Below three Southeast Division championship banners, on the practice court of the first house that Dwight bailed, several hundred basketball minds are gathered to evaluate several dozen basketball players at the Orlando Summer Pro League. Larry Bird is sitting court side. At various times, Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale are too. Michigan State legend Mateen Cleaves hangs back in one corner of the gym while revered Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and reviled referee Joey Crawford make their way through the crowds. All eyes are on the court, however, where the ten men sweating it out are each being studied and scrutinized like they're a live action game of Sudoku.
Questions and thoughts are whispered in hushed tones among the NBA staffers sitting along the sidelines. Can he shoot? Can he defend bigger players? Can he defend the post? Musings and observations are muttered on nearly every play, with copious amounts of notes being taken and video being filmed. For the players recently drafted by a team, their spot on an NBA roster is tantalizingly close, if not all but assured. For the players invited from the D-league or Europe or South America, all they can do is play well and hope.
Regardless of how an athlete got to Orlando, once they step on the court, the evaluation process and the stakes are the same, with the people who hold their professional basketball dreams watching every bounce of the ball. Impress or be gone. This kind of spotlight creates a bond between the instant millionaire lottery picks and the guys on the fringe, just fighting to play another week. It's a camaraderie you might not expect.
Detroit Pistons summer league coach, Maz Trakh, acknowledged the pressure that some of these guys face after his team's game against Oklahoma City.
"When guys are coming into their first summer league, there's a little pressure. They want to show that they deserved to be picked where they were in the draft," he said.
The undrafted guys have a different pressure altogether -- they want to show that they belong on the floor with the men who were drafted. Either way, a pressure exists that is palpable, even for some of the most seasoned guys on the court.
Peyton Siva, star of Louisville's recent NCAA championship squad, logged heavy minutes as the point guard for Detroit's team in Orlando. He was drafted 56th overall by the Pistons, but standing at only 6-0, he was trying to prove that he could play at the next level.
"I like to see Siva play with that Louisville swagger," Trakh said. "He's won a national championship. He's played in Big East finals and NCAA finals. I told him to just go out there and play the game."
Most of the other players in Orlando don't have nearly the college resume that Siva has, which means they've had far less exposure, even if they were drafted higher. Siva's summer league teammate, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (KCP), was the ninth overall pick in this year's draft.
While he was a star at University of Georgia, he's relatively unknown here and he has a naturally quiet demeanor, but new teammates like Kim English, the Pistons' second-round pick in 2012, are helping him open up.
"I love seeing him come out of his shell," English says. "I definitely love it. He's getting a good feel for the game. The new balls, the new spacing on the court, having a new point guard, a shorter shot clock ... It's a lot, and he did really well today and I'm proud of him."
As the No. 9 pick in the draft, KCP will make $2.2 million for this upcoming season, according to the rookie salary scale. English, who played for both the Pistons and their D-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants last season, has no idea if he'll make Detroit's NBA team or not, which makes his support of KCP all the more impressive. Still, his own career is first and foremost on his mind.
"I'm just focusing on what I need to do and what I can control and I'm taking it from there," he says. "They [Detroit] know what I can do. I need to shoot to get hot and shoot to stay hot. I'll just keep shooting."
The Oklahoma City Thunder had one of the more established NBA players on the floor at the summer league in guard Reggie Jackson, who averaged about 15 points per game in the playoffs once Russell Westbrook went down. His status showed as he dropped 35 points to set an Orlando Summer League record in his game on the third day.
"I'm here just to have fun," he said. "They asked me to come and I'm glad I did."
When asked about his role in helping develop the new guys, he embraced that as well.
"I like seeing these guys succeed and I like being a part of this," said Jackson (at left).
One of the guys he's referring to is Dwight Buycks, the former Marquette star who spent the 2012-13 season with BCM Gravelines in the French Ligue Nationale de Basket Pro A. He's also had stops with the Tulsa 66ers and BC Oostende in Belgium.
At the end of Jackson's record-setting game, Buycks hit a clutch three on a dish from Jackson that made many in the stands take notice.
"I was telling Reggie that I was ready all game," he said. "I was ready for him to pass it to me and it was a big shot and it went in. I've stayed in touch with Reggie the whole time I was in France and we talked a lot. The guys who are already in the NBA are cool guys and they've got my back. They keep telling me that I'm doing a great job and to keep doing what I'm doing. They let me know that I'm impressing people every day and I listen to them because they've already made it to the league and it's good advice. I have to keep on working and keep getting better every day."
And even a hoops journeyman like Buycks pays it forward as he helps the Thunder's first-round pick, Steven Adams adjust.
"He's a good player and he's just learning as he goes," Buycks says. "We just teach him as he goes. He's getting ready to enter the real world now and we try to help him out."
Kelly Olynyk, the Boston Celtics' first-round selection in the 2013 draft out of Gonzaga, was the star of the first half of the summer league with his dominant play. He also established himself as the team's de facto leader, backing up his big numbers with high fives, encouraging shouts and a positive attitude.
When asked how he felt about playing with guys who were fighting for their basketball lives while he enjoyed the status of being a first-round pick, he turned the question around a bit.
"I don't think about it that way," he said. "I think of it that we all made this team and that's what matters. I trust all of my teammates and I believe in all of them. Whether I'm open or they're open and I'm making passes to them, I'm thinking about winning games and that helps all of us."
Phil Pressey from Missouri was a recipient of several of Olynyk's passes, and he's one of the guys who went undrafted, but was invited to be on the Celtics' team for a look. He's been making a name for himself with his tough play and early in the week hit two clutch free throws with 10 seconds left in the Celtics’ game against the Pacers to help them get the win.
"I've had a basketball in my hands my whole life," Pressey said. "This is what I do. This is what I love doing. It's kind of tough knowing that lottery picks are already on the team, but at the end of the day you have to lace them up and play. Being in this position is only going to benefit me this summer. Danny Ainge knows how I play. He just tells me to go out there and keep doing what I'm doing and I should be fine."
Fine, of course, means a spot on the Celtics' roster, something Pressey has been dreaming of his whole life. Olynyk, for his part, wants nothing more than to help make that happen.
"I like everyone on this team and it would be awesome if all of them could get a job here," he said. "Obviously, that's not going to be possible, but I wish them the best of luck wherever they land and hopefully their dreams come true."
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.
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