The basketball world is gathering in Las Vegas starting this weekend for the annual NBA Summer League. The league offers fans the opportunity to see their teams’ new draft picks in action and it also gives athletes a chance to impress teams, both in the NBA and across the world.
As I detailed earlier this week, two former Huskers will be playing in the league this year — Isaiah Roby and James Palmer Jr. Summer League is the first step toward earning a contract and a rotation spot for second-round picks like Roby, and if he’s able to do that it will be a big win not only for Roby himself, but for the Nebraska basketball program as well.
Last week, I talked to 2022 Millard North forward Jasen Green about his offer from Nebraska, his first scholarship offer. He mentioned he was excited about the offer in large part because scholarship offers are the first step towards reaching the NBA, which has been his dream ever since he first picked up a basketball.
Green isn’t unique in that regard; now more than ever, the ability to get players into the league is as powerful a recruiting tool as there is for coaches. Every time a player’s alma mater gets referenced during an NBA broadcast, it’s an advertisement for that program.
Fred Hoiberg never got to the point at Iowa State where he was recruiting sure-fire NBA players, one-and-done or otherwise. His recruiting improved throughout his five season in Ames, but he still only had one first-round draft pick come out of his program — Royce White. What he did have, however, is a handful of second-round picks and undrafted free agents that have earned their way into the NBA.
The Vegas Summer League doesn’t begin until Friday afternoon, but there are two other mini-summer leagues that have already been completed — the California Classic hosted by the Sacramento Kings and the Salt Lake City Summer league hosted by the Utah Jazz. One of Hoiberg’s former players, Naz Mitrou-Long, made a good impression during his three games with the Cavs.
Mitrou-Long, a 6-foot-4 guard who went undrafted out of Iowa State in 2017, was more of a 3-point specialist in college but has worked to expand his game over the last couple of years. He spent the last two years with the Utah Jazz, playing in 15 games including 14 last season. Mitrou-Long only shot 5-of-15 from 3 in Salt Lake but still averaged 15.0 points (fifth-highest), 4.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists for the Cavaliers.
Even better, during the game between the Cavs and Jazz, former Iowa State and current Jazz forward Georges Niang joined the broadcast crew for a segment. Utah took Niang with the 50th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. He played a total of 125 minutes during his first two seasons, but earned a role with the Jazz last season, averaging just under nine minutes per game off the bench in 59 games. More pub for the Cyclones.
Deonte Burton and Abdel Nader were both with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. Nader has another year on his contract, though it is not guaranteed. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics but traded to the Thunder and appeared in 61 games last season. Burton was signed to a two-way contract last year that got converted into a regular contract, and he’s set to participate in the Vegas Summer League with the Thunder after playing in 31 games during his rookie NBA season.
Monte Morris was the 51st pick in the 2017 draft by the Denver Nuggets. He originally signed a two-way contract and only played in three games as a rookie, but he signed a multiyear deal with the Nuggets last offseason and grew into an important rotation piece for Denver.
The latest Fred Hoiberg product to make his way to the NBA is sharp-shooter Matt Thomas. The 6-foot-4 guard went undrafted in 2017 and played in the Summer League with the Los Angeles Lakers before signing with a Spanish club. After a strong season overseas, the Toronto Raptors signed Thomas to a three-year deal and he will participate in Summer League with the Raptors.
That’s six players that Hoiberg coached at Iowa State who are in the NBA, and that doesn’t include White who was taken with the 16th pick in the 2012 draft and washed out of the league for non-basketball reasons. Hoiberg can use all of that out on the recruiting trail, and now he has his time as a head coach in the league in addition to his past experience as a player and front office member as even more ammunition.
Roby broke down a big barrier for the Huskers by ending Nebraska’s 20-year draft drought. Though Hoiberg didn’t actually coach him outside of a few spring workouts, any time Roby sees the court during a Mavericks game it will help Hoiberg as he looks to get the Nebraska program on track.
If Hoiberg is able to replicate or even surpass in Lincoln what he was able to do in Ames, we’ll be seeing a lot more Huskers on the big stage of Vegas in the coming years.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.