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A Vegas Diary: The second time around, Part 2


It's been a while since the first post, so if you haven't read Part 1 or forgot about it entirely, here's where you can find it before proceeding on...

At the NBA's Summer League, it's not necessarily about revealing the guys who can play, it's about identifying those who cannot. Fortunately for San Antonio, the players it has stake in did not appear to fall into the latter group. Deshaun Thomas and Marcus Denmon might not yet be ready to crack the NBA roster at this point, but they appear to have the potential to do so in coming years.

But late second-rounders aren't the types that stand out in Las Vegas, generally speaking. Jonas Valanciunas, the No. 5 pick in the Raptors' 2011 draft, grabbed summer league MVP honors after averaging better than 18 points and 10 rebounds per game, and his added bulk only contributes to an already impressive big man skill set. It's the lottery picks of the world — both former and current — as well as the second- and third-year rotation guys that tend to have the biggest impact on the UNLV basketball courts.

The Spurs were faced with a different task. Without the presence of Kawhi Leonard, there were no lottery picks to assess. And given that the roster in San Antonio is essentially set, they weren't exactly looking for pieces to fill the rotation anyway. Instead, it was a training ground of sorts for players who didn't get to spend much time on the floor together during the 2012-13 season.

It was a chance for Aron Baynes to be more than a gigantic walking foul machine. Nando De Colo had the opportunity to be more than a wacky-passing, garbage-time bit player, something he had been reduced to after briefly being named the backup point guard during the middle of the season. And for Cory Joseph, it was his turn to be Tony Parker. For players like Baynes and De Colo specifically — 26-year-olds with international and Olympic experience already on NBA contracts — there might be a tendency to pout or look at this level of competition as beneath them.

Neither approached it this way, however. The chance to gain experience playing alongside guys like Joseph and potential future Spurs in Thomas and Denmon was embraced. On a stacked roster that might feature nine or 10 guys that see the court before any of the aforementioned prospects, time spent together in a game situation was valuable.

But let's be realistic. Closely observing the practice time shared between end-of-the-bench rotation players isn't the sexy thing to do in Vegas. Then again, I'm not sure I've heard the Spurs referred to as 'sexy' by anyone outside the circle of female Spurs fans. From a fan's perspective, summer league is all about the future and what it may bring, and for the San Antonio contingent that meant Thomas and Denmon.

It's no secret the Spurs enjoy the flexibility of a 15th roster spot to open the season. You're only allowed to dress 13 players, regardless, so committing that final opening to an unproven player who may not be able to contribute at all at the NBA level isn't exactly appealing to San Antonio. Denmon had already spent a year overseas after being drafted late in last year's second round. But when the Spurs replaced Gary Neal with Marco Belinelli during the free agency period, that all but guaranteed a return to Europe, especially with the number of combo-type guards already in the Spurs system. Denmon played well and shot the ball efficiently, but getting more consistent international experience will continue to do him good. It also means San Antonio doesn't have to spend money on him quite yet.

Remember, Denmon's status as a second-round pick means he's not guaranteed a contract. As long as the Spurs keep him overseas and he does not play in an NBA game, they maintain his draft rights.

That left Thomas, this year's second-round pick that surprisingly fell to the Spurs as the draft neared its end. As a complete player, he wasn't known for having the characteristics you'd associate with Gregg Popovich's style. He's a versatile scorer, but it was said he shot the ball too much, wasn't a great passer and rarely played defense. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for a camp-hopeful rookie. But one thing he had going for him was that San Antonio's most glaring void was the slot behind Leonard at backup small forward. And after performing excellently through the team's first several games, the chatter of his potential to make the team grew a little louder.

Next to Joseph and De Colo, Thomas fell easily into his role. He shot the ball well and not too often, he made the right passes when available and he worked hard on the defensive end. But then, noticeably coinciding with Joseph's late summer league absences due to minor injuries, he fell off. He couldn't toss the ball in the ocean, he wasn't much help on the defensive end, and his obvious involvement in the offensive system we saw through the first two or three games was nowhere to be found in the summer league tournament round.

But these are the types of things you have to expect from a rookie second-rounder. It's why the excitement over a potential roster spot for the former Ohio State Buckeye were likely premature, and now that Neal has moved on and Greg Oden has signed in Miami, my bet's on opening No. 15 remaining available for the foreseeable future.

San Antonio probably won't bring him to camp either. It's safer that way. If you extend a camp invite to a player and decide to cut him somewhere along the way during preseason, you lose his draft rights. It'd be a better proposition for the Spurs to do what they can to hang on to a prospect like this rather than risk his future on what would likely be a very minor return anyway.

The Las Vegas Summer League is quite an aesthetic experience, and not just in a positive way. While the Spurs' time there was fairly bland, the younger, more unsettled teams like the Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors had a variety of exciting young NBA players. (Golden State was also good, but they're more settled at the NBA level than the other teams mentioned.)

Still, the play on the court is goofy at times. Turnovers, unlimited player fouls and hilarious shot selections all create a face-palming atmosphere that traditional media and Internet types come to love and hate. Everyone enjoys summer league, but not for the high level of basketball.

And speaking of the media, the throngs of credentialed folks is only growing. Everyone from team beat writers to 8-year-old bloggers (OK, maybe not 8, but damn close, I assure you) lined the ever-expanding press row in both the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion. The league's exposure is growing by the year, and it's quite evident.

I'm not sure we'll ever be there just for the basketball, but most of us remember when this event wasn't televised at all. That wasn't very long ago. The NBA's schedule is now year-round — the schedule-release party was yesterday — and much of that is thanks to the growth of the gathering of basketball folks, both players and writers, that convene yearly in the Vegas desert. And none of it would be the same without the ridiculousness that accompanies the experience.

Just 84 days until the new NBA season begins in San Antonio ... get your vacations in now.