We get in the taxi, me wearing a replica Isiah Rider Timberwolves jersey, my friend wearing a Chinese knockoff Gilbert Arenas jersey, with Oklahoma City's colors instead of Washington's. Perfect for NBA Summer League.
We close the taxi door and I ask our driver, "How's your day going so far?"
His response: "Ehhh... It's a job."
So, yeah, he seems pretty cool right off the bat. We ask him to bring us to UNLV's Thomas and Mack Center, pictured above, and he responds, "Ah, you guys are here for the basketball, I see."
As if our ridiculous jerseys weren't a dead giveaway... "I actually had the pleasure of driving one of those basketball guys a couple days ago," he says. "That kid John Wall."
Our ears perk up, trying not to sound too interested or impressed. "Oh yeah? That's one of the guys we came out here to see. What was he like?"
Truth is, John Wall is the ONLY reason we'd come to Vegas. The combination of watching basketball all day and gambling all night had long been an allure for me and my friends, but what finally compelled us into action was Wall. If someone's going to come along and save our Wizards, you're damn right we're going to travel out to Las Vegas and see him play his first basketball for Washington. So me and my friend Muse booked plane tickets to go out to Vegas for three days. We didn't have a choice, really.
Anyway, back to the story. What was John Wall like? This is where our cab driver's awesome candor becomes relevant. "Eh, he seemed like a good enough kid," he says. "I don't watch much basketball, so I don't know who he is. But I took a call while I was driving him, and told my buddy I had an NBA player in my car. My buddy asked who, and I had no idea. So I turned around and asked him, 'Hey, who are you?'"
"He says, 'I'm John Wall.'"
"And then my buddy on the phone freaks out, and says 'Do you have any idea who you're driving right now?' My buddy says he's a multi-millionaire, so I turn around and say, 'Hey, John I hear you're a big time multi-millionaire. Is that true?'"
"John says, 'Nah, nothing that crazy. Just 4.7.'"
At that point, we couldn't help but interrupt with laughter. But the driver continued, "So I told him. I said, John, you're a millionaire now, but you have a responsibility to the kids out there to be a role model. Are you ready to be a role model for the kids?"
"And he says, 'Man, F—K THE KIDS.'"
"So it goes silent for like 30 seconds. And then he bursts out laughing, and tells me he's just kidding. He was a pretty funny kid. Had a great sense of humor. I asked what team he played for and he said the Washington Wizards. I laughed, 'Oh they're not a very good team, huh?'"
"And he laughs and says, 'They will be with me.'" Annnd... Scene.
From there the conversation shifted to our driver's time as a butcher, our best casino options, and in hilarious fashion, which ethnicity makes the best food in Vegas. But the point had been made up front: For people that love basketball, Vegas is pretty indispensable. For two weeks every summer, NBA superstars, NBA wannabes, rookie multi-millionaires, coaches, GMs, and a select group of hardcore fans descend on Las Vegas for Summer League. It's a place where the stars take cabs, you can walk to your seats behind an NBA GM, and pretty much everything is a thousand times less serious than the regular season. It's great.
Speaking of which...
How Great Is John Wall?
Really, really great. Aside from our cab driver's story, which immediately got the John Wall Era rolling in the right direction, it would have been pretty difficult for John Wall to be any MORE impressive this past week in Vegas. I only saw him play one game, but even watching the others on TV, it's pretty obvious that his ceiling is as high as just about any rookie point guard we've seen since Jason Kidd.
He's that good. No matter who he's playing, Wall is faster than anyone on the court. Quicker, too. His jumpshot's shaky, and his decision-making still needs work, but the speed is one of those skills that automatically makes him a weapon in the NBA. With Wall running the break for the Wizards, it's like the court shifts into an incline. When he has the ball, everything tilts in his team's favor. That's just about the best compliment a point guard can receive.
And maybe even better, he's ready from a maturity standpoint. Look at what former-Wizard Caron Butler had to say about him:
"I love John Wall. I love his attitude. He's proved he wasn't a prima donna. He came in and went to work early and often. To see him having an opportunity to go to the ESPYs and instead stay and play in the (Las Vegas) Summer League ... that showed a great deal of character. Those are the little things that veteran guys like myself look at from young guys. He's showing he's worthy of the No. 1 pick and ready to be the face of that franchise."
As Butler mentions, he skipped the ESPYs to stick around Vegas and train for the week. That's the sort of stuff sportswriters love, but for me, the most impressive part of Wall's performance wasn't his scoring, his assists, or skipping the ESPYs. What makes him "ready to be the face of the franchise" as Butler says?
Even at 19 years-old, Wall commanded respect from everyone on the Wizards summer league team, and wielded it accordingly. He's not afraid to bark out orders at teammates five years older. Whether it was yelling at Javale McGee or ordering Trevor Booker into the right spots, Wall delivered as a leader throughout the week in Vegas. That's a pretty good sign.
There were a couple of times when McGee (who also had a pretty encouraging week) would do something stupid, it would work, and Wall would still look over exasperated at Sam Cassell, the Wizards' summer league coach. Again, this is encouraging.
He cares, he's smart, and he's not afraid to call out his teammates for being dumb.
So yes, I'm enjoying the John Wall era so far. It's early, but there were some seriously encouraging signs out in Vegas. He was named Most Outstanding Player after averaging 24 ppg and 8 assists, but that's just half the story. More important, the intangibles are there. The Wizards might finally have a legit superstar.
The craziest part? He's not completely grown into his skills. Like, another year in college might have been a good thing for Wall. His jumper needs work, and there are times when it looks like he's too fast for his own good, and he'll get out of control.
So, if he's this good now... When he puts it all together? Watch out.
Oh, And Sam Cassell Coaching John Wall Is Awesome
Promise this is the last word on Wall... But yeah, it was pretty great seeing Sam Cassell acting as his personal coach all week. Sure, Sam was nominally assigned to the entire Wizards squad, but after every break in the action, he'd pull Wall off the court to talk to him about whatever just happened. Every great young player needs a mentor, and in Cassell, Wall's got one built-in on the coaching staff.
It's a small point, but yeah, I have high hopes for the Cassell-Wall union. And if it leads to Wall ditching his sorta-lame dance in favor of the Cassell big-balls routine? Well, that's just an added bonus.
DeMarcus Cousins, As Talented As Anybody In Vegas
Watching the games this past week, you'd be hard pressed to find a more impressive talent than DeMarcus Cousins. Including John Wall. Cousins can do things on a basketball court, at his size, that just look so easy. What's impossible to most, Cousins makes routine. That's promising.
Whether it's gliding across the lane for a rebound, or whipping a pass from the post to opposite three-point line, or spinning for a feathery baseline jumper, it's impossible to watch DeMarcus Cousins and not come away awestruck. He does certain things that only superstars can do. By definition, this puts him in the top 10 percent of NBA players—among the most breathtaking athletes on the planet, Cousins is a cut above.
'Course, his golden ticket physical gifts don't exactly guarantee success.
DeMarcus Cousins, Destined For Disaster
After hearing the praise showered on him from all sides the past few weeks—the steal of the draft, according to most NBA insiders—it was easy to forget why he slipped to no. 5 in the draft. But watching him play, you're quickly reminded.
Can DeMarcus Cousins do things that are exclusive to NBA superstars? Sure.
Does DeMarcus Cousins exude the sort of unhinged ethos that's exclusive to all but a handful of the NBA's most difficult personalities? Um... Yeah. He really does. As you can see above, I've even taken the liberty of making preemptive t-shirts for when he gets himself suspended somehow.
His passing, his footwork, the touch around the rim, his athleticism... All off the charts. But he also prompted my friend Muse to ask, "Is DeMarcus Cousins hurt, you think? Or is that just how he walks?"
Or when I said, "Yeah, DeMarcus is as talented as anybody in the draft, but I have a bad feeling about him in the NBA." Muse responded, "Why? Because he's shooting threes in the layup line over there?"
Like with Wall barking orders at his Wizard elders, there are certain little things that you look for that can be either good or bad signs. How does a guy carry himself on the floor? Does he sulk after bad calls? Does he glare angrily at his coach? Does he curse at the refs? Does he run the floor after a play doesn't go his way? It's the little things.
This was the defining sequence for me:
- He gets beat on defense for a layup.
- He walks up the floor, glaring at the Kings bench for some reason.
- Crosses halfcourt, walks to the three point line.
- Takes a step inside the three-point line, calls for the ball.
- Gets ball, launches flat-footed 22-foot jumper.
- All net.
See? That's the problem. He's good enough to get away with his bad habits and crappy instincts. He's also good enough so that, at least for now, everyone's willing to overlook some of the more obvious red flags.
And he's good enough to win the Rookie of the Year in 2011. He's incredibly powerful, and athletic enough to match up with just about any NBA center right now. But long-term, it just feels like he's another Derrick Coleman. Destined to be just a little bit out of shape, and have just the right kind of attitude problems that prevent him ever reaching his potential. And just talented enough to convince teams he's worth a gamble.
"He's so, so talented." ... "Wait, why is he taking threes in the lay-up line?"
"Is he injured, or is that how he walks normally?"
"Why is he staring at his coach like that?"
Good luck, Sacramento.
Poor, Poor Cleveland
Obviously, being a Cavs fan isn't much fun right now. We all know this intuitively, and don't really need a reminder. But it still shocked me for some reason.
Since switching to their current uniforms and colors, the Cavaliers have always been relevant. At first because of LeBron, the captivating rookie, and later, because they were a legitimate championship contender. Either way, since switching up their logo and colors, nobody's been able to laugh at these Cavaliers.
So not until watching their summer league team did it really crystallize—this is their reality now. Just as empty and hopeless as the Cavs wearing teal, black, and bright orange, and banking on Dajuan Wagner for the future. Right now, the Cavs are entering a LeBron-less abyss where the future revolves around guys like J.J. Hickson and Danny Green, and the big question is whether Antawn Jamison will come off the bench next season.
And I know, I know... None of this is news.
But good lord that's depressing.
The Summer League In Vegas: Kind Of Brilliant
Without piggybacking on the gushing reviews of hundreds of others, David Stern's decision to put the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas is really quite brilliant. If basketball were the only attraction, it wouldn't be worth the trip for fans, and maybe not even NBA journalists. But with Vegas...
You can make a vacation out of it. Thanks to Las Vegas, summer league's a destination. See some hoops, mix it up with fellow NBA diehards, gawk at superstars watching the games and star rookies that are playing, and then, when it's all over, you're in Las Vegas. How awesome is that?
Don't get me wrong, Vegas is truly disgusting. It's like a Chuck E. Cheese for adults.
But if you're looking for a way to spend three or four days of your summer, you could do much worse than "basketball during the day, nap by the pool, gambling all night." Again, I'm not the first person to rejoice at this union, but let's just say it lived up to my expectations.
Tyreke Evans: Swagger On A Trillion
Remember when I said "gawk at superstars watching the game"? I really meant, "gawk at Tyreke Evans' ridiculous chain." Shown here courtesy of Holly Mackenzie at The Score, anytime you can combine a badass nickname with thousands of diamonds, it's quite a victory.
The Best Dunk Of Summer League
This dunk almost makes up for the time Javale McGee's mom wrote a letter to NBA teams calling her son a hybrid of Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Jordan. Almost.
(Note: As a Wizards fan, McGee is growing on me. A lot. And John Wall might just save his career, which would be really cool for Javale, and pretty awesome for the Wizards. Fingers crossed.)
Is There A Summer-League Version Of NBA Groupies?
We were behind one of these women in line when she ordered a double Belevedere and water. At two o'clock in the afternoon. And that's when it dawned on us... Wait a second, these are summer league groupies! We'd been wondering, and as it turns out, they do exist.
A similar talent drop-off from the regular season, sure. But they were there!
And you just know some poor NBA summer leaguer was sitting on the bench, hands over his face, mumbling to himself over and over, "I forgot I offered them tickets. I can't believe I offered them tickets. Why did I offer them tickets???"
And that's what summer league's about. Learning lessons, growing up. Learn to defend the pick-and-roll, don't leave courtside tickets for groupies, work on the offensive playbook. It's how players evolve.
And for the fans? Well, it's all a pretty awesome show. Can't wait to go back next year.