Roll On, River: Finding the Ocean at the NBA Summer League

The rising tide of rookie talent meets the changing current of time in the Las Vegas desert

Isaiah Canaan Houston Rockets
Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty Images
Isaiah Canaan of the Houston Rockets
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It seems fitting that a yearly mingling of the waters of the NBA and the NBA D-League should happen in the middle of a desert. Like Los Angeles, Las Vegas is more or less terraformed. But unlike Los Angeles, where copious infrastructure and irrigation conceal the desert beneath, Vegas is unmistakably alien and dessiccated, wrapped in a pervasively dry heat and made inhabitable only by the upward march of human technology.

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An upward march: that's how we tend to look at the careers of the foremost NBA stars. Prodigious skills early on earn them national attention, followed by heavy recruiting by the foremost athletic programs in the country. Then come the bright lights of the NBA Draft, breakout performances and a string of trophies. The journey is often painted as inexorable, as assured as a river that begins with a trickle and finally joins the mighty ocean.

But for the vast majority of would-be professional basketball players, the whole thing is backward. They're out in the ocean, working to reverse gravity's pull and make it out of a sea of other players, up a river and then, finally, hopefully,into the mountains.

And Summer League is an estuary at the mouth of that river. The paths of high draft picks cross briefly with those of players north of 30 who've bounced back-and-forth between Europe, the D-League and the back-end of NBA rotations for a decade.

Eventually, players brimming with potential like Andrew Wiggins, those with startlingly complete skillsets like Jabari Parker, even flawed-yet-gifted big men like Nerlens Noel or Anthony Bennett will reach the sea. But what about the ones swimming against the current?

Last night, the Houston Rockets' Isaiah Canaan played an important role in downing the Cleveland Cavaliers, including an impressively confident dribble breakdown of the aforementioned Wiggins to put his team up by five with 17 seconds remaining. Still just 23, the 34th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft is a testament – along with players like Jeremy Lin and Danny Green – to what the D-League can do developmentally.

During last season he shuttled between the Rockets and Houston's D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, where Rockets' GM Daryl Morey has cultivated a hyperspeed basketball experiment. The Rockets were the NBA's league leaders with 26.6 3-point attempts per game. The Vipers attempted 45.2 per game this season. Sounds fun.

"Oh yeah, most definitely," Canaan says. "We get up a lot of shots. We get up and down the court."

Still, he's glad to have the chance to make his mark in the NBA now that fellow D-League alum Jeremy Lin has been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, leaving point-guard depth wanting in Houston and the door open to minutes for Canaan.

"It's a process," he says. "People take different roads to get where they want to be. I was just doing what I was asked to do for the Rockets, went down there and enjoyed myself and I'm ready to go out here and show them that they can depend on me."

As he answers my question about balancing the need to prove oneself and provide what the team needs, he reaches for stock sports clichés, but even their deployment is part of the game itself, part of learning the path.

"You gotta be an extension of the coach on the court and that's what I try to do," he says about the point guard position. "When the game gets heated out there, it's fun. Both teams are going at it, everybody's competing. Those are the type of games you want to be in. I just try to do whatever I can to help the team win."

In the D-League, no one can credibly lay claim to helping his team win more than Ron Howard. Not only was the 31-year-old Howard the league and Finals MVP for the D-League champion Fort Wayne Mad Ants, he's also the league's all-time leader in points.

But scan down his Wikipedia page and you'll see why he's gotten that opportunity. After playing his freshman year alongside Dwyane Wade at Marquette before transferring to Valparaiso, he went undrafted in 2006. Since then, he's played for the Bucks, Pacers and Knicks in Summer League and been signed and released by each of those teams (twice with the Bucks), all before ever playing an NBA game. But that hasn't kept him from working towards getting back on a team and sticking.

"Once you've had a taste of it, you want it," he says. "It hasn't changed at all. I know what it is now. At first, I just liked the NBA: it was cool. But since I've been there, I've been cut four times, I know exactly what it is."

That journey through the world of pro basketball outside the NBA – with stops in Venezuela, Israel and Australia along the way – has created its own value, though.

"I've learned a lot," he says about the length of that journey. "I've gained a lot of knowledge, it's made me the person I am today. The only better thing for me is to have a six-year, $80 million contract. Other than that, man, I'm blessed."

As we chat in the staging area of the Cox Pavilion – where players don't even get to shower before changing into street clothes – I'm still thinking about water, about this meeting point for players on the fast-track to the NBA and those on other kinds of paths.

Maybe I have rivers on the brain because, as the father of a two-and-a-half year old, I've been listening to a lot of the Okee Dokee Brothers and their album Can You Canoe? They wrote it on a trip down the Mississippi River. The final verse of the album's closer, "Roll On River," goes "When I come to my final ocean / I know this thought will keep me warm / All the water in this whole world / Never dies it just changes form."

That change isn't unidirectional or permanent, but cyclical and never-ending. Howard likely didn't envision settling in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when he was putting up shots alongside Dwyane Wade at Marquette, but after first signing on with the Mad Ants in 2007, he settled there permanently two-and-a-half years ago.

"Fort Wayne's a great place to raise a family," he says. "I'm blessed. No complaints."

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