Adam Sandler has found a surprising new niche: movies in which he acts alongside NBA power forwards featuring scenes at Celtics-Sixers games. In 2019, Sandler starred in Uncut Gems, an anxiety roller coaster that featured a scene-stealing performance from Kevin Garnett and revolved around a series of (ill-advised) bets on a Boston-Philly playoff series. In his new movie, Hustle, Sandler’s NBA costar is Jazz reserve Juancho Hernangómez, and the movie wraps with a scene at a Celtics-Sixers game that seems to be a season opener, or perhaps a preseason game. The stakes are lower this time around.
Gems was greatly enhanced if you knew about Garnett, a Hall of Famer whose trademark was over-the-top intensity—a perfect fit in a movie designed to make viewers uncomfortable for two straight hours. But you don’t need to know anything about Hernangómez, who has averaged 5.4 points per game in his career and has been traded four times in the past 12 months. That relative anonymity also makes him a perfect fit for his role. Hernangómez plays a total unknown, a Spanish construction worker named Bo Cruz discovered by Sandler’s character, Sixers scout Stanley Sugerman. Sugerman stakes his entire professional career on proving Cruz belongs in the NBA, bringing him to America and guiding him through the draft process.
Hustle is not the first movie with a streets-to-spotlight story of an overlooked athlete. It takes place almost entirely in Philadelphia and features a seven-minute training montage in which Hernangómez’s character runs up a staircase and celebrates. It’s been done before. But Hustle will be particularly entertaining for die-hard NBA fans, due to its sheer immersion in the NBA world. I counted 29 active or former NBA players in the credits, plus dozens of appearances from coaches, media personalities, front office members, team owners, and more.
It’s NBA overload. It makes sense when movies use pro basketball players in basketball scenes—when professional actors have to play basketball in movies, it sometimes looks like this. But Hustle is so thoroughly saturated with league-adjacent figures that background characters with no lines who easily could have been played by professional extras are instead played by, like, former Pelicans GM Dell Demps. Fran Fraschilla is in this movie. The Professor from the And1 Mixtape Tour is in this movie. Emeka Okafor is in this movie. If you know who all three of those people are, you’ll probably enjoy Hustle, simply for the sheer ability to point at the screen when you see guys you know.
So which NBA stars took to the silver screen—and which should stick to setting screens? We gave awards to the best—and most forgettable—performances in this ode to the NBA.
Best Performance by an NBA Player: Anthony Edwards
Edwards shares a name with the actor who played Goose in the original Top Gun, but his performance in Hustle borrows more from Val Kilmer’s Iceman. Edwards plays Kermit Wilts, the projected no. 2 pick in the NBA draft. (Unlike Edwards, Wilts went to Kentucky—even in a highly dramatized fiction, the idea of a top draft pick out of the University of Georgia is really weird.) Edwards takes great pleasure in getting into Cruz’s head, and really sells the smirking glee his character gets from unnerving his opponent with various zings. After Cruz says that he’s from Spain—a place that Wilts says “sounds whack”—Wilts tells Cruz that “you’re gonna be the bull, I’m gonna be the motherfucker in the cape running your big dumb ass in circles.”
Despite the fact that Edwards is technically the bad guy, his charm is undeniable. We’ve seen his comedy in press conferences over and over again—IRL he’s a lot kinder to people with foreign accents—and it shone through in his acting debut. The movie wants you to root for Hernangómez’s reserved antagonist, but you might find yourself pulling for Edwards’s playful instigator instead.
Best Performance by an NBA Player in a Supporting Role: Boban Marjanovic
At this point, Boban has a legitimate acting portfolio. He fought against Keanu Reeves in John Wick 3—it ends badly for him, just like it does for the other 2,743 henchmen to go up against John Wick. This year, he booked spots in State Farm and Goldfish commercials despite finishing 423rd in the NBA in total scoring. When you’re 7-foot-3, you’ll always get calls from NBA teams—and, apparently, casting directors.
Unsurprisingly, he crushes it again. The 33-year-old Boban plays a draft hopeful attempting to convince NBA teams that he’s 22 years old despite having a 6-foot-10 son. Later he shows up at a scrimmage with NBA stars, where he refuses to pass Trae Young the ball and insists on showing off with fancy dribbling and 3-point shots. Boban gets more laughs in 3.5 minutes of screentime than professional comedian Adam Sandler does in almost two hours. Hustle was good, but I’m holding out for a full-length Boban feature—maybe My Giant 2?
Most Unfortunate Plotline: Moe Wagner
The Orlando Magic center appears in the movie’s opening minutes as a prospect named Haas who plays for German club Alba Berlin—the team Wagner actually played for before coming to the United States. Sugerman doesn’t like what he sees, warning the Sixers to stay away from Haas due to a lack of work ethic and other negative personality traits. Unfortunately, they don’t listen. The Sixers draft Haas, who is briefly shown in practice getting dunked on by Tobias Harris. The Sixers’ owner admits drafting Haas was a mistake.
Basically every NBA player in the movie gets to look incredibly cool … except Wagner, who gets portrayed as a whiny draft bust. Tough break!
Best Adapted NBA Character: The Sixers’ Failson-in-Chief
Sugerman’s champion in the Sixers organization is team owner Rex Merrick, played by Robert Duvall, who remembers individual moments from games Sugerman played in at Temple 40 years ago. But Duvall is 91 years old and probably doesn’t have a lot of patience to spend weeks filming basketball movies for Netflix—his character dies offscreen less than 15 minutes into the movie. (Spoiler alert!) Taking his place in charge of the Sixers is his son, Vince (played by Ben Foster), who spends the entire movie trying to ruin Sugerman and thwart his attempts to get Cruz into the NBA.
Vince’s basketball instincts suck. He drafts Haas over Sugermen’s objections, removes Sugerman from the team’s brain trust, and at one point it’s rumored that Vince is trying to trade Joel Embiid. While this plot point is never followed up, Embiid doesn’t appear in the movie, so it’s possible the trade is canon.
So to summarize: In this movie, the Sixers are run by the incompetent son of an NBA lifer who resents his predecessors and goes to great lengths to act on his personal vendettas. Surely, any resemblance to past Sixers front office members is purely coincidental, but it should be noted that Vince also wears comically large shirt collars in multiple scenes of the movie.
That is a normal movie antagonist! Find a new slant!
Most Secretly Meaningful NBA Cameo: Willy Hernangómez
Before bringing Cruz to America, Sugerman wants to see how he performs in a game against actual professional players, so he puts in a call and a crew of Spanish national team players assemble for a quick scrimmage. After Cruz wows everybody with his ridiculous athleticism, they start oohing, ahhing, and joking. At one point, someone says in Spanish “Willy, estas fuera del equipo”—“Willy, you’re off the team!”
The Willy in question? Juancho’s older brother, Pelicans center Willy Hernangómez, although their relationship goes unacknowledged in the film. I feel like Juancho should have pushed harder for a version of the movie where his brother doesn’t get kicked off the Spanish national team by a random kid none of them have ever seen play before.
Most Confusing NBA Cameo: Khris Middleton
The least realistic part of Hustle is its intense focus on the NBA draft combine—it’s almost as if the filmmakers got it confused with the stunningly popular NFL draft combine. The NBA’s equivalent event, which takes place every year in Chicago, is not as popular or important. Top prospects generally don’t participate in measurements or scrimmages and most of the conversation about the event is about whether anything can be done to make it useful. It must have been strange for Hernangómez to act like the combine matters when he didn’t attend in 2016 before becoming a first-round pick.
In Hustle, the combine is a be-all, end-all spectator event in New York with live TV coverage. It’s such a big deal that, for some reason, Bucks star Khris Middleton decides to attend. He gives an interview to a TV reporter about how good of a player Kermit is, and then is shown sitting in the audience, watching the combine drills. When Cruz does his three-quarter-court sprint in 3.04 seconds, Middleton calls out to Sugerman, ”He can fly! Damn, he can really fly!” It remains totally unclear why Khris Middleton would attend the NBA draft combine. Did his team get eliminated from the playoffs early or something?
Largest Divergence From Reality: Kenny Smith
While almost all the NBA figures in this movie play themselves, Smith has a relatively large role as Leon Rich, an agent who used to play with Sugerman at Temple. (Hustle is produced by LeBron James; Smith’s character’s name happens to be a mashup of LeBron’s agent’s name and his former agent’s name.) Smith is probably the best actor out of all the NBA personalities in the movie—he’s gotten pretty good at modulating and inflecting his voice in 25 years as an analyst on Inside the NBA, trying to find a way to get in some actual NBA analysis over Charles Barkley’s opinions and Shaquille O’Neal’s jokes.
But here’s the strange thing: Despite the fact that Smith is an agent, Inside the NBA still exists in the Hustle universe—there’s a scene in which Barkley and O’Neal are shown on TV advocating for Cruz to get an invite to the combine. Who’s sitting in Kenny’s seat? We never find out. The camera cuts off just to Barkley’s right. Maybe it’s just Barkley, O’Neal, and Ernie Johnson up there. Does any legitimate NBA commentary happen on Inside the NBA in a world where Kenny Smith doesn’t exist?
Most Favorable Plotline: The Boston Celtics
The Sixers are just about the only team mentioned until the very end of the movie—when Celtics GM Brad Stevens shows up to scout Cruz. Stevens immediately takes a liking to Cruz, and in the final scene of the movie, it’s revealed that the Celtics are the ones to snag him. That choice was probably made by circumstance. Hernangómez began the 2021-22 season on the Celtics, so it was easy for the filmmakers to get footage of “Bo Cruz” playing in the NBA—they just filmed a Celtics game.
In real life, Hernangómez’s Celtics career was a bust. He played 18 games for Boston, averaging career lows in virtually every category. In an interview with a Spanish newspaper, Hernangómez said that the Celtics had “super-selfish players” and featured “no team-building.” The Celtics traded Hernangómez on January 19, and immediately began one of the greatest midseason turnarounds in NBA history. They were 23-23 when Hernangómez left the team, but went on a 28-8 run to finish the season 51-31 and are now in the NBA Finals.
By keeping Hernangómez on their roster for roughly two months, the Celtics got a movie where they’re the good guys and their GM looks like a genius willing to go out on a limb to get top talent. Then they dumped their surprise movie star from the back of their bench and went on to make the NBA Finals. Everything worked out really well for the Celtics here.