2018 Pacers Summer League: Day 1 Notebook

Pacers, NBA Summer League, Las Vegas, Cox Pavilion

LAS VEGAS — Summer League is Las Vegas was new to everybody with the Pacers, from the coaches to the players and staff. That’s because they’ve annually spent the first week of July down in Orlando. But Orlando Summer League is no more and for the first time 2018, all 30 NBA franchises have an entry in Vegas – the summer home of the NBA.

“It’s a ton different. You have people here,” Pacers 2017 first-round pick T.J. Leaf said with a smile.” It makes for a game-like atmosphere.”

Orlando was the preferred destination for Larry Bird in the Pacers because it was all about basketball. It was played on the practice floor inside the Amway Center and there couldn’t have been more than 100 spectators in the gym because it was limited to players and team personnel. That’s it.

On top of that, it’s a far more comfortable setup. Locker rooms to themselves, enough space outside for media interviews, and a dining area that is across the hall. That’s not the case at the Cox Pavilion, one of two gyms that are connected on the campus of UNLV. Like the constant flow of traffic behind the scorer’s table, which was backed up even more due to technical difficulties with the scoreboard. It’s Vegas, so of course there is alcohol sales.

Give the NBA credit for becoming a year-round league. Thousands of fans paid at least $39 each throughout the day to watch these games full of first-round picks and fringe NBA players. It’s entertaining in person and all over their TV, on ESPN and NBA TV.

As for summer league, it’s important not to read too much into it, positively or negatively. Think big picture. Teams want to see growth from their players, especially the second-year guys coming off a full year with the NBA club, and they want to see how rookies handle the moment, competition, and the environment.

“We’re all competitors, whether it’s a pick-up game or a championship. Obviously the stakes are a little different, but we’re all trying to compete and win,” Leaf added.

What Vegas does provide is a great, intimate environment that is an NBA arena (17,923) and a high school gym (2,454). By the end of the 82-game schedule running from July 6-17, all teams will have played at least five games and hundreds of thousands of basketball fans will have attended.

The Pacers arrived in Las Vegas on Wednesday and scrimmaged Team China on Thursday, one day before their first of three pool-play games. That’s good (and different) competition, breaks any nerves, and prepares them for this tournament. They then tipped off Vegas Summer League as a whole with the opening game against the Houston Rockets and came up short, 92-89.

They started the five players you would expect: Aaron Holiday, Edmond Sumner, Alex Poythress, Ben Moore, and Leaf.

Indiana got off to a good start and led 26-22 after one quarter. They were outscored by nine points in the second and would crawl their way back to within three points in the final minute.

Houton’s Trevon Duval, who scored 20 points in 24 minutes off the bench, missed a pair of foul shots with 6.2 seconds left, which left an opening for the Pacers to force an extra session. (I know, just what everyone wants in exhibition summer games.) Travis Leslie grabbed the rebound and sent it ahead to Aaron Holiday.

Holiday tried to make the right play in passing ahead to Leaf but time was about to expire and Leaf was inside the arc as they trailed by three.

“In that situation, Aaron’s just got to jack it up and see what happens,” summer league coach Steve Gansey said afterwards.

Game 2 for the Pacers is against San Antonio inside the Thomas & Mack Center (3:30 pm ET, ESPN2).


Aaron Holiday Shines in Debut

Aaron Holiday appeared to be in his element in game one, easily the most poised player on the court. He was patient yet aggressive, looking to split the defense and attack at any moment.

He said he doesn’t get nervous before games, playing basketball is what he does. As the teams lined up for the playing of the national anthem, a familiar face was to his left — Indiana native Steve Alford. The UCLA head coach, his college coach for three years, was there to watch four Bruins on the Pacers’ roster, including his son, Bryce.

UCLA Basketball, Steve Alford, Pacers, Aaron Holiday

UCLA coach Steve Alford was courtside for the Pacers game against Houston.

Go ahead and call them the Indiana Bruins. Leaf, Holiday, and Ike Anigbogu are the other three players. Pacers Director of Player Personnel Ryan Carr sat beside Alford throughout the game.

Anyways, Holiday opened the game with back-to-back 3-pointers and then got to the rim and finished in traffic, accounting for the Pacers’ first eight points.

Coach Gansey shared his first impressions of Holiday: “Him just being confident every time he steps on the floor. He got it going early this game, just taking control. I keep telling him in practice he’s the quarterback of the team, make sure everyone is in their spots and just go out there and run the point guard position.”

And that’s exactly what he did. Holiday, the Pacers’ choice at 23 in last month’s draft, finished with a game-high 23 points, five rebounds, three assists, three steals, and five turnovers in 31 minutes.

“I’m just out there trying to play and help my team win,” he said, short and sweet. He was most annoyed with his defense.

“I felt like I got blown by way too many times,” he added. “Obviously they’re talented guys but I got fight a lot better and square up rather than trying to force them off the screen.”

Understand Kyrie Irving is an All-NBA player and one of the best point guards in the league, but Holiday displayed similar traits, particularly in his handles and his ability to finish against contact at the basket.

“He’s got a strong body. His body is real square,” coach Gansey said. “When he gets to the basket and when he shoots on the outside, he absorbs contact pretty well. I was very happy for him getting to the foul line. His ability to stretch the floor and attack the basket is going to be a big-time strength for him in this league.”

And remember how Pacers President Kevin Pritchard compared Holiday’s game to starting point guard Darren Collison? Yeah… you will too. Similar game, similar size, and even a similar look as Holiday, who wears No. 3. He also sports a left-arm sleeve.

“He’s always able to get through the cracks and crevices,” Leaf said of Holiday, both his former (UCLA) and current teammate. “He’s always finding himself open there at the rim and when the big has to step up, he’s going to make that extra pass.”

The Pacers’ rookies shined in game one, as Missouri State’s Alize Johnson contributed 15 points, three rebounds, and two assists off the bench.


Explosive Sumner

Like Holiday, summer league is new to Edmond Sumner. This time last year, the second-round pick was rehabbing from both ACL surgery and a shoulder operation.

Sumner, who says he’s feeling completely healthy, showed no hesitation in cutting or getting to the hoop. He even got hung up once by a taller defender, but he got right back up.

Sumner struggled seeing the ball go in, going just 2 for 9, but his toughness and aggressive mentality is worthy of a mention. No one shot it particularly well, as Indiana shot 41 percent as a group in the loss.


Leaf Frustrated After Loss

Cox Pavilion, NBA Summer League

Temporary locker rooms set up in the corner of Cox Pavilion.

There aren’t locker rooms for teams playing at Cox Pavilion. They just use a curtain to close off a back corner that is smaller than my apartment living area. The few reporters who gathered in the corner for postgame interviews were next to their huddle to breakdown after the game. Too close. Even team coaches were like, “What!?”

Well T.J. Leaf spent more than 10 minutes icing after the game, seated on a cooler, and by that time, nearly everyone had left before he discussed his play. He was understandably frustrated after managing four points on 2-of-14 shooting and 10 rebounds. And he started at center, which was different. Yay, summer league!

But T.J. can’t get down on himself after his performance. It’s just one game and let’s be honest, it’s July. These games, in reality, don’t mean much. The ones in May and June are the meaningful ones.

“There’s a lot of highs and lows going on. You just have to stay straight the whole time. Can’t get too high on your good games and too low on your bad games. Just stay with those calm waters. I think that’s the most important thing I’ve learned.”

Step one of being a rookie complete – listening. Pritchard and GM Chad Buchanan on down, the Pacers preach calm waters and staying even-keel.

“I just have to go out tomorrow and have a better show,” he continued. “We have to have a better showing as a team as well.”

Still, this next week can serve as a confidence builder for a player who was not a rotational piece his rookie season. He averaged 8.6 minutes per game, appeared in 64 percent of their games (53 of 82), and was 18 of 42 from distance (43 percent). The Pacers won 48 games and pushed the Cavaliers to seven games in round one.

“We want bigger and better things,” said Leaf. “It was a great season but we’re already trying to improve.”

Draft-night grades are ridiculous and it’s worthless activity evaluating players before they’ve completed three years in the league. But the Pacers could — and hope — to count on Leaf for more extended minutes next season. His offensive game is ready to contribute today and so his focus this offseason has been in the weight room, where he’s gained about 20 pounds, and on defense. Especially in containing his man in one-on-one situations.

“Deflections is really big for this team so I’ve been working a lot on that. When you’re getting a hand on a lot of those loose balls, it’s something that is contagious and can create a lot of opportunities on the offensive end.”


Can We Talk About Those Uniforms?

In year’s past, teams would wear practice uniforms. Seriously. That’s how low-key summer league truly was. Then the NBA, along with adidas, tested short-sleeve jerseys.

Nike supplied all teams with simple yet a clean, lightweight look. Well done.


Future Assurance For Coach Gansey

Steve Gansey, Mad Ants

Steve Gansey was named Mad Ants head coach in 2015. [Mad Ants]

Steve Gansey is serving as head coach of the Pacers summer league squad for the first time.

That position went to Pacers assistant Popeye Jones the last two seasons, and longtime assistant Dan Burke for many years prior to that. Gansey is one of a handful of G League coaches getting an opportunity to lead a team in Las Vegas.

And before coming to Vegas, Gansey got news that eased the pressure tad: a new contract. His original contract expired and Pacers/Mad Ants had to make a decision. Ultimately, they agreed on a new contract for two years, per a league source.

“It’s great. I’m really happy to be part of the Pacers organization,” Gansey told VigilantSports.com. “The Mad Ants have been unbelievable with me. I’m just really, really glad that I get to lead our lead young guys — the Pacers and the Mad Ants — and continue my growth as a basketball coach.”

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