I grew up a few miles from Durham, North Carolina, the accidental seat of minor league baseball’s identity. At least for fans, the minors represented everything Bull Durham charmed audiences with: honest, likably imperfect folk who had to grind it out like anyone else, with the understanding that they were either treading water to stay in the sport or only passing through on their way to greener pastures. Either way, their performance was a good-natured mirage, always withering in the shadow of The Show. Prospects worked to meet expectations and then start anew at the next level, while everyone else just provided warm bodies and the occasional bit of local-news heroics.
This resigned orientation toward the majesty of the bigs is a telling counterpoint to the NBA’s summer leagues, which crop up every July to tantalize front offices and confuse fans. The concept is not altogether dissimilar to that of baseball’s minors: for several weeks, leagues in Las Vegas, Denver, Orlando, and Southern California all reliabily belch out box scores populated by untested draft picks, young players-in-progress, and scuffling free agents looking for some respite from the travails of the overseas option. Yet, while baseball offers little more than prospects temporarily becoming what they are, the summer leagues reveal, quite simply, what the hell these teams might have on their hands. Footage or no footage, this annual rite of enchantment both allows for a practical sense of what prospects do, and provides lovers of potential with that sturdiest of all weapons: evidence.
As the NBA draft has increasingly become the domain of unproven players bolstered by general-manager speculation, the summer league fulfills a very basic function: in many cases, it proves to us that these individuals do exist in some meaningful way. Given the stifling atmosphere of most collegiate competition, even many of the familiar names finding their way to these exotic destinations have yet to truly cut loose in the minds of the average fan. Summer leagues reveal exactly how these mysterious names constitute themselves in what Charlotte’s Adam Morrison recently called “an NBA-type game,” even if it’s only experienced in the distant echo of scores and stats. After we’ve spent many sleepless nights wondering exactly what a pick like Morrison will do in the pros, or imagining what hidden powers lie in the heart of the Blazers’ teen marksman Martell Webster, the summer leagues provide us with clues to what the answers might be.
While everyone involved misleadingly ascends one rung up on the hierarchy of talent, a few players in particular just flat out destroy the rest of the field. Unfortunately, there is next to no correlation between this and the NBA itself; such notable scrubs as Qyntel Woods and Travis Outlaw have always been gods of the empty gym, and LeBron James was notoriously shaky in the months leading up to his league debut. The flawed logic is as follows: Yes, one would expect the very good players to impersonate stars, seeing as they are thriving in a diluted talent pool. But if anything positively eye-popping occurs, or someone manufactures a stat line that practically screams superhumanity, then surely this must translate into at least the possibility of greatness in the Association.
Unlike baseball’s purgatory, a good half of these July combatants will stick in the pros for some time to come, and most of what makes basketball players not ready has to do with stupidity, carelessness, and laziness, rather than a lack of ability. The summer league offers a reasonable facsimile of what it might look like if almost everyone drafted into the NBA could compete at their most exalted level. Already, we’ve seen Morrison drop 29 elegantly impassioned points in one half, Kings guard Kevin Martin consistently get to the line 25 times per match, and Timberwolves rookie Randy Foye announce that he plans to score relentlessly as a pro. There’s also been a solid showing by Andres Bargiani, this year’s top overall pick; insider buzz over Thabo Sefolosha’s poignant versatility; and the emergence of Earl Barron as a hulk with feelings and acumen.
Minor league baseball is, at best, type-farming. When a power hitter starts walloping with ease, he’s proven his worth and is ready for the next challenge to this skill. The same goes for the strikeout artist, the lithe speedster, and the solid contact guy. Basketball players, however, are far more ambiguous animals. Only 3-point assassins have wholly impersonal functions; for nearly everyone else, how they contribute is at least as important as what they do. To call Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson both “athletic slashers” only begins to grant us an understanding of their respective games, and of the effect they will have on the court. In the case of many an NBA youngster, we don’t even have that baseline generality to go on.
When it comes to sizing up future MLBers, the principle concern is what type they are, i.e., what their ability to provide one or two kinds of statistical production is. Basketball players, however, demand a more nuanced explanation, such as can only result from experiencing them or from reading between the lines of a particularly fecund stat line. For many people, the closest one gets to the summer leagues is perusing box scores. I like to believe, though, that truly explosive basketball performances leave such a weird, organic imprint on a box score that one can almost see them rise up out of the page. In these instances, you suddenly understand what a player is all about—perhaps far better than you may ever get to between the months of October and June.