The NBA's Summer League -- in progress from now until July 21 -- is something of a cruel tease that only roughly approximates a proper NBA game. Less than a month after we've been treated to the Finals, the annual collision of the two best teams in the league, and suddenly the only NBA action is taking place in the morning, in front of sparse hundreds of fans, with games lasting only 40 minutes.
Any remotely established NBA veteran is entirely free from the obligations of Summer League. The Summer League is the domain of new draft picks, second- and third-year players on the shaky fringes of NBA rosters, and -- well outnumbering everybody else combined -- undrafted guys playing on contracts that only last the length of the Summer League's schedule.
While the Summer League is a dead spot in the NBA calendar for a casual fan, it's a time of utmost importance for the fringe players who had been toiling during the season for NBDL or European teams. For them, the Summer League is not about loyalty -- plenty of players play for one organization in the first session in Orlando, and then play for a second organization during the second session in Las Vegas -- but about putting a good performance on tape for all 30 teams to see.
Here are five undrafted players who nailed their auditions last year, players who performed who well last July that they received a spot on a real-live NBA team all season long:
The speedy Buycks left Marquette University after his sophomore year and went on a sojourn to the leagues in Belgium and France. 2013 was his second go-round at the Summer League, but the Raptors were the first team to give him enough run to show his gifts. Buycks averaged 34.2 minutes and 18.3 points per game for the Raptors' Summer League team and was promptly signed to a two-year, $1.5M contract.
Buycks rarely got off the bench for the playoff-bound Raptors last season, appearing in only 14 regular season games, and not at all in Toronto's playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets. While Buycks remains on Toronto's roster, his contract comes with a crucial clause -- the second year is only guaranteed if he is on the Raptors' roster on this July 22. That means that, during this year's Summer League, Buycks is auditioning for his roster spot all over again.
2. Phil Pressey
2013 Summer League Team: Boston Celtics
2013-14 NBA Team: Boston Celtics
One can basically imagine grizzled NBA scouts dismissing Pressey from boardrooms around the whole nation on account of Pressey's diminutive 5'11" stature. While Pressey's inaccurate jump shot is dangerously counterproductive to his NBA career -- he had a 30.8 FG% last season -- his brilliant passing is electrifying to watch. Pressey's 2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio was the kind of on-ball responsibility usually only shown by veterans, and he firmly held down his position as Boston's back-up PG all season, appearing in 75 games.
Much like Buycks' contract, Pressey's three-year deal has deadlines for guarantees that land right in the middle of this year's Summer League.
3. Ian Clark
Clark's twelve-game Summer League journey last summer ended in triumph, as he was nominated MVP of the Las Vegas championship game. While that sterling performance probably went a long way in securing Clark's contract with the Jazz, it didn't help him secure playing time once he got there, as Clark appeared in just 23 games for Utah.
The second year of Clark's two-year contract only becomes guaranteed if -- surely the theme is developing -- he remains on Utah's roster after August 1.
2013 Summer League Teams: Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns
2013-14 NBA Team: Phoenix Suns
There might be a lump of coal in your ribcage if Christmas' unlikely career path doesn't inspire you. 2013 was Dionte's fourth year playing in the Summer League, coming in between seasons spent in Israel, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Greece, Russia, and Italy.
Finally, at 27 years old, Christmas got signed to an NBA roster and stayed there all year, for a playoff team, with no trips down to the NBDL. Christmas will be back for his fifth Summer League go-round, with next year's contract unguaranteed completely.
Playing 22.6 minutes per game over 77 games, Thompson got some of the most time on NBA hardwood out of anybody vying for a spot during last year's Summer League. While Thompson got those minutes as a member of the much-critiqued 76ers, he also showcased a top-tier shooting stroke, making 40.1% of his 3-point attempts.
While the future years are not guaranteed, the Sixers made the unique move of giving Thompson a four-year contract, although who knows if he'll actually stay in Philadelphia through 2017.