Mavericks summer league highlighted by impressive rookies and stalled trade options

LAS VEGAS — When miners ascend to the earth’s sunny surface after hour-long shifts underground, they often wear sunglasses to help adjust to the real world. Las Vegas airport should consider something similar for arriving visitors as protection from the maximalist sensory assault that this desert city, the annual host of the NBA’s summer league, has prepared for them.

Las Vegas in July replaces people-watching with player-spotting: a veteran with $55 million in career earnings who drove the participants at a blackjack table to ever-higher stakes while observing, financially high from the table’s stakes, behind them; a newbie stalking podcasters he’d recorded with earlier in the day wearing sunglasses indoors as if to hide his 6’7 stature; a retired big man known for his appetite, roaring out at 02.00 to be directed to the nearest gelato shop. It’s a request that could only be made and fulfilled in a city with more LED lights than sober people. Out to dinner with colleagues, I casually brought up Victor Wembanyama’s bizarre encounter with Britney Spears – only to realize that it happened outside that very restaurant, just a day before, a few dozen meters from where we were waiting for our table.

And then there’s the Sphere, the 366-foot-tall venue that can host nearly 19,000 patrons while its paneled exoskeleton projects digital images that can be seen for miles. During the summer league, it was often shown as if it were the world’s greatest basketball. (Perhaps Wembanyama’s hands could still palm it.) Late one night, however, it was shown as the moon. When I saw it from my taxi, returning to my hotel way too late one night, it was the only thing in the whole city that indicated it was night.

This is Las Vegas, where the summer league — the sport’s annual business conference, where networking is the source of cultivation and evening team-building activities see rookie debuts — brings together the entire basketball world every July. Perhaps these sunglasses are better departure than arrival because the real world is all that lies beyond.


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This is the city where we are tasked with creating our first impressions of new players, and these analyzes can be trusted about as much as a gut feeling at the roulette table. But the Mavericks’ two rookies, Dereck Lively II and Olivier-Maxence Prosper, have generally impressed through the summer league’s first three games.

Lively’s first season could mirror Jaden Hardy’s in that he will spend the first half of his season in the G-League, while the team hopes his development and performance earn him regular minutes with Dallas in the second half of the season. He needs to develop his screen setting and rebound positioning, but those are inherent big man skills that usually develop over time.

What isn’t always expected from a center is where Lively has stood out. Consider:

  • Lively has gobbled up perimeter players when switched to them. That’s easier to accomplish against summer league guards than this league’s top scorers, but Lively’s potential to be a jump-shot-blocking center—the trendiest defensive answer to the 3-point revolution—is enticing.
  • Lively’s pass reads are already advanced enough, at least at the summer league level, to reliably pick out open shooters. It’s a necessity for the modern big man, especially non-shooters who need instant reads in short-roll situations when playing with pick-and-roll maestros like Luka Dončić.
  • Lively has only recorded two blocks in three games, but his mere presence has scared off some drivers from even challenging him. It will take time — probably years — but he has the physical tools to not only be a very good shot blocker, but also a rim protector.

Lively has often been compared to Tyson Chandler, and you can see why when you see him.

However, Prosper’s recurring Dorian Finney-Smith comparison is more a product of proximity than accuracy. Prosper has a defensive presence that doesn’t always show up statistically, similar to Finney-Smith. But he has looked better at denying balls and shrinking the floor off the ball than locking down top scorers with on-ball defense. In other words, Prosper’s defensive impact is more like Reggie Bullock, just with Finney-Smith’s size.

On the other end, Prosper is nothing like Finney-Smith. He’s eager to put the ball on the floor and has already hit 19 free throws in his 75 minutes so far, already showing more natural scoring ability than Finney-Smith ever did. His ability to make winning, hustle plays has stood out, and several Mavericks staffers, who were granted anonymity so they could speak freely, believe he can immediately join the rotation this coming season.

Hardy, who the team ruled out for the rest of summer league on Thursday, shot 35 percent from the field and made just 7-of-29 of his 3s in his three games. It’s not worth worrying about. Hardy could have been the best player in Las Vegas and it still wouldn’t be as meaningful as the role he played in the second half of last season. He won’t be tasked with primary creative responsibilities like he was with Summer Mavericks. His shooting ability showed last season – 47.2 percent on corner 3! — is not reduced by a sample size of 29 shots.

It is responsible to note that player development is not linear. Summer signing Seth Curry also overlaps with Hardy’s role on the court, and while both are expected to be rotation players, the sliding scale of minutes allotted to Curry and Hardy may be less than fans expect. That can lean against Curry, especially early in the season, though having both is incredibly important when Dončić and Kyrie Irving inevitably miss games.

While Curry certainly pushes the defense more from the perimeter, Hardy attacks the rim better than any non-star player on the roster. Despite his poor shooting, Hardy almost gave a “too good for Vegas” label by generating 33 free throw attempts in 101 minutes in summer league. That’s a free throw rate (0.61) higher than Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid posted last season. Obviously, this isn’t a direct comparison, especially since summer league defensemen are more likely to get dirty. But Hardy outclassed them — athletically and savvy — the way two league MVPs outclass NBA competitors.

Because Curry has fallen out of postseason rotations over the past few seasons, Dallas is hoping Hardy’s play requires the sliding scale of minutes to be crucial in tilting his direction at the end of the season.

As for the rest of the summer league roster, no player has decisively earned the team’s two-way slots, including the team’s two incumbents, McKinley Wright IV and AJ Lawson. (Wright has also been ruled out for the remainder of summer league.) The remaining games are an opportunity for others to do so, and Dallas can reach beyond its Las Vegas roster to fill those positions if no one does.

On Wednesday, Dallas officially completed its three-team Grant Williams sign-and-trade with the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs that had been agreed upon a week prior. The delay, multiple league sources said, came from the three teams agreeing to a completion window that kept the trade unofficial until Tuesday night so each front office could explore potential avenues to extend it.

Dallas received two second-round picks from San Antonio, the prize for the 2030 first-round trade the Spurs’ front office coveted, and the front office was willing to immediately ship them out in another deal to continue working toward its list. construction goals. Late last week, multiple league sources said the Mavericks and Detroit Pistons renewed talks about a Bojan Bogdanović trade. Dallas had previously considered trading Bogdanović at last season’s deadline, but Detroit’s asking price for a first-round pick was deemed too high for the Dallas front office.

League sources say talks were solid enough to discuss a potential trade deal — Bogdanović and Killian Hayes coming to Dallas, Tim Hardaway Jr. and JaVale McGee going out — but it’s unclear what else would have been required of each side to expand it to a four-team deal, and what ultimately led to those negotiations, serious as they are to come to a standstill. (Dallas is being incredibly cautious about dealing its 2027 first-round pick, says a team source, who the team couldn’t afford typical protections because of the first-time players it owes.) On Tuesday afternoon, Dallas’ front office was content to complete Williams sign-and-trade as it existed without additions.

Dallas’ front office doesn’t see its offseason as complete, and at least one move — JaVale McGee being traded or waived down the stretch, as first reported by ESPN – will definitely happen before training camp begins. While Dallas could still trade for a big man, the team is content to enter next season with the centers currently on the roster.

If so, Dwight Powell would be the favorite to reclaim his starting spot. But several team officials have expressed optimism in a rejuvenated Richaun Holmes after the 29-year-old center fell out of the Sacramento Kings’ rotation last season. As Nico Harrison said on Wednesday’s summer league broadcast: “(Holmes) told me he was in prison the last couple of years.” The thinking, these sources say, is that Holmes lost his rotation spot only after Sacramento’s offense was reimagined around Domantas Sabonis and will fit better in Dallas’ guard-based schemes.

But what else happens, and how quickly, remains to be seen. Members of the Mavericks’ front office have flown back to Texas this week and have been reunited in the team’s physical offices as they determine what remains to be accomplished this summer. They may still be wearing sunglasses.

(Top photo of Dereck Lively II vs. Oklahoma City: Zach Beeker / NBAE via Getty Images)

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