Sunday Musings: Summer League ends as reality sets in for NBA hopefuls

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LAS VEGAS - The Sacramento Kings ended their Summer League adventure with a resounding victory Friday afternoon over the Atlanta Hawks.  It was fun and entertaining and in the end, a group of players walked off the court smiling, wondering if they will ever suit up in an NBA uniform ever again.

It is the harsh reality of Summer League.  Young men from all over the world jump at the chance to play in the sweltering heat of Las Vegas or Orlando, each with a dream that they will do enough to earn an invitation to training camp or even better – an NBA contract.

For most it is a pipe dream.

We have spoken about David Lighty in the past.  He is a jack-of-all-trades wing who can defend three positions, handle the ball and when called upon, score.  It just so happened that the Kings brought the former Buckeye star onto the roster during Summer League, giving us an opportunity to take a good look at a player known for his unselfish approach to the game.

When we began chatting, I shared with him what I call the “David Lighty Theory“.  To my surprise, a friend of his had sent him a link early that day, which made for a good ice breaker.

For teams like Sacramento, it’s not about a player like Lighty.  They bring their highly touted draft picks like Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum.  The entire team is designed around these prospects with the hopes that they will gain a little bit of experience before camp opens in October.  It is a painful exercise in carrot dangling and there are plenty willing to chase the stick.

“That’s the toughest thing,” Lighty told Cowbell Kingdom following the Kings’ final Summer League game.  “Especially with Summer League.  Guys have draft picks, guys have players that are on the team already and they are trying to develop them.  A guy like me, you want to make a mark on the game of course, but the first way to do that is with scoring.  But they are going to go with those players first.”

Lighty understands the game.  It is the same game he played as part of a freshman class at Ohio State that included Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook.  If he wanted to see the court, he had to do the jobs that no one else wanted.  And he accepted those roles with open arms.

Those four freshman lost to the Florida Gators 85-74 in the 2006-07 NCAA Championship game.  The other three went on to the NBA, while Lighty went undrafted and played the last two seasons in Europe.

In the final game in Las Vegas, Lighty went for the win, like he did in his college career.  Knowing that his young team needed a scoring punch, the typically reserved 25-year old put up 16 points on 8-for-9 shooting in 20 minutes of action off the Kings bench.

“For me, I just try to go out and just try to win,” Lighty said.  “Nobody, at the end of the day, remembers people who lose.  For me, that’s anything.  Playing defense, hitting open shots, taking a charge, setting screens, whatever it takes.  I’m all about winning.”

Unfortunately, scoring is what most folks look for when judging an NBA player.  A player like Lighty is perhaps too unselfish and in the end, it may be the reason he never makes an appearance in a regular season NBA game.

“It’s hard to come in and get those 15 points (when plays aren’t being run for you) and things like that,” Lighty said.  “But if I do that, I’m probably 100-percent sure I’ll get a better shot at getting on a team.  But the coach asked me to do different things, so I say that if I’m doing what the coach wants, how can they not look at me?”

The NBA doesn’t value role players like it should, especially not at draft time.  Lighty has had to go to great lengths to show that he is an NBA player and Las Vegas was just another stage.  The question remains though – did he do enough to convince league evaluators that he is one of the best 450 players in the world?

Lighty hopes to get to the NBA the old fashion way – with hard work, leadership and dedication.  But he can’t wait much longer. After an impressive season last year in France, which included a Euroleague title, Lighty has to make an agonizing decision.

“It’s definitely tough,” Lighty said.  “Hard doesn’t even describe it, because my dream is to be in the NBA, but if that doesn’t work out and a (potential contract) isn’t guaranteed, I could be passing up great opportunities overseas right now with Euroleague teams coming after me.”

He has a week or two to wait for that NBA contract to come to fruition.  After that, he has to consider all options.  Will he gamble away big Euroleague dollars for a training camp invite?  Can he afford to play for the low paying D-League?

These are the tough decisions that few players will face coming out of Las Vegas.  Sadly, Lighty is one of the lucky ones.  He has built a reputation overseas that will allow him to continue his dream of playing professional basketball.  He may not make it to the NBA this time, but that doesn’t mean that his dream is over.

For so many others, this is the end of the line.  The D-League will snatch up a few of these players, but they can only take so many.  For the rest, they will forever remember that summer where they played briefly in the NBA.

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About: James Ham

James Ham provides coverage through news analysis and in-depth interviews with Kings players and staff. James is also one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary "Small Market, Big Heart". James graduated UC Davis with a degree in history and is happily married with two children.