LAS VEGAS — The Samsung NBA Summer League in Las Vegas hit the ground running with a record-setting opening night. The marquee matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves pulled in the largest crowd to watch a summer league game at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center, as more than 12,000 came to watch No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell.
The crowd, predominantly Lakers fans, filled up all of the lower bowl and arena officials had to open up the upper deck to accommodate more people.
The NBA learned their lesson from last season when fans had to be turned away for a game between that featured Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. That marquee game was inexplicably played at the smaller venue, Cox Pavilion, which only seats about 3,000. This year, almost all of the featured games were played at Thomas & Mack, which seats 19,522.
Fans who paid $25 to watch the games got real treat this year, as there were plenty of outstanding performances. Here are 10 things we learned from our basketball pilgrimage to Sin City:
— Becky Hammon may be ready to become a NBA head coach sooner rather than later. The former WNBA star became the first woman to coach an NBA squad in the summer league, and she passed with flying colors by leading the San Antonio Spurs to a summer league championship. Hammon lost just one game and appeared real comfortable being the leading voice in the huddle. Whenever Gregg Popovich decides to call it a career, Hammon could be one of the leading candidates to replace him.
— More Spurs love here. Former UCLA point-forward Kyle Anderson showed he’s ready for a bigger role with the Spurs this upcoming season. The versatile swingman averaged 22 points and six rebounds, and was named the MVP of the Vegas Summer League.
— Speaking of UCLA, the biggest surprise in the summer league may have been the play of former Bruins guard Norman Powell. The second-round pick by the Toronto Raptors made the Vegas Summer League first team, joining Anderson, New Orleans’ Seth Curry, Chicago’s Doug McDermott, and Phoenix’s T.J. Warren. The Raptors were so impressed with Powell they signed him to a three-year contract.
— New York Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis may not be a bust after all. The 7-foot-3 forward-center has a good feel for the game and a nice shooting touch. He’s only 19 so he’ll fill out (hopefully). Even though he’s got body by Shawn Bradley he didn’t look frail or weak inside. He altered a lot of shots in the paint and didn’t shy away from contact. If the Knicks are patient with him, he could turn out to be a very good NBA player.
— D’Angelo Russell had an up-and-down showing in Vegas, but he did finish strong with a 21-point effort in the Lakers’ final game. Russell is not an elite athlete, so he struggles turning the corner coming out of pick-and-rolls. He could get exposed defensively against some of the quicker guards in the Association. Turnovers were also an issue for him, but that can be easily corrected with more court time with his new teammates. Lakers coach Byron Scott tried to squash the hype around Russell a tad by saying “he’s not Magic Johnson.” The Lakers brass, mainly Scott, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, believe Russell can be a superstar. From what he displayed in Vegas, Russell has a lot of work to do.
— One player who didn’t have a problem turning the corner off ball screens was Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson. Last year’s second-team all-rookie performer showed flashes of Russell Westbrook-like ability. The 6-5 combo guard loves to attack the rim (just ask Utah’s Jack Cooley) and plays better when he’s at the point. If given the opportunity he could be an 18-20 point scorer.
— Julius Randle still has a ways to go before he returns to his old form. The Lakers’ top pick from the 2014 draft doesn’t appear to be fully recovered from his ACL injury, although he did get better as he got more time on the court. The Lakers had a minutes restriction on Randle, making it difficult for him to find a rhythm. He HAS to develop more post-up moves because that spin move will get stale awfully quick.
— SMU coach Larry Brown was absolutely right about point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. He is easily the best point guard in the 2015 draft class. The Congo native looked NBA ready, and his 12-game stint in China did him a lot of good. He showed he can run an offense. And the game wasn’t too fast for him. Once he fixes his jump shot he’ll be real scary. The Nuggets basically gave the keys to the franchise to Mudiay by trading Ty Lawson.
— The Philadelphia 76ers has a budding star in Jahlil Okafor. The 6-11 big man didn’t disappoint, as he showed off his fantastic offensive skills around the basket and looked better shooting his free throws.
— Kentucky products Towns (Timberwolves), Devin Booker (Suns), Trey Lyles (Jazz) and Willie Cauley-Stein (Kings) should all contribute right away for their respective NBA teams. How in the world did Kentucky not win the NCAA title?