LAS VEGAS – It wasn’t LeBron James showing up unannounced or anything on the first night of Summer League action here, but it was close in terms of crowd and buzz and curiosity.
Cox Pavilion, smaller sidekick to the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus, was crammed to its modest 2,500 capacity and beyond. Some fans were standing against the wall behind the top rows – and they were the lucky ones. Others couldn’t get in at all, and when they were shooed from the two congest entrance/exit bottlenecks, they were offered refunds on their $25 tickets.
Which isn’t nearly the same as being able to say, years from now, that you witnessed the first NBA clash of Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.
Sure, it was played in the desert, the rules were different (10-minute quarters, for instance) and the scores, stats and standings largely were immaterial, surely forgotten 10 days out. But when the No. 1 pick in the Draft goes head-to-head with the No. 2 pick, when the two have been linked since their high school days and when there was genuine mystery – right up until NBA commissioner Adam Silver read Wiggins’ name — which one might be selected first, it ranks as a showdown, a matchup, something special to cap an NBA day full of same.
“It was crazy,” said Wiggins, the rookie from Kansas, said of the Cox Pavilion atmosphere. His new team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, had learned during shootaround Friday morning that James was headed back to the franchise. But Wiggins’ and Parker’s debuts stirred imaginations on their own.
“Our game was probably the most packed,” Wiggins said, no offense to the other five Friday. “It was crazy. The fans were excited, which made the game more fun than if you didn’t feel them.”
Wiggins’ team won the game but the battle with Parker, happily grabbed second by the Milwaukee Bucks, was essentially a push. Wiggins scored 18 points in 31 minutes on 7-of-18 shooting. He was 1-of-8 on 3-pointers, including an air ball. Parker shot 5-of-11 scored 17 points He was 7-of-11 from the line and grabbed nine rebounds. They guarded each other occasionally, but the sturdier Parker – 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds to Wiggins’ 6-8 and 194 – more often squared off with power forwards, including Anthony Bennett, the 2013 No. 1 pick.
The two rookies enjoyed the encounter without dwelling on it, just as they shrugged off a few mistakes. Parker talked of communicating more with the other four Bucks on the floor and gave himself a grade of “B-minus.” Wiggins looked forward to the opportunities in Cleveland’s upcoming games and enjoyed the moment with his rival/cohort.
“It was a great feeling,” he said. “On the court, we just have to battle. But off the court, we’re good friends. He’s a great player, able to score in multiple ways, very smart, intelligent player. It’s always good to play against him.”
Each lived up to his pre-draft evaluation: Wiggins showed his natural athletic ability merely running up and down the court, but pushed it into gear when soaring for an errant alley-oop pass or draining a nifty step-back jumper. Parker carries a more-ready-to-contribute label that was evident in some of his post-ups and his aggressive rebounding. The one-and-done Duke player also unsheathed a slick pass or two.
“He showed that he is somewhat of a ready player, that he can step into the league and play,” Bucks general manager John Hammond said. “Neither one of those guys surprised me. Both of ‘em have a chance to be special players in this league, and what Andrew showed tonight was a total glimpse of that.”
A pair of soon-to-be-sophs showed flashes, too. Bennett, who has lost weight and looks more serious after his disappointing first season, seemed driven to make an impact. He had one monstrous dunk and seven rebounds, but he also shot 6-of-16 and racked up eight fouls (summer rules).
For the Bucks, it was last year’s find, lanky 19-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo (playing at 6-foot-11 after another growth spurt), pushing the pace and loping around the court with boundless energy. “The Greek Freak” scored 17 points and hit a couple 3-pointers, to go with seven fouls and five turnovers.
As closely as Wiggins and Parker have been linked – in case you didn’t already know it, both are the sons of former NBA players, Mitchell Wiggins and Sonny Parker – their shared path might have diverged some Friday.
James’ arrival changes the Cavaliers’ dynamic from merely a young and promising team – Wiggins might find himself a few less opportunities but a whole lot less pressure. Parker continues as a Bucks’ cornerstone, his learning curve assumed to be shorter and steeper.
But that’s OK, because his self-critique afterward showed a young guy driven to improve.
“It’s been a pretty good transition because Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] has prepared me,” Parker said. “A lot of the language, a lot of the stuff we did with Duke has helped me so far.”
His early NBA lessons? “That games are won on the defensive end and there are going to be a lot of runs. You’ve got to keep your composure and play on both sides of the floor, and you can’t have any sense of complacency.”
Forget complacency. In what’s looking suddenly like a Central Division on steroids, there figures to be lots of NBA competition and more than a few comparisons between Wiggins and Parker in the coming years. This was the start.