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Las Vegas Summer League is all about improvement

Apr. 9, 2013; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Philadelphia 76ers shooting guard Justin Holiday (14) reacts on the court against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at Barclays Center. Nets won 104-83. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Back and to my left sat a young kid in a Ray Rice jersey—really, Ray Rice? Bad parenting, in my opinion, to allow your child to continue wearing his jersey—yelling out the kind of misinformed things you would expect. To my right, separated with the most official of red tape sat scouts and executives from various teams. Some stone faced, others chatting joking with those around them, but all watching with the studious intent of someone who has given their whole life to this game. In front of me sat a Raptors fan in what I believe to have been an Alvin Williams jersey—though I’m not positive. With his team’s game over, he departed minutes before the Suns-Warriors tilt was to begin, never to return. This was my immediate environment as I sat about 15 rows up across from the Suns bench in the Cox Pavilion, waiting for yet another Summer League to get started.

As for the on-court action, the Suns—in three rows, staggered to give each other enough room—were stretching, lunging left and right at intervals dictated to them by a strength and conditioning coach. Down at the other end the Warriors were going through basic lay-up lines, but I wasn’t paying much attention to them because I was too busy trying to come up with something to write about. I had moved up to these seats for a change of scenery, hoping being among the crowd could spark a great story in my mind.

Summer League is all about improvement—it’s the whole point of the process. There are young, but established players here, such as Miles Plumlee, there are touted rookies, such as T.J. Warren, and of course there are undrafted players—just looking to make a name for themselves—such as Kiwi Gardner. All of them are working on their games, trying to get to the next level. Even coaches—take Steve Kerr, for example—are taking this opportunity to improve their craft. Bloggers and writers too can use this experience to become better at what they do. Sometimes the improvement can be hard to see, other times there’s an immediate realization. On some occasions the development can take weeks, but other days the transformation can happen in the span of an eight-minute halftime.

Warm-ups over, the PA announcer requested we stand for the national anthem. Out strolled a young woman in a bright blue dress not entirely appropriate for the setting. Next to her walked an older man with bleached hair standing straight up on his head. The woman played the violin, while the man began to sing. Things started off okay, but soon went downhill, coming to an abrupt halt as the man forgot the last two lines. Nervous laughter and gasps echoed through the silent arena as the man mumbled something and hustled off the floor. See? Everything can be improved at summer league.

With my computer unable to connect to wi-fi, I sat with my notebook and pen, ready to take notes, which would turn into a brilliant story. But nothing came. All of a sudden it was the end of the first quarter and I had nothing written down—even worse, I couldn’t remember much of what had even happened during the game. Like an overeager, undrafted youngster, I was forcing things. I was trying too hard to come up with something amazing instead of taking in the game and letting things come. Every game—even when it’s “just summer league”—will provide a story, but it won’t come right away, and it certainly won’t come when you’re looking too hard for it.

Still sitting in my same seat, I put the notebook away and focused on just watching the game—and checking twitter once in a while, of course. I watched Seth Curry twist in and out, back and forth across the lane, looking for an open look just like his older brother. I listened as the Warriors big men yelled, “Ice!” every time the Suns set a screen. I laughed as an Aaron Craft shot from the corner caromed off the side of the backboard.

Spotting an open space—which turned out to be chair-less—between Andrew and Jordan on media row, I ventured down from the stands to the now familiar position on the baseline. Before long, I realized the story I had been searching out was coming to life right in front of me.

There was Justin Holiday—Jrue’s older brother—and Archie Goodwin turning the game into their own personal one-on-one battle. Holiday erased a Tyler Ennis lay-up; Goodwin one-upped him with a steal and score to give the Suns a 72-70 lead with a minute left. But Holiday wasn’t to be outdone, hitting two free throws to tie it up just a dozen seconds later. By now the crowd—and everyone else—had forgotten this was just a summer league matchup. When games go down to the wire, everyone wants to win, no matter what the setting.

“Let’s go Warriors!” chants picked up as Golden State held the ball in the closing seconds. A rarity in Vegas, the crowd was standing in unison as Nemanja Nedovic dribbled on the left wing. Eight, seven, six… Nedovic lets fly a three that has no chance of going in… five… disappointed groans just begin to escape the mouths of the pro-Warriors crowd… four… Holiday swoops in to catch the airball and put in a reverse layup to take the lead… groans turn into raucous cheers. A desperation three from the Suns fell short at the buzzer and the Warriors escaped with a win destined to be forgotten by training camp.

I didn’t find the next great story in a hot Las Vegas gym filled with a crowd that was half-asleep until the final few minutes. To be honest, there wasn’t one there. But I was able to recognize that and focus on paying attention to the game—which turned out to be one of the more entertaining contests we’ll see this summer. And in Las Vegas, where everything is about improvement, that was a good step to take.

Jack Maloney