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NBA In July? League Scores Bright Spot In Summer Ratings

Lonzo Ball of the Los Angeles Lakers stands on the court during a 2017 Summer League game against the Brooklyn Nets in Las Vegas.
Ethan Miller
Getty Images
Lonzo Ball of the Los Angeles Lakers stands on the court during a 2017 Summer League game against the Brooklyn Nets in Las Vegas.

Monday night in Las Vegas, thousands are expected to turn out for an NBA Championship game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trailblazers. Hundreds of thousands more, at least, are expected to tune in to ESPN for live coverage.

Wait, you say, it's the middle of July — a time for baseball, beach and barbecue. But men's pro basketball? Normally way off sports fans' radar screens this time of year.

But there's been nothing normal about NBA Summer League 2017.

Monday's Lakers vs. Blazers Summer League championship will be missing L.A. star guard Lonzo Ball. He's out with a mild strain in his calf. Still the game will provide the exclamation point to an event the NBA, local organizers and ESPN programmers say has been a raging success.

"Our ESPN and ESPN 2 [summer league] ratings are up 50 percent over last year's" says Ashley O'Connor, the sports network's senior manager for NBA programming and acquisitions.

Those ratings have included a July 7 Lakers game against the Los Angeles Clippers that drew 879,000 viewers and an L.A. game against Boston a day later that attracted 1.1 million.

Yes, Las Vegas is a "Lakers town" because of the proximity of L.A. But what really drew all those eyes, and the Summer League's first ever sellout, in advance of the Boston game, was Lonzo Ball.

The second pick in this year's NBA draft is considered a potential once-in-a-generation player. And if you don't believe the basketball experts and pundits, Lonzo's dad, LaVar, is there to trumpet his son's abilities. Indeed, if the loquacious LaVar were a fish, he would definitely be of the largemouth variety. He even explained that his son switched up his shoe brand during the games out of spite — he wasn't able to score a deal with any of the major shoe companies.

For the win

LaVar Ball showed up at Summer League in Las Vegas for a few days and that helped drive the hype. His son Lonzo's absence Monday is bound to dampen enthusiasm for the final game. But the Summer League has been a success beyond the Balls.

"I really understand now why people are drawn to it," says Mark Anderson, with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Anderson is a veteran sports reporter but this has been the first time he's covered the Summer League nearly full time.

"For kids it's $20; $30 for adults," he says. "And that's for the whole day. You have your choice of 8 games [in the summer league's early stages] at two different arenas. So it's an affordable, fun event where you can see some of the stars of tomorrow."

Players such as Ball, De'Aaron Fox, Jayson Tatum, Dennis Smith Jr. were part of a particularly deep and talented NBA draft in late June. And Las Vegas Summer League has given fans a chance to see these players in their first professional games.

Still, despite the handful of future possible stars, Summer League, in reality, is a mecca for hoops vagabonds.

"Half these guys aren't going to get on the floor [during a regular season NBA game] and the other half are going to be in Belgium," says Portland Trailblazers General Manager Neil Olshey. In an ESPN interview during a Summer League game Sunday, Olshey provided a reality check to temper Summer League hyperbole. What hyperbole? How about San Antonio's Bryn Forbes was the Summer League Steph Curry.

A lot of the top players in June's draft, says Olshey, "went four months without playing basketball. They got coddled by their agents doing beauty contest workouts [for different teams], they travelled a little bit, they didn't lift [weights], they don't have the nutrition, they were in and out of airports. They practice three days [before Summer League] and then we expect these guys to come out and be in peak condition. It's not going to happen!"

While Summer League play was inconsistent and sloppy, especially in the early part, some teams have gelled over the 11-day Las Vegas event. Tonight's finalists for example, L.A. and Portland, were low seeded teams when the Summer League tournament started, based on their early Summer League play. But both have discovered a chemistry and are playing well heading into the championship game.

For ESPN, this year's Summer League success validates the network's decision to make a year-round commitment to the NBA. You can go back to last summer, when Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors and all the talk and coverage that generated. Then the regular season, the playoffs, which ended in June. After that the draft, and now the Summer League.

But after Monday night, things will go quiet for a bit. If people truly crave basketball, there's still great WNBA action during the summer and into early fall. For those NBA-only fans though, it'll finally be time for some baseball, beach and barbecue. Until September, when NBA training camps open and the circuit starts all over again.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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