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Scenes From a COVID-Disrupted G League Showcase

The NBA’s surge in positive cases forced mass call-ups straight from the G League’s annual winter event. Here are some sights and sounds from Las Vegas, as well as standouts from a smaller pool of NBA hopefuls.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The G League Showcase is typically a one-stop shop for player evaluation, gossip, and networking. But the NBA has called in the replacements to help overcome its latest bout with COVID-19, forcing most G League teams to scrabble for replacements of their own. Jonathan Tjarks and Kyle Mann share their thoughts on the scene and standouts from the past few days at Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas.

The Protocol Domino Effect

Jonathan Tjarks: The rosters handed out to scouts and media at this year’s G League Showcase were out of date before they were even printed. With the NBA affording big-league clubs extra roster spots to replace the more than 100 players now in COVID-19 health and safety protocols, many of the expected participants were called up before they got to play in Vegas. Two G League teams didn’t even participate in the showcase because they didn’t have enough able-bodied players to field a team.

The NBA is just like the rest of society in that it is changing plans in real time to get them through the latest twist wrought by COVID-19. What that looks like practically is a bunch of impromptu meetings between players and executives in the hallways of a cavernous convention center in Vegas. A player can have a big game in the G League, change out of his uniform, get signed on the spot to an NBA team, and be on a plane in a few hours. Some players suiting up in Vegas don’t even have a name on the backs of their jerseys.

It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the player movement. A G League roster that was current in the morning can look completely different in a night game. The Celtics’ G League team, which led the league with a 10-2 record coming into the showcase, lost two of its best players in the same afternoon when Luke Kornet (Cavs) and Theo Pinson (Mavs) were both signed. Neither signed with the Celtics, who picked up 15-year vet C.J. Miles from G League Ignite.

The NBA’s COVID protocols have become a jobs program for every fringe player trying to claw their way into (or back into) the league. Signing a 10-day NBA contract isn’t a life-changing amount of money for veterans like Lance Stephenson (Hawks) and Nik Stauskas (Raptors), but it’s a huge deal for younger players like Zylan Cheatham (Heat) and George King (Mavs). They will make almost twice as much money over the next two weeks than they would have made had they stayed the entire season in the G League.

In a normal year, most of the conversations at the showcase are about trade rumors and the upcoming draft class. But all anyone can talk about this year is who is being called up, who is still available, and how the mass promotions will impact the Christmas Day games. In the Nets’ last game before their next two were postponed, their second-leading scorer was David Duke Jr., an undrafted player on a two-way contract; Kessler Edwards, a second-round pick, played 39 minutes.

The quality of players in the showcase has dipped dramatically because players like Duke are in the NBA. There’s a domino effect happening: The top G League players are now playing in the NBA, so the players normally at the end of the bench in the G League are getting their own chance to shine. The upside of all the wildness of the past few days is that a lot of dreams are coming true.

Old So-and-sos

J. Kyle Mann: I used to work at a retail outlet store. I was terrible at it. Things that were bought initially from our website would get returned, and we would send them back through the system in hopes of finding another home, at a lower price. Maybe you get lucky and find something in pretty good shape for a bargain. But there were some items that lingered for a long time. We called them “graveyard receipts” because they had sat around for so long that we were just looking to get any kind of return for them. It was the end of the line. I was reminded of that process as I watched some of the folks in this event.

There are familiar faces all over the place, varying from “Oh wow, that’s Riley LaChance of Vanderbilt fame,” to a team like the Grand Rapids Gold. On the first day of the event, the Nuggets’ G League affiliate fielded a rotation that consisted of former top high school recruit Shabazz Muhammad, two-time world champion Mario Chalmers, former Kings savior Nik Stauskas, and Lance Stephenson, who ... what is there really to say about Lance at this point?

On Sunday, these Battered Bastards of Basketball faced off against the G League Ignite, a developmental team on the other end of the timeline. It was like watching one much older, weathered layer of the multiverse confront another. Ignite is coached like a college team, but the goal here is to expose them to high levels of scheme, pace, and physicality in a controlled dose while also getting compensated.

Lance and Co. pounced on the youngsters immediately, isoing and creating predictable looks for themselves, but Ignite charged back to erase an early deficit. Ignite has a win and a loss in Vegas, but results have a way of fading into the background at the end of the day. Besides, Ignite is under different guidelines than they would be playing under a Mark Few or a John Calipari—they aren’t under immense pressure to make short-term choices that might sacrifice the development for their young players. I think it’s one of many discussion points in the overall evaluation of the American developmental system, but that’s a rant for another day.

2022 (and 2023) Draft Prospects to Watch

Mann: There are names here to file away for the 2022 NBA draft. Jaden Hardy is an explosive 6-foot-4 lead guard who seems to have an even amount of enthusiasts and detractors. MarJon Beauchamp is a 6-foot-6 lanky, switchable, and disruptive wing who needs to grow as a shooter but has upside. Dyson Daniels is a ball handler with great size (6-foot-6, 200 pounds), a steady operating style, and some crafty middle game. All three could (and probably will) go in the first round.

I’m one of those weird Ringer people who doesn’t really gamble, but one harmless wager that I’d make is that the most interesting prospect at the entire event is set for the 2023 draft: Sterling (his potentially iconic nickname “Scoot” is what everyone calls him) Henderson. It’s been fascinating to watch him in this setting. Scoot is only 17 years old (he turns 18 in February), and purely by the eye test, you could not discern this.

Physically, Henderson’s in the mold of a younger (think promising Maryland era) Steve Francis, Eric Bledsoe, or possibly even Donovan Mitchell: fantastic separation ability to create shots, with questions about his ability to consistently make them. He can be a bit wild at times.

Henderson definitely has the “elite athleticism” infinity stone on his gauntlet, but it seems like he’s developing a sense of balancing that talent with actively processing the action on the defensive end. Watch him angle his body to avoid the contact from Carsen Edwards and still get to the ball for the block.

I love gap-closers in the half court on defense, guys who can shift from pressuring the ball so that the offensive team eats into their clock to covering immense amounts of ground quickly so that open shots are hurried and less efficient. Here he times his closeout well enough that Stauskas hesitates and steps backward on the sideline, for a turnover.

Scoot’s flexibility, explosiveness (which helps him play bigger than he is), and glimpses of advanced anticipation could make him a high-level defensive tool. The growth plate on Henderson’s game is immense, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if years from now if he ends up the boldest bullet point from this entire event.

Primo Content

Tjarks: Josh Primo might have been the most surprising pick of the first round. He was widely expected to be a late first-round pick after averaging 8.1 points per game in his freshman season at Alabama. But the Spurs saw a chance to buy low and drafted him no. 12 overall.

Primo couldn’t do much at Alabama. He was one of the youngest players in college basketball and was on an experienced team that won the SEC and made the Sweet 16. It has been the same story for Primo as a rookie. He has played in only eight games in San Antonio and has barely seen the court. That’s where the G League becomes so important for his development.

When Primo plays for the Austin Spurs, he’s making up not only for the opportunities he didn’t get in the NBA, but also in college. The 18-year-old is averaging 17.3 points on 41.9 percent shooting and 5.1 assists per game in the G League this season. He more than held his own in a matchup with the G League Ignite team on Wednesday, going toe-to-toe on both ends of the floor with future lottery picks Jaden Hardy and Scoot Henderson.

The skills are there. Primo has good size for a point guard (6-foot-4 and 189) and the ability to shoot off the dribble and play above the rim. The most encouraging part is how natural he looks at the position. He runs the offense, moves the ball, and doesn’t get rattled by opposing defenders.

Playing well in the G League doesn’t necessarily mean all that much, but it is a good first step. The Spurs don’t have to rush. Time with the ball in your hands is the most precious resource in the NBA, and Primo would never get it if he were playing with Dejounte Murray and Derrick White at the next level.

There’s a lot of room for Primo to improve. He turns 19 the day before Christmas, making him younger than two of the Ignite players (Hardy and MarJon Beauchamp) expected to go in the first round of the 2022 draft. If he needs the next two seasons in the G League to develop, he would still be younger than some of the players taken in the 2023 draft.

San Antonio took a big gamble on Primo and there’s no way to know at this point whether it will pay off. But it looks a lot better after his first 11 games in the G League.