NBA Summer League: All the Dunks, None of the Defense - Rolling Stone
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Air Raid: Everyone Dunks During NBA Summer League

The league heads to Las Vegas for the summer, but the defense stays at home

Andrew WigginsAndrew Wiggins

Andrew Wiggins of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

John Locher/AP

All it takes is watching a few possessions at the Las Vegas Summer League to realize the terrifying truth: this is some awful basketball.

Turnovers, miscommunication, pull-up jumpers…Summer League has them all – or, more specifically, it has ALL of them. Sin City’s so overstuffed with giveaways this week that it’s more-or-less impossible to turn the ball over anywhere else on the planet, simply by the law of averages.

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But why? You could chalk it up to the overall quality of the players, and certainly that’s part of the problem. The best athletes on the floor are often ultra-raw rookies (Cleveland’s Andrew Wiggins or the comparatively polished Jabari Parker for Milwaukee) or a team’s underperforming second- or third-year player, sent here to scare him straight with a vision of basketball hell.

Blaming it on the players, though, is a little reductive – these guys aren’t actually being set up for success. Teams know there’s little point in coaching-up a Summer League squad when only a few of the players will make the regular-season roster. They’re also walking a fine line between assessment and development. Teams aren’t looking to see how well a player can learn a specific play; they’re looking to see how well he learns, period.

And defense? Forget it. A good one-on-one defender can be a premium commodity, but at its root, defense is a team effort. It relies on systems of rotations, agreed-upon approaches to dropping down or stepping out on pick-and-rolls, an understanding of when to flood the strongside and other subtle adjustments that must be made as a unit. Take a guess how well those concepts translate to the Summer League.

But there’s a silver lining to all that: Dunks and dunks and dunks.

Dunks in the NBA’s regular season tend to come in transition or on defensive breakdowns, but Vegas is more-or-less one giant defensive breakdown, so the slams proliferate.

That’s precisely the kind of dunk opportunity you’re rarely going to see in the NBA. With the Suns’ Miles Plumlee set up in the post, the drive into the paint sucks in all the surrounding defenders, no one rotates and the murder is a fait accompli: Professor Plumlee, with the rock, in the lane.

The start of the play is pure Summer League, and so is the finish. But both the assister (Will Barton) and the assistee (Thomas Robinson) are players with solid NBA experience, albeit off the bench, so this one is an anomaly. The best part? The Hawks’ Casey Prather bumping into Robinson’s swinging legs as if to say, “Yeah, OK hotshot.”

Again, it doesn’t take much to scramble the defense here and open up an opportunity for the Mavericks’ Eric Griffin to sky over the Knicks’ Shane Larkin, God rest his soul. The sweetness here is the inverse of the previous dunk: This is a guy who’s never played an NBA game getting up over a guy who’s guaranteed a roster spot. The good news for Griffin is that this slam – and his solid overall performance – has earned him an offer from the Mavs.

Check out the Greek Freak, physical wunderkind Giannis Antetokounmpo, a player who’s just too much for most Summer League players to handle. Still just 19 – he was born two weeks after Vitalogy was released – Antetokounmpo grew a couple inches last year and might actually be a 7-footer now. This is his facehugger of a hand. Be afraid.

As maybe the marquee player of this year’s Summer League, Andrew Wiggins had a good amount riding on his performance in Vegas, and he definitely delivered with dunks like the above. If you followed him prior to being drafted, you’ve seen this before. His ability to spin into the paint and rise up off two feet is breathtaking. The freaky part of this dunk is the way he seems to hit the apex of his jump, pause, and then go up another couple inches to finish it.

Another guy who apparently has the legit ability to levitate is Zach LaVine, who drops a little LaVine Intervention on Phoenix (four people laughed at that pun). He could seriously set up tea service on the rim while he’s up there. Fuck me, indeed.

But we’re right back where we started. LaVine is raw, and not likely to be a major contributor to the Minnesota Timberwolves this season. He won’t get this kind of unimpeded paths to the basket once the regular season starts, but that’s just a good reason to feast our eyes on the chaos of Summer League while we can. Just cover your head.

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