If you follow basketball, it’s hard not to be exposed to the concept of summer league in some form. It’s one of the more important and pervasive basketball events of the otherwise quiet NBA summer. But just what is NBA Summer League?
NBA Summer League is a series of NBA exhibition events held each summer in July. Over the years, NBA Summer League has existed in many forms, from casual closed-gym scrimmages to full on sold-out spectacles.
As of 2023, NBA Summer League includes 2 smaller events, Salt Lake City Summer League and the California Classic (hosted in Salt Lake and Sacramento, respectively) and a much larger event in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas Summer League stands as the headline event of the summer. It’s to the point where a casual reference to Summer League tends to mean specifically Las Vegas Summer League. LVSL currently features over 70 games, involving every team in the league and it draws by far the most attention of the 3 summer events.
So that’s a workable introduction to NBA Summer League, but there’s a whole lot more to it. Let’s go a little deeper into what NBA summer League is, where it came from, the impact it has on the league, and the notable events that helped shape it into the media frenzy it is today.
The History of NBA Summer League
Once upon a time, NBA players could just kick back and relax during the summer months. but part of that relaxation, for true hoopers, is getting out on the court, free of the intense pressure of the NBA.
And that’s kinda how it started. NBA players tend to be so good that playing against even the best of the local crop can be underwhelming. So players started naturally getting together in the off-season.
What began with loose gatherings would soon evolve into informal tournaments. By the 70’s, these events were becoming well-established and gaining in popularity.
As demand for off-season basketball action grew, the NBA, of course, had to get its share. And so the summer leagues became a little more commercial and a little more formal.
Let’s take a look at some of the more beloved summer hooper events of the early days…
NBA Summer Leagues of the Past
A handful of popular and not-so-popular summer leagues have come and gone over the years. In fact, the dominance of the Las Vegas Summer League is a relatively recent phenomenon. Let’s take a look at some of the NBA Summer League events of yesteryear.
Summer Pro League
In the 70’s this concept emerged of getting together some pros for a summer tournament. The SPL, also known as the Southern California Summer Pro League, was initially an unofficial event that was held at varying locations in Southern California for years. There was a time when the SPL was the grandaddy of all summer pro hoops exhibitions. Teams would be invited out to showcase and scrimmage new and potential talent, much like today’s NBA Summer League.
The likes of Kobe, Tracy McGrady and Amare Stoudemire all made their pro debuts at SPL. But by 2007, the SPL had fallen off, with most teams shifting their focus to Vegas. According to this article, the Summer Pro League ran for a solid 38 years and seems to have been quit the spectacle in its heyday.
Boston Summer League
Boston Summer League was founded in 1999. According to Charlie Titus (head coach of U-Mass at the time) it was Rick Pitino’s idea. He wanted to get his Celtics on the court in the off-season. And he didn’t want them to have to travel.
And the event took place in the U-Mass athletic center, seating around 2,500 people. For a time it formed part of a summer league quad-fecta along with Long Beach, Orlando, and Salt Lake City.
The Boston Summer League hosted 10 teams at its peak and is remembered fondly by players and fans alike. But in 2004, the Democratic National Convention sucked the wind right out of its sails. The city was overcrowded, apparently hotel rooms were hard to come by, and the league went on hiatus. Remaining participants made the jump to LVSL and the hiatus never ended.
That final year of Boston Summer League, 2003, was the year that LeBron James was drafted to the Cavs.
While James had already made his league debut at the Orlando Pro Summer League just a few days prior, but he played 4 games in Boston. Those 4 games were an important part of the stretch where the world was seeing if LeBron James was really going to be what everyone was saying he could. There’s an interesting article about it from the Boston Globe that’s worth a read.
Orlando Pro Summer League
The Orlando Pro ran from 2002 to 2017. A popular league, managed by the Magic and held at their practice facility, the Orlando Pro hosted 10 teams at its peak.
LeBron made his league premier at the OPSL, packing a 13,000 seat arena. Normally, Orlando Summer League was televised, but held in a closed gym. That year they picked a larger arena… and charged admission… because they could… because it was LeBron.
The Rocky Mountain Revue
The Rocky Mountain Revue started in 1984 as a way for the Utah Jazz to engage with fans. The Jazz had only been in SLC for a few years at the time. A local event where fans could catch a few scrimmage games and get up close to their favorite players made a lot of sense.
The Jazz hosted some regional teams, and the event was enough of a hit that it lasted for nearly 20 years. But interest and attendance started to fall off as LVSL launched in the early 2000’s and started to suck up all of the attention.
In its heyday, The RMR was well loved. It was the first summer league to feature NBA officials, it drew some impressive crowds, and it really set the tone for what NBA Summer League would eventually become. The Rocky Mountain Revue went on hiatus in 2004, but was more recently resurrected as Salt Lake City Summer League.
Current NBA Summer Leagues
There are 3 active summer leagues as of 2023. They’re all on the West Coast at this point, so if you’re East of the Mississippi you’ve got something of a trek to make if you wanna see some pro summer hoops action.
The two smaller events leading up to the major LVSL are much more relaxed. Only 6 games, and a lot fewer fans. Because their scheduling overlaps slightly, teams can only attend one or the other.
But every team attends Vegas Summer League, and they have done so since 2018. It’s definitely to the point where skipping LVSL would be a major missed opportunity for a team.
Salt Lake City Summer League
A modern revival of the popular Rocky Mountain Revue, the Jazz have been running this summer league since 2015. We’ve probably seen the heights of summer hoops in the rockies. Back in 1998, 16 teams hit SLC for the Rocky Mountain Review. But the SLCSL is well-liked by Jazz fans and if Vegas isn’t your thing, Salt Lake has a lot more to offer in terms of natural beauty. The food is pretty weak though.
The California Classic
The California Classic slipped into being in 2018, picking up a little of the slack as the Orlando Pro shut down. It continues to be hosted by the Sacramento Kings at their Golden One Arena.
This year, the Golden One welcomed 6 teams: the Hornets, Spurs, Kings, Warriors, Lakers and the Heat.
Las Vegas Summer League
Back in the David Stern years, there was an initial push to stage a summer event in Las Vegas. An official NBA Summer League, staged in a location that could handle a massive onslaught of fans from around the world, could be great for the league, great for the players, and great for the fans. Stern resisted, concerned with the image that Vegas presented.
As Las Vegas began to shift its image and evolve into a more family-friendly destination, the idea gained appeal. In 2004, Vegas Summer League was born. The first LVSL featured only 6 teams, the Celtics, Cavaliers, Nuggets, Magic, Suns and Wizards. The teams faced off in a total of 13 games and the event drew around 1,700 fans to the Thomas and Mack Arena, just south of Las Vegas.
But since that time, the event has exploded. The Orlando Pro Summer League was shut down in 2018, freeing up any Eastern holdouts to finally commit to Vegas. All 30 teams have attended LVSL every year since.
With every new hot prospect, interest continues to grow. The NBA debuts of Lamello in 2018, Zion in 2020, and now Wembanyama in 2023 have all contributed to record-breaking levels of LVSL attendance. Las Vegas serves as the official NBA Summer League, hosted by the league itself.
Today’s NBA Summer League
Every year, teams assemble a collection of players and coaching staff to send out on the road. As of 2023, 4 teams participate in Salt Lake City Summer League, 6 teams participate in the California Classic, and every team makes an appearance in Vegas.
The smaller leagues both include 6 games. They take place in early July, so there’s no overlap in terms of participation. LVSL includes 76 games over ten days in mid-July, culminating in a championship game where a Summer League victor is crowned.
Who Plays at Summer League?
Marquee players will often show up for moral support, but never play. Minutes in Summer League are mostly reserved for rookie or sophomore players, and players on lesser contracts.
Skim through NBA Summer League rosters and you’ll find a healthy mix of recent draft picks, players on 2-way contracts or players stashed on international teams. A team can also sign a summer contract with any available player, making for an eclectic mix of global talent.
What’s the Point of Summer League?
Summer League tends to straddle the line between exhibition and tournament. At its root, it’s a chance for prospects to prove themselves and for coaches to tweak their rosters. Technically, competitive games are played, and a champion has been crowned every year since 2013, but nobody is going to Summer League with winning games at the top of their list of priorities.
For teams, the goal is to get a look at your draft picks and a selection of available prospects in action. Field a team of anyone you think might get you what you’re looking for in the following season and run them through the paces.
For players, it’s one of the best opportunities to show off your skills. An impressive performance can launch your career. It’s not unheard of for undrafted players to score contracts off of a strong showing. A great example of summer league success is Jeremy Lin, invited to play in 2010, who scored a short contract with the Warriors which he would parlay into… Linsanity.
Even a promising rookie on a full contract is kept on a short leash in the regular season. This is an opportunity for these players to get real court time and show off new skills on the way into the season.
And for a lot of NBA fans, Summer League is a welcome break in the sad monotony of basketball summer. In some ways, together with the NBA Draft, it marks the beginning of the new NBA season. It’s a reminder that pro hoops do exist, and a taste of what’s to come in the new season.
This makes for some terribly awkward basketball. You’re gonna see some strange feats of experimental desperation here. It can be pretty entertaining to get an early look at the next generation of stars. But you’ve gotta be a bit of a basketball degen to get fully into it.
Players are there to make an impact and secure This makes for some bad basketball. You might catch some cool highlights, but you’ll also see a lot of very questionable decision making.
it’s widely understood that this is terrible b it’s a place where dreams come true. It provides a platform for rookies, young prospects, and even undrafted players to showcase their skills and catch the attention of NBA scouts and coaches. Moreover, it serves as a melting pot of talent from around the world, highlighting basketball’s global appeal.
In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into the evolution and cultural significance of NBA Summer League.
NBA Summer League 2K24
For NBA Summer League 2K24 (confusingly referencing the 2024 season, though the event itself takes place in 2023) the Cleveland Cavaliers took the title in a 99-78 victory over the Houston Rockets.
The 2023 vintage has been particularly notable for a number of reasons. The Spurs debuted one of the most anticipated draft picks in history, 2023 #1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama. He was mildly impressive, which is a lot to say for a player facing overwhelming expectations.
Almost more impactful than Wemby’s performance on the court, an off-court interaction with a rabid fan. Britney Spears apparently spotted Victor and his entourage walking through the Aria Hotel and Casino and tried to approach him. Apparently she’s a fan, and apparently she wanted to congratulate him on the draft? Instead she got a forearm to the face from a member of the Spurs security detail. It was a whole big thing.
How Does NBA Summer League Work?
Summer League 2K24 marks the exhibition’s 19th season in Vegas. But a Vegas Summer League hasn’t always been a lock.
The crown jewel of NBA Summer League, and the only event officially hosted by the NBA, is the Las Vegas event, where teams send their rookies and young talents to compete against each other. But let’s not forget other Summer League events, like those held in Utah and Sacramento. These events give teams more opportunities to evaluate talent and test their strategies.
NBA Summer League for Players
Do Summer League players get paid?
For rookies, the Summer League is a make-or-break moment. It’s a chance to prove they have what it takes to shine in the NBA and secure a spot on a team’s roster. Undrafted players also use this stage to turn heads and show they deserve a shot. Meanwhile, while established players rarely hit the court, they often make appearances to show their support, assuming or embracing leadership roles and guiding newcomers to the league.
And Summer League is not just a playground; it’s a talent factory. Many NBA stars today first made a name for themselves on this stage. Success in the Summer League can lead to lucrative contracts and stardom. Moreover, team decisions on trades and signings are often influenced by standout performances during these games.
In recent years, it’s the epic prospects that have served to establish Summer League as the cultural phenomenon it is today. LeBron’s debut at Summer League was a pivotal moment 20 years ago. And the spectacle gains power every year with players like Zion and most recently Wembanyama coming in and shattering records for interest and attendance.
NBA Summer League and its Impact on the NBA
One element we haven’t toughed on. This is one of the few annual opportunities for personalities across the NBA to join up. When else are you going to get this kind of mix of NBA coaches and Execs in the same city.
By all accounts, this is a time when elbows are rubbed. We tend to forget, now that we’ve all become so deeply connected by technology, but a lot of business is handled when people can sit down in the same room and enjoy a meal or a leisurely conversation.
You can bet that the conversations that occur on the sidelines, behind closed doors, or in private dining rooms during NBA Summer League have far reaching consequences. You might just be able to trace the roots of the biggest trades and rule changes back to a handful of Vegas whispers.
Summer League for the Fans
Hey, the games are a little weak. But the hilights can be great and it’s a chance to see the leagues next stars before their a lock.
More importantly, you have the biggest names in the league, all packed into one small city. Think about it. If you’re a fan, the chances of bumping into a hoops legend in Vegas during Summer League are very high.
Criticisms of NBA Summer League:
While the Summer League has its advantages, it’s not without criticism. Injuries are a concern, as players may push themselves too hard to impress. Some argue that the level of competition isn’t representative of the regular NBA season, which might distort evaluations. If you love basketball, particularly good basketball, a summer League may look like utter trash, with the nations top prospects out on the court making terrible decisions.
The way things are going, Summer League has evolved into a media vortex. Where past summer leagues may have offered an opportunity to just hoop in a more casual assembly of budding players, LVSL is a whole thing. I’m sure for a lot of players it’s become just another over-the-top event in the middle of the one stretch they have to catch a breath.
As basketball continues to grow globally, the NBA Summer League will likely expand as well. We’re sure to see more international participation and innovative technologies incorporated to enhance the experience. Summer League is always evolving.
And there’s probably no better opportunity today to get up close and personal with NBA legends and legends-to-be than Vegas in July. From humble beginnings, LVSL has evolved into a crucial event for the NBA, drawing everyone who’s anyone in basketball culture.
Summer League offers wild opportunities for NBA hopefuls and a uniquely personal and exciting experience for fans. As we eagerly await each year’s edition, let’s celebrate the talent, passion, and dreams that make the Summer League an integral part of the NBA journey.