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NBA Summer League preview: What to expect in Las Vegas

With the NBA set to descend on Las Vegas, we preview the format, schedule and players of NBA Summer League. 

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Kevin Durant is headed west, Al Horford is headed north, Dwyane Wade is headed home, and most of the impact free agents are off the board as the NBA’s 30 teams combined to blow through $3 billion in less than a week. That quick-hitting spending spree should set up a smooth transition into the Las Vegas Summer League, which opens on Friday.

Although the 2016 draft class drew somewhat mixed reviews, Summer League is setting up to be especially buzzworthy this year because all of the top 10 picks are on rosters to play in Las Vegas. Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram? Who is Dragan Bender? Is Buddy Hield ready to help return the Pelicans to the playoffs? Did Jamal Murray slip too far? What were the Bucks thinking taking Thon Maker at No. 10? All of those pre-draft questions and draft night debates will start to be answered this week.

Here’s a quick primer on what else to expect over the next two weeks.

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What is Las Vegas Summer League?

After starting as a casual and low-key league years ago, the Las Vegas Summer League has grown into an increasingly organized series of scrimmages between NBA teams with rosters made up mostly of rookies, second-year players, undrafted players and players who work professionally overseas. The actual games are generally dominated by guards and feature more offense than defense, although a tournament format instituted in recent years has helped pick up the competitiveness.

The event is simultaneously a showcase for high draft picks entering their rookie seasons and an extended tryout for fringe NBA players hoping to fill out a roster on a minimum deal. Summer League has grown from its roots as an off-season haven for basketball junkies into an event with broader appeal: daily attendance through the first week of last year's event topped 9,800 fans, with games now airing on ESPN and NBA TV.

When is it?

Las Vegas Summer League begins at 3 p.m. PT on Friday and runs until July 18, when a championship game will be played.

Games are played in two gyms simultaneously—the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion—with their start times staggered by 30 minutes. As many as eight games are played each day during the opening round.

Which teams will be there?

All told, 23 NBA teams plus a D-League Select team will compete. The NBA teams are Bucks, Bulls, Cavaliers, Celtics, Grizzlies, Hawks, Heat, Jazz, Lakers, Mavericks, Nets, Nuggets, Pelicans, Rockets, Sixers, Suns, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, Warriors and Wizards.

The seven teams not present—the Clippers, Hornets, Knicks Magic, Pacers, Pistons, and Thunder—all competed in this week's scaled-down Orlando Summer League. Additionally, the Celtics, Sixers, Spurs and Jazz competed in the abbreviated Utah Summer League that ran this week. 


Which lottery picks from the 2016 draft will be there? 

1. Ben Simmons, Sixers: The Australian point forward showed flashes of his elite passing and vision during this week’s Utah Summer League. All that “Process” is about to finally pay off on the court.

2. Brandon Ingram, Lakers: After a one-year stopover at Duke, the 6’9” small forward is in place as L.A.’s face of the future.

3. Jaylen Brown, Celtics: Boston’s decision to select the Cal product after a so-so freshman year drew criticism on draft night, but Brown displayed high-level physical tools in Utah this week.

4. Dragan Bender, Suns: The 18-year-old Croatian big man is headed stateside after playing limited minutes in Israel last season. Whether or not he hits the ground running against the competition in Las Vegas will give a sneak peek at what’s to come in his rookie year.

5. Kris Dunn, Timberwolves: After four years at Providence, the 22-year-old Dunn is developed enough that he should make an immediate impact in Las Vegas. If he plays well, the Ricky Rubio trade rumor mill could get going sooner rather than later.

6. Buddy Hield, Pelicans: Anthony Davis needs help, New Orleans needs scoring after the off-season departures of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, and the Pelicans fan base needs someone to rally around. Hield will look to prove he’s the answer to all of those needs, and he should thrive in the fun-and-gun Vegas format.

7. Jamal Murray, Nuggets: The Canadian guard slipped to Denver, where he potentially will team with 2015 lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay as an intriguing backcourt of the future. In Vegas, he’ll play alongside both Mudiay and incumbent starting shooting guard Gary Harris.

8. Marquese Chriss, Suns: One of the biggest “boom or bust” names in this year’s class, the foul-prone 19-year-old forward will be glad to know that players can draw 10 fouls before getting the boot in Las Vegas.

9. Jakob Poeltl, Raptors: With BIsmack BIyombo heading to Orlando, Toronto will eye its Austrian 7-footer as a back-up center of the future.

10. Thon Maker, Bucks: Milwaukee could be in line for some serious second-guessing this week if the 2016 draft’s biggest reach struggles.    

12. Taurean Prince, Hawks: Atlanta acquired the 6’8” Baylor forward from Utah in a three-way trade that sent George Hill to the Jazz. Prince is on the Hawks’ roster for Las Vegas, where he’ll try to fit into a “3 and D” role.

13. Georgios Papagiannis, Kings: Sacramento didn’t need a center, no one had Papagiannis pegged for the lottery and Vlade Divac hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire with his moves since taking over the Kings front office. Nevertheless the 7’2” Greek teenager is on Sacramento’s roster, making him of the most intriguing names to watch over the next two weeks.

14. Denzel Valentine, Bulls: Chicago’s off-season backcourt additions of Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade obviously move Valentine down the pecking order, but the versatile and accomplished Michigan State guard will get plenty of looks in Las Vegas.

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Which 2016 lottery picks won't be there?

11. Domantas Sabonis, Thunder: Acquired by Oklahoma City from Orlando in the Serge Ibaka trade, the son of former NBA player Arvydas Sabonis won’t be in Las Vegas because the Thunder opted to play in the Orlando Summer League instead.

Which 2015 lottery picks will be there?

2. D'Angelo Russell, Lakers: L.A.’s point guard of the future made headlines for the wrong reasons during his rookie year, but he’ll look to make progress from a shaky 2015 Vegas showing in his second time around.

6. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kings: Sacramento’s frontcourt situation is muddled, but the athletic and long Cauley-Stein should produce plenty of highlight reel blocks and effort plays in Las Vegas. Will that be enough to earn him a bigger role under new coach Dave Joerger?

7. Emmanuel Mudiay, Nuggets: Mudiay had some strong moments in Las Vegas last year before his rookie season went sideways due to injury. His physical presence, coupled with a year of professional experience under his belt, should make him stand out from the crowd this year.

10. Justise Winslow, Heat: With Dwyane Wade headed to Chicago and Luol Deng headed to L.A., Winslow is in line for a major role increase this season. A strong defender as a rookie, the Duke product must hone and expand his offensive repertoire.

12. Trey Lyles, Jazz: Utah’s veteran summer additions might cost Lyles some minutes during the regular season, but in Las Vegas he’ll get the chance to show his range and versatility.

13. Devin Booker, Suns: The only bright spot in a rough season for Phoenix last year, Booker should light up Las Vegas with his scoring ability and natural shooting stroke.

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What is the event's format?

This year will feature a tournament-style round that will end in a championship game for the fourth straight time. Each team approaches the tournament a bit differently, as some compete hard in pursuit of the title while others rest guys as the week drags on. The Warriors, Kings and Spurs (led by coach Becky Hammon) won the Summer League championship the last three years, respectively. The tournament portion of the event begins on July 13 after each team opens with three games against predetermined opponents. Schedules for each team are available right here.

How can I watch?

ESPN and NBA TV will provide comprehensive television and streaming coverage this year. ESPN will broadcast all 67 Las Vegas Summer League games on ESPN, ESPN 2 and its ESPN 3 live streaming service, while NBA TV will also televise 30 games.