The perennial Jones/Franklin/Tomlin road trip has taken on many forms, from lonely, long desolate road trips through snow-blown Iowa to beer-guzzling at on-campus bars in Marquette, but the last few have seen our trio head to
luxurious not-luxurious North Augusta, South Carolina for the Nike Peach Jam. North Augusta is a garbage town, forgive my saying so, its amazingly beautiful golf course notwithstanding. It’s the kind of town where you literally see cockroaches scurrying across the dimly lit sidewalk in front of you as you walk through the center of downtown (THE CENTER OF DOWNTOWN!) and as you approach most stores and restaurants you quickly realized they are closed. Forever. But the Peach Jam, for all its southern, sticky humidity is a fascinating look into the world of high school basketball and college recruitment; it remains a strange and unique thing happening out in the middle of nowhere, and it can frequently be a blast.
If there was ever a time to visit the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas it was this year and it helped that our decision was made for us in that we got the dates wrong for the Peach Jam altogether. The multitude of Wildcats past and present on display for their new teams — or, alternately, returning to the States in a last-ditch attempt to secure a roster spot — offered surely enough fodder for our purposes, and, let’s be honest, it was Las Vegas. So off we went, crammed into middle seats and barely making flights through Atlanta before landing at McCarran, with its trap-snare airport slots, epic cab lines and five thousand baggage claim carousels.
The next few days we’d head to the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV or, in many cases, the much smaller Cox Pavilion, to see what Summer League had to offer and check out how our beloved Cats were performing. In many ways the NBA Summer League was similar to the stakes of the Peach Jam, but with very subtle differences. So if you’ll indulge one more non-absurdist post from me this week, let’s throw out this question for a layman like me to answer: If one is an evaluation ground for high schoolers and one was an evaluation ground for future pros, how would the two events stack up against one another?
1. Venue: Thomas & Mack Arena Vs. Whatever the Sports Center Is Called for the Peach Jam
It’s telling who wins this simply on the fact that I’ve now been to the Peach Jam three times and still have no idea what the name of the place where the Peach Jam is held. Thomas & Mack is in the middle of the desert and is air-conditioned as a meat locker while the Peach Jam’s joint is hot and acrid and feels like your local YMCA on church league night. You can come out of Thomas & Mack feeling like a million bucks after a day of games while you walk out of Peach Jam-Town feeling like you’ve just spent a full day licking underneath the bleachers of your high school gym. I’d say that the Peach Jam would take edge because of the intimate setting, but NBA Summer League nails that too with games in Cox Pavilion, which is like a very nice smaller gym with plenty of nice seats and cool music and between-quarter audience competitions. I don’t know what the locker rooms are like for the players, but Summer League has crowd comfort down. In spades.
2. Star Quality: A Hundred Top Name NCAA Coaches Vs. LeBron James
While player quality in North Augusta is mainly of the maybe-they’ll-be-big-someday variety, you can go to the Peach Jam a million years in a row and you’ll never not feel that it’s kinda cool you’re standing next to Tom Izzo eating a chili dog or overhearing Josh Pastner on his phone telling his kids to go to bed. The sheer magnitude of all these coaches in the same location is so impressive and yet no one seems to care who anyone is. On paper, one might think the NBA Summer League would be teeming with familiar faces, and it sometimes is (we ran into Heshimu Evans in the concourse and Jason Kidd sat two rows behind us as we watched Devin Booker play), but largely the NBA’s most famous names don’t go to Summer League. A mighty exception to this rule was when LeBron James walked into Cox before the Timberwolves/Cavs matchup and took a seat on the front row with Cleveland top brass. The room, when that happened, became crazy electric and you could truly sense James’ star power. Every phone camera in the house was clicking at once. To put the excitement over LeBron’s appearance into perspective, later that night Chris Paul would literally sit six feet away from us at a slot machine and no one would even realize it. Plus, most NBA teams don’t even send their head coaches to mind the teams; the sheer impressiveness of the Peach Jam’s roster of stellar coaches makes it a little more star-striking.
Afterhours: Sin City Vs. Raccoon City
There is no universe where I’d rather be in North Augusta, South Carolina than Las Vegas, Nevada. NONE. At the Peach Jam, you come home to a coupon book for O’Charley’s and Keith’s Dry Cleaning; at the NBA Summer League, you come home to THE MOST FUN PLACE IN THE WORLD. You could be having a four dollar beer at the hotel bar in North Augusta and listening to an assistant coach at Southern Illinois State talk about his lost bags or you could be having an six dollar beer at a place where people pour shots directly into your mouth and patrons are getting violently thrown from a mechanical bull. You can go for a walk and see a squirrel eating out of an empty McDonald’s wrapper or you can go for a walk and see AN ERUPTING VOLCANO. You can bet on craps or you can bet on how long it would take you to be lured into a dark alley and brutally murdered by a cash-strapped local. Your choice.
Level of Play: Talented High Schoolers Vs. Bored NCAA Stars Vs. Guys With One Last Shot
Here’s where, I think the rubber meets the road (is that the right metaphor? I’m sticking with it): it’s very interesting to gauge the level and excitement of play for both events. At the Peach Jam, you have high school kids trying their hardest to catch the eye of your Jim Boeheims and Kevin Ollies, knowing that their entire lives — prep schools, AAU teams — have led up to this moment in the spotlight. It’s fun to watch real high school talent shine at the Peach Jam; when you see a kid who’s good you’re generally seeing a kid who’s REALLY good. At the NBA Summer League, on the other hand, you see these former, exciteable high schoolers after their NCAA fortune and glory, after their first or second round draft pick, confident and cocky and knowing they’re someone now. It’s why Tyus Jones, who I saw playing his heart out at the Peach Jam a couple of years back and last year in the NCAA Championship, is now leisurely dribbling the ball up the court with no passion — he knows he’s making the team, why put himself out there too much? YAWN, he says, let’s get this over with, right? I’ve got groupies to meet. I’m a star now.
The great equalizer at NBA Summer League are the guys who only have one or two more shots to make it in the pros, and these are the guys who make the Summer League interesting to watch. We commented on Archie Goodwin last week — dude was practically auditioning for a cartoon role in Space Jam — but he was working it. He knew in any given game he probably had nine to eleven minutes to show them EVERYTHING he had. Ditto DeAndre Liggins, returning from tours in Russia and Germany to work his way back onto an NBA roster in Sacramento (he was playing hard, and was high point man at the game we watched). Josh Harrelson had a solid turnout as well after playing in China. You pull for these guys, and not just because they’re ex-Cats, but because they’re as close as you get watching these games to seeing someone who’s just like you, having to work for it. Having to earn it. These are the stories and figures who are the most fun to watch.
At the end of the day, while the Summer League has its charms — mainly a Vegas locale, some scrappy prodigal sons and the ultra-chilly Thomas & Mack Center — I feel like the more pivotal moments I’ve seen were at the Peach Jam. After all, the NBA Summer League players were, many of them, once Peach Jam players themselves. This is their next proving ground — and it’s fitting that it’s in a gambling city like Vegas, since for many of these players the chips are all on the table. We watch it as entertainment but at the NBA Summer League, many of these guys are playing for their lives. It’s this or go back to Czech Republic basketball. That would certainly make me play my heart out. It’s just a shame that the big name rookies all seem to take it so much in stride. I understand this on some level, and many of the Cats we saw were playing really strongly (have no worries about our first-rounders, gang), but you’d just think the level of each game would be so high with potential and excitement. I guess when all’s said and done, however, those who loaf at the NBA Summer League are only dooming themselves. There are no more scholarships, there are no more Cals and Coach Ks visiting your homes or calling to see how things are going. It’s all on you by this point, lonely and solitary. All you can do in Vegas, I guess, is hope you don’t crap out.