, but the real problem was that all three were competing with Juan Dixon for the 15th roster spot. Juan Dixon, who in addition to being local and a former Wizard himself, had signed a partially guaranteed contract. Over at Bullets Forever, everyone pretty much assumed that no matter how well either of the Johnsons played (McCullough was a relatively early cut), Dixon was likely to get the roster spot because of his contract.

I can't imagine that's an unusual situation. Other teams may have better salary cap situations, but they're just as likely to keep a guy who they have to pay anyway rather than a guy who's only there on a preseason contract. And even then, if a guy does make it past the preseason onto an NBA roster, he's likely the first one dropped in case of injury.

Witness the Cleveland Cavaliers last year (I really didn't mean to put that reference in there). Jawad Williams impressed them enough in the Summer League and preseason to work his way onto the team, but they had to waive Ronald Dupree, then later dropped Williams to make room for Trey Johnson.

I've strayed a little bit, but while there have been a few successes, I question the value of attending Summer League for most D-League players. The main advantage seems to be getting exposure, but it's not really a situation that always allows players to really show what they can do. If a guy plays solid defense, for example, more often than not teams will approach it as "here is how my new draftee needs to improve," rather than having found a guy who can contribute for them later on.

NBA teams seem to place a higher value on how a player performs during the D-League season and in "real game" situations. A Summer League invite rarely guarantees a spot on an NBA roster, certainly more rarely than just performing well in the D-League. To that end, is the Summer League really worth it?