In 2009, I attended the NBA's Las Vegas Summer League and watched the debuts of Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry, Darren Collison and others. Being there in person, I couldn't believe how small Lawson, Curry and Collison were and questioned whether or not they would be effective pros due their diminutive stature on the court. At the same time, I was fortunate enough to watch the Golden State Warriors' Anthony Morrow score an NBA Summer League record 47 points against the New Orleans Hornets and after doing so was convinced that I was witnessing the second coming of Ray Allen.
Six years later, Lawson has surprised me to become one of the NBA's more effective starting point guards (more on that shortly), Curry has gone on to be an MVP and an NBA champion and Collison has had a solid career. Meanwhile, Morrow has been a journeyman backup, bouncing around the league to play for six teams in seven seasons.
Point being: you can't read too much into what happens during NBA Summer League.
That said, it's hard not to get excited after watching the Nuggets first three 2015 Summer League games. Taking a 3-0 record into the Summer League playoff (beginning Wednesday), our scrappy Summer League squad - led by seventh overall pick Emmanuel Mudiay - has played hard and inspired basketball, a combination that has enabled them to overcome a number of typical Summer League mistakes (bad shots, bad fouls, too many turnovers) and finish their first three games without a loss. The third of which, on Monday evening versus Miami, ended with an Ian Clark three-point dagger to finish a thrillingly close game.
And thus, for the first time in a seemingly long time, Nuggets fans are optimistic about their team's future despite heading into a 2015-16 NBA Season with yet another brutally competitive Western Conference to navigate through (Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Pelicans, Thunder, Grizzlies and Rockets, oh my!).
It all starts with Mudiay who appears to have the makings of the Nuggets first true star since the departure of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups in 2011. Could Mudiay be the next star in the Rocky Mountain basketball line that began with David Thompson / Dan Issel in 1975 and extended through Alex English / Fat Lever in the 1980s through Dikembe Mutombo / LaPhonso Ellis / Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the 1990s through Anthony / Allen Iverson / Billups in the 2000s? Three games of Summer League isn't a large enough sample size nor is the competition good enough to truly tell, but just using the "eye test" that all avid basketball fans possess tells one that Mudiay has the goods to be an impactful NBA player, even as a 19 year old rookie this upcoming season.
Moreover, Mudiay's post-game interviews on NBATV have been nearly as impressive as his on-the-court play. For a 19 year old who didn't even arrive in the United States until he was five years old, Mudiay comes across as a humble yet confident and thoughtful young man. My favorite Mudiay quotes to date came after the Nuggets second Summer League game against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday evening when Mudiay said that the game was "personal" for both himself and new Nuggets coach - and ex-Kings coach - Michael Malone, followed by this response when the sideline reporter asked him about getting snubbed by the Kings and five other teams in June's NBA Draft:
"I'm where I'm supposed to be. Denver is where I need to be and I'm happy with the opportunity to be a part of where the team is. I want to bring a winning attitude. I'm all about winning and I want that to be contagious with my teammates."
Beyond Mudiay, other Nuggets Summer League participants have given us seedlings of optimism, as terrifically detailed by our very own Adam Mares who has been attending the games in person along with our Nate Timmons (who has gotten some airtime on both Altitude TV and The Sports Show live from Last Vegas). Off guard Gary Harris seems to have improved his game, back up point guard Erick Green has produced in a reserve role, Frenchmen Joffrey Lauvergne appears to be playing with more confidence by the day, rookie big man Nikola Jokic might be another Tim Connelly Eastern European steal (a la Jusuf Nurkic) and undersized shooting guard Ian Clark - who appeared in all of seven games for the Nuggets last season in garbage time only - just might have edged out Jamaal Franklin for a roster spot thanks to his play in the Nuggets last two Summer League games. That's six of the Nuggets 15ish roster spots accounted for, although historically the Nuggets haven't carried 15 players on the roster which means that unless/until Lawson gets traded along with another member of the current Nuggets roster, one of the Nuggets six Summer League stars isn't going to make the roster after training camp is over in October.
Speaking of Lawson, with each Mudiay Summer League performance - and each bout of bizarre / bad off-court behavior from Lawson, the latest being an alleged DUI that took place in Los Angeles early THIS morning (Lawson's second this year alone) - it becomes more and more apparent that Lawson's days as a Nugget are numbered ... something else Nuggets fans should be optimistic about. Because while we must appreciate what Lawson has given us over the years in terms of on-court effort, he is self destructing off the court and I still maintain that when Lawson is a team's best player on the court it's not a playoff team. Conversely, Mudiay might possess the dynamism needed to lead a team to the playoffs despite having sub-par talent around him. But let's not get too far over our skis on Mudiay quite yet.
Back to Lawson, the Nuggets need to move him has become the worst kept secret in pro basketball. That combined with the incredible depth at point guard throughout the NBA right now and Lawson's continued off-the-court antics makes the market for Lawson extremely shallow. But Lawson's 16-plus ppg and nine-plus apg should still make him an attractive acquisition for several on-the-cusp or bottom feeding playoff teams that would love to have Lawson playing the point for them, such as Brooklyn, Detroit, Charlotte, Indiana, Milwaukee, Utah and Dallas. Sacramento - with former Nuggets coach George Karl manning the bench (for now) - would have been an ideal location for Lawson but with the Kings recently signing Rajon Rondo I'm assuming the Lawson-to-the-Kings ship has sailed.
But while the Lawson situation gets resolved, Mudiay's inspired play and off-the-court comments combined with his teammates' Summer League improvements and the possibility of a Lawson deal has Nuggets fans feeling good about pro basketball in Denver again. Expectations must be tempered as I don't foresee how this Nuggets team could crack the Western Conference's eight playoff spots in 2016. But despite the few games the 2015-16 Nuggets will likely win, if three Summer League games are even a kernel of an indicator at least they'll be fun to watch and the start of something special that we'll enjoy down the road.