NBA summer league 2022: What our insiders are talking about in Las Vegas

ByNBA insiders ESPN logo
Tuesday, July 12, 2022

The first weekend of Las Vegas Summer League is in the books, and the NBA hasn't disappointed. Paolo Banchero and Jabari Smith Jr. kicked things off with a highly anticipated meeting between the lottery draft picks.

No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren carried his momentum from Utah into Saturday's 90-88 Oklahoma City Thunder loss to the Houston Rockets, while several other rookies have delivered big performances. But the newbies aren't the only ones who stole the show.

Golden State Warriors center James Wiseman made his return from a torn meniscus in his right knee that has sidelined him since April 2021.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James didn't need to be on the court to leave an impression, as he took in his team's matchup with the Phoenix Suns courtside, while new coach Darvin Ham addressed the team's future.

Brooklyn Nets guards Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons also watched the action from Vegas as the NBA world waits for the Nets to decide on their future.

What are players, coaches and front-office personnel buzzing about in the desert? Here's what our NBA insiders are discussing.

MORE: Rookies who have stood out in Vegas

Deal or no deal: Ayton, Bridges and Sexton remain unsigned

More than a week into NBA free agency, the biggest names on the unrestricted market have almost all been claimed. Aside from Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden, whose contract is complicated by the Sixers hard-capping themselves to add P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr., only one other unrestricted free agent remaining started more than 29 games last season: guard Avery Bradley, who did so on a minimum contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The restricted market, as is often the case, is a different story. Three of the top restricted free agents remain without agreements: Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton, Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton.

Bridges was charged with felony domestic violence on July 1. On Friday,the mother of his children posted several pictures on Instagram of what appeared to be injuries and a medical report with the patient described as "adult victim of physical abuse by male partner."

The Hornets have until Wednesday to rescind Bridges' $7.9 million qualifying offer, which would make him an unrestricted free agent. Otherwise, Bridges could accept that one-year deal from Charlotte at any time.

As for Ayton, his situation could be resolved soon. Executives at summer league anticipate an offer sheet to Ayton from the Indiana Pacers, who will have up to $26.4 million in cap space after physicals are completed and the Malcolm Brogdon trade is finalized (teams have up to seven days to complete that process following the trade, announced on Saturday) and could get closer to Ayton's max ($31 million) by waiving Duane Washington Jr., whose $1.6 million salary is non-guaranteed.

An offer sheet from the Pacers would be a change of direction for the franchise, which has not historically been interested in utilizing restricted free agency. Per, Indiana has signed just one restricted free agent to an offer sheet since 1982: Chris Copeland of the New York Knicks in 2013. Notably, New York was unable to match that offer sheet because of cap restrictions.

More recently, when the Pacers added restricted free agent Malcolm Brogdon from the Milwaukee Bucks in 2019, they agreed to a sign-and-trade with the Bucks, rather than submitting to him an offer sheet.

That leaves Sexton, whose negotiations might last until late summer. Besides Indiana, only the San Antonio Spurs have the cap space to offer him more than the $10.5 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception, and Sexton would be a poor fit on a team that has drafted three shooting guards in the first round of the last two drafts.

Sexton's negotiations with the Cavaliers could hinge on his willingness to accept his qualifying offer, which was reduced to $7.2 million because he did not qualify for "starter criteria" after missing the final 71 games of last season after undergoing surgery to repair a meniscus tear.

Cleveland is no stranger to this situation. In 2015, Tristan Thompson's restricted free agency wasn't resolved until the final week of training camp. The same thing happened with Sasha Pavlovic in 2007, while Anderson Varejao remained unsigned until the then-Charlotte Bobcats signed him to an offer sheet in December that the Cavaliers matched. Varejao missed the season's first 21 games.

-- Kevin Pelton

The latest trend in rookie contract extensions

As the information behind this offseason's contracts has trickled in over the past several days, one notable thing has stood out: None of the rookie contract extensions that have been signed have included a player option.

As recently as two years ago, it felt like the trend was going to be that more and more players were going to get player options on their deals -- particularly after Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum both secured them on their max deals in the summer of 2020.

"I was more surprised they gave them in the first place," one Eastern Conference executive said this week. "I thought when they did people were out of their minds.

"The one benefit to doing the extension is having players locked in. Why [sign them] otherwise?"

That hasn't been the case this summer. From Zion Williamson to Ja Morant to Darius Garland, teams have secured full five-year extensions from their young stars, keeping them with their respective franchises through most of the decade.

And in the eyes of executives, the fact it has happened -- especially for someone like Morant, who is coming off an All-NBA Second Team selection and plays in one of the league's smallest markets in Memphis -- is a sign that things are shifting back, in a meaningful way, in the other direction, with teams reasserting their desire for that crucial extra year of control in the process.

"Teams don't want to hand those [options] out," a Western Conference executive said. "Guys are always asking out. Why give them another way to do so?"

-- Tim Bontemps

What's next for Wiseman and the Warriors?

Wiseman made his summer league debut Sunday -- a highly anticipated and important moment for the Warriors' offseason.

In his first game since March -- when he spent time in the G League -- Wiseman finished with 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting, two rebounds and two blocks in 19 minutes.

As Wiseman made his way into the locker room after the game, he was greeted by a standing ovation from his teammates.

"I've been through a lot of hard times. To see everyone rooting for me, it's a great feeling," Wiseman said.

There were a lot of questions surrounding Wiseman's availability and why he didn't play in the California Classic, or the first game in Las Vegas.

According to Warriors summer league head coach Jama Mahlalela, the decision for Wiseman to play Sunday -- the Warriors' second summer league game -- instead of their first was based on the time table the training staff planned.

Trainers wanted Wiseman to log a certain amount of time in the gym before being exposed to the public, Mahlalela told ESPN. And that predetermined the date he'd be allowed to play.

The Warriors also wanted to make sure Wiseman was as confident as possible before he took to the court, a source said.

Now that Wiseman has a game under his belt, the Warriors can start to plan out how they want to use him next season alongside Kevon Looney.

"There's no doubt you see his dominance already," Mahlalela told ESPN. "He's a screen setter and a roller, and the Warriors haven't had a dynamic roller for many years. I think that's an opportunity for us to change our game a little."

"Defensively, it is about rim protection. And he's a huge human being," Mahlalela said. "The more we can get him to be a great off-ball, weakside defender and be able to alter or change or rim protect, it's a simple package for him."

The Warriors hope by the start of August they will have an even clearer idea of how they want to use Wiseman.

Unlike his rookie season, when the Warriors threw the center into more playing time, they won't give him free rein to start out. They are emphasizing the need for him to master the fundamentals first.

But simply having him play a game in Las Vegas is a step in that direction. And it helped both Wiseman and the Warriors get the weight of his return off their shoulders.

-- Kendra Andrews

What happens in Brooklyn ...

The drama that surrounds the Nets never really stops.

The latest chapter in the soap opera came over the weekend as both Simmons and Irving made appearances inside the Thomas & Mack Center at summer league. The fact that Simmons -- who hasn't played in over a year as he recovers from back surgery and mental health concerns -- watched the Nets play Friday and Sunday, while Irving, who recently picked up a player option worth over $36 million but is the subject of trade speculation, watched a game between the Detroit Pistons and the Washington Wizards on Saturday night only heightened the organization intrigue.

The fact both players did this as a gym full of fans and league executives tried to figure out where Brooklyn's star Kevin Durant will play next season made the past few days even stranger.

In the short term, none of the main characters in the Nets' ongoing saga want to discuss things publicly. Simmons declined comment Sunday but appeared to be in good spirits while joking with reporters. The same goes for Nets general manager Sean Marks, who maintains a friendly demeanor while being repeatedly asked about Durant's future.

For their part, the Nets' young summer league team is trying to take it all in stride. Second-year guard Cam Thomas said he remains in contact with Irving, and no matter what might happen in the future, "that will still be my guy, my brother."

Thomas isn't concerned about whether Irving shows up to watch the summer Nets play in Vegas.

"That's on him, but I don't really care," Thomas said. "He can come watch, he don't have to, I'm going to still do my thing. I'm still going to play. It doesn't matter who's watching. That's his choice."

Nets guard David Duke Jr. said he appreciated Simmons being in Vegas to watch the young Nets, but he isn't paying attention to all the storylines surrounding his team. He has made sure that people in his inner circle aren't asking him questions about it all either.

"All the people that have my number are my close friends, my family," Duke said. "They don't really care about that stuff, so they let me do my thing and that's all that really matters to be honest."

The only thing that most in the gym agreed upon over the weekend in regard to the Nets' predicament is they don't think a potential Durant deal will happen any time soon. But as has been the case all year in Brooklyn, it's always best to expect the unexpected. The Nets remain on top of a news cycle that shows no signs of ending soon.

-- Nick Friedell

Pelicans' Grand Theft Alvarado

A year ago at summer league, New Orleans Pelicans guard Jose Alvarado was on a two-way contract and didn't even start for the team in any of its five summer league games -- playing the ninth-most minutes on the team.

Slowly but surely, however, Alvarado carved out his place on the NBA scene. He fought for minutes and took advantage of absences during the year to cement himself in the Pelicans' rotation, and by the playoffs he was going toe to toe with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul while earning himself a full NBA contract.

Alvarado carried that momentum into the offseason when he joined the Puerto Rican national team during the most recent FIBA qualifying round, which included an eight-point loss to the United States and a 10-point victory over Mexico. Alvarado was Puerto Rico's leading scorer in both games.

The fan favorite said he found it jarring to be walking around with former NBA player and Puerto Rican native Carlos Arroyo or former NBA point guard Mike Bibby, and people would want to take pictures with just him.

"I'm like, 'Do y'all know who this is?'" Alvarado said.

Because of the national team experience, Alvarado, who is listed on the Pelicans' 2022 summer league roster, took the first night off and enjoyed watching from the sidelines with his New Orleans teammates.

"I just want to keep building for myself," Alvarado said. "This is my little legacy. I can tell my kids I did it my way. I didn't have to pretend and be nobody else. I just did it Jose way. This whole summer has been great."

Alvarado's presence has also been felt in AAU gyms across the country as everyone tries to pull off his patented sneaky steal in which he hides on the baseline after a made basket or change of possession and sprints down an unsuspecting defender as they are bringing the ball up the court.

Coaches from all over have talked about how they've seen kids trying to pull it off, and it's something Alvarado gets a kick out of.

"Everybody is telling me you got everybody doing that," Alvarado said. "It's cool, man. It never gets old to me. Even coming here and sitting with all these guys that have been in the league and them coming up to me and showing love, it'll never get old to me. For the AAU prospects, just keep doing it. Make me look good. Hopefully they doing it the right way."

By the way, what's the steal called?

"I gotta figure that one out," he said. "I gotta think about that one."

The leader in the clubhouse: Grand Theft Alvarado.

-- Andrew Lopez

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