LAS VEGAS — Making sense out of a Summer League floor can be a minor miracle.
The action is fast, the passing comes closer to cannonball than heat-seeking precision, communication ranges from cacophony to crickets – all to say it’s not the prettiest basketball. Why it varies.
Rosters only have a few days leading up to games to, in many cases, meet each other for the first time and then begin sorting out roles on the field. For the latest drafts, there is an adjustment period in the distance and one’s own awareness within that space from a college to an NBA court.
It is, at its frenetic heart, the showcase of basketball. The point is to stand out.
For many athletes used to playing in Las Vegas, Summer League is the biggest stage they’ll play on, and even though they’re wearing casual shorts and t-shirts, agents are chatting with half an eye on the action, there are still GMs sitting and watching in the stands.
Because of all that, the Summer League is also for bright spots. For the rare phenomena of a game slowing down and a floor, for a few minutes, makes sense. In his four-game debut with the Toronto Raptors, Markquis Nowell took to the court like a ferocious auditor and never let up.
“It feels like a puzzle,” Nowell told Yahoo Sports after the Raptors fell to Cleveland in their second matchup of the tournament. “When you spread out all the different puzzle pieces and you find the one that fits the puzzle and fits perfectly, that’s kind of what it feels like when I make a play out there.”
On the court, Nowell is a weapon engine, all self-made energy that comes peeling off him and cracking on his teammates. He talks, he gestures with his hands to direct, as happy to kick the ball out and back on a drive for an assist on a three as he is to lob it up the court for someone else to convert for a dunk. Part of Nowell’s ability to organize comes in the unselfish way he plays the basketball, preferring to give up the shot if he sees a better fit for a teammate.
“I like to get people organized so I can scan my options out there,” he said. “I know where guys need to be and where their strengths are, so I just try to get them in their best position and try to make everybody happy.
“I like to get assists,” Nowell continued, smiling. “I like to get people involved because it not only makes me happy, but makes other people happy. I’m just out there trying to have fun and win some games.”
The Raptors didn’t come away with too many wins in Vegas, but Nowell, along with Toronto first-rounder Gradey Dick, and the second-year Summer League vet Ron Harper Jr., looked at home and happy every time he hit the floor. You only have to look at Nowell’s long list of honors and highlights at Kansas State understanding what kind of competitor he is, and while it comes out even in lopsided games, it was his balanced perspective that likely pushed the Raptors to sign him.
When Nowell talks basketball, it’s clear he knows how to slow down the game. Even in a chaotic post-game tunnel that connects the arenas at Summer League’s UNLV complex, where the media swirls, NBA stars arrive and every other second someone rushes by or calls out something, Nowell is quiet and considerate.
“I’m trying to play chess out there,” Nowell said of his individual approach. “Whatever the defense tries to take away, or tries to force on me, I use it against them. And I use my teammates around me to help use it against them.”
In addition to striving for poise on the floor, other words Nowell often used to describe the way he likes to play were “fun” and “entertainment.” For some, this just boils down to watching a 5-foot-7 guard barrel down the floor to make a basket that, by virtue of Nowell’s stature compared to everyone else around him, looks like pure acrobatics.
For Toronto, scouting Nowell, a New York City native who cut his teeth on flashy, flashy runs at Rucker Park and moved to Manhattan, Kansas to blow the roof off Bramlage Coliseum, the ability to entertain basketball was probably as important as his athleticism and drive.
The Raptors, more so now than they were when they signed Nowell after he went undrafted, face a season that looks completely different from the one they left behind. Part of that, led by an almost entirely new coaching staff, is by design, but something is off.
Whether it was a callous conceit or a misreading of the circumstances that caused their last undrafted player to flip the franchise cornerstone, Fred VanVleetsigning a new deal with Houston, the Raptors have another difficult decision ahead of them as to how they will move forward — especially with or without Pascal Siakam. The value of entertainment – and a return to player development – in the midst of all that upheaval can’t really be understated.
None of that does or should fall squarely on Nowell’s shoulders, but as someone who considers himself a “reflector,” those are likely his thoughts, along with everything he took from Summer League.
“I’ve always been like that since I was a kid. Just like growing up, I tend to reflect. I try to stay focused,” he said. “I try not to get too high, don’t try to get too low, but stay focused and keep your cool. When the time comes and I have some down time, I try to reflect on the good and the bad.”
Within the small sample size that Vegas gave him, there was a lot of good. During the four games he played, Nowell led the team in total assists with a whopping 27 (or 6.8 per game), often one of the obvious elements that kept everyone involved and stopped games from going completely off the rails. He also averaged 12 points per game. match, with one theft per fight and two rather emphatic blocks.
“When I’m in the moment, I try to stay in the moment, have fun in it and cherish it, because all of this is a journey and a process,” he said. “I’m trying to get my feet wet in the NBA and stay here.”
Although his time in Toronto immediately following the NBA Draft was brief, Nowell says he can’t wait to get back. He has heard a lot about the food and how fun it is to be in the city in the summer. While he’ll likely become a mainstay with the 905, he’ll likely become a quick fan favorite if the Raptors reactivate the once-thriving pipeline between the two teams and Nowell sees minutes at Scotiabank Arena.
And not only because of his resemblance to (and the latest advice he received from) another small guard in former Raptors star Muggsy Bogues, but in how he works the floor.
“I do not know what comes out of me when I’m on the floor, but it’s a whole different person,” Nowell said. “I feel like that’s when I can be an artist. I can do whatever I want out there, paint my own canvas.
“I love to play basketball, but I love to do it my way. I like to entertain, I like to win, and I work so hard at it that I feel like I could do pretty much anything on the court.”