July 22, 2014
By Ben Standig
Special to Georgetown Athletics
Is this the Kenner League in Las Vegas? No, but those taking a casual look or quick glance at the NBA summer league last Tuesday may have wondered such things.
Austin Freeman, Chris Wright, Otto Porter Jr. and Markel Starks are at different stages of their professional basketball careers, but last week, the former Hoyas were all at the exact same spot, geographically speaking.
The quartet showed up on the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus, the annual site for one the NBA's two summer showcases for incoming rookies like Starks; prospects still learning their way in the professional world like Porter; and veterans seeking a chance to play before decision makers from teams all over the world.
The event involving 24 NBA teams takes place at two venues on the UNLV campus, including the Thomas & Mack Center. Over a span of three games on Tuesday, the former Hoyas all took their dreams onto the same court.
One of the matchups pitted the Chicago Bulls versus the Minnesota Timberwolves. More specifically, it meant Freeman vs. Starks.
"It was good. It was light (hearted) a little bit, but you have to be serious," Starks said in a cramped hallway outside Minnesota's locker room. "It was good to be out there with Free."
The ex-Georgetown teammates took turns guarding each other in the fourth quarter. That scenario played out countless times over the years on the Hilltop during Georgetown practices, inside gyms or outdoors on asphalt all over the D.C. area growing up. This time, onlookers included those who determine rosters and sign checks.
"Since we've been young, [Austin and Chris] have always been two of the top [D.C. area players], along with myself," said Starks, who entered Georgetown when Freeman and Wright were rock star seniors. "Now for all of us to finally be here at this stage, it's pretty remarkable. We all have dreams. To see it all unfold here on a big stage is pretty remarkable."
After graduating in 2011, Freeman's basketball life has largely taken place overseas including stops in Italy and Israel. The shooting guard with a scorer's knack returned stateside this past season as a member of the NBA Developmental League's Iowa Energy.
That served as step one in the hopes receiving an invitation to an NBA training camp this fall. Next, produce in the summer league. Playing on a Bulls team with reigning BIG EAST Player of the Year Doug McDermott, Freeman averaged eight points and 18 minutes during Chicago's first three games. He scored 14 points against Wright's Denver Nuggets squad on June 13, sinking 4-of-6 from beyond the 3-point arc.
"It's actually been a really good process this year," Freeman said. "Get some minutes, actually showcase my talent against some of the top guys coming out of the draft this year and some guys that play professional."
Starks entered the working world after finishing his senior season with the Hoyas. The 6-foot-2 guard earned All-BIG EAST First Team honors in 2013-14, averaging 17.3 ppg. He followed that up with plenty of pre-draft work, shining in the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational, starring in a college All-Star game and trekking coast-to-coast for one team workout after another. All that hustle put Starks in the mix for the two-round draft, but didn't lead to him hearing his name called on draft night. It also didn't lead to the fiery competitor from slowing down. Not many players participate in both the Orlando and Las Vegas summer leagues, but Starks did just that, one right after the other.
"When I say I haven't had a week off, I haven't had a week off," cracked Starks, who is trying to work out in his head why he wasn't drafted while working out for the Timberwolves and in front of the other 29 teams.
"I went to the necessary camps; I went to the necessary workouts. Anytime I had the chance, I wanted to show what I could do," Starks said. "Obviously, college wasn't enough. The college all-star game was great. The Portsmouth Invitational, my team workouts. I've really proven myself that I can play at this level. I wasn't highly regarded. If I didn't go to Portsmouth and did what I did, I wouldn't be here."
Starks paced Minnesota with five assists vs. Freeman's Bulls.
"Just moving forward, I'm thankful for the opportunity. Hopefully I can impress some people and hopefully make a team," Starks said.
Making a team isn't the issue for Porter, the third overall pick by the Washington Wizards in 2013 and the only one of the four to be selected in the NBA Draft. Despite that lofty status, the Missouri native didn't have much of a chance to show what he could do as a rookie.
After missing time with a hip injury suffered before training camp and then stuck behind veterans Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster on the depth chart, Porter played in only 37 games, averaging 2.1 ppg. When the small forward with the high basketball IQ and scoring touch did play, he rarely showed the confidence or the form that led him to being named BIG EAST Player of the Year as a sophomore.
That inactivity led to significant interest regarding the small forward's opportunity this summer in Las Vegas, especially since an injury truncated his summer league activity last year.
Porter grabbed the chance from the start. He scored 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting in Washington's 90-74 win over the Atlanta Hawks on July 12. The last time he tallied at least 25 points in a game came as a Hoya against Rutgers in March 2013.
"It shows what hard work does. It pays off," Wizards summer league coach Sam Cassell said. "(In the) second half, I told Otto I don't care how many shots you miss. I just want you to put J's up. He played well."
Porter didn't slow down as he led the Wizards to three-straight wins thanks to a confident brand of all-court basketball not seen since his college days. As Freeman and Starks exited the Thomas & Mack court on Tuesday, Porter stepped on and eventually scored 19 points in a victory over the Miami Heat.
"Otto's doing well for himself. Otto knows how to play the game of basketball," Cassell said. "It's all about confidence. This league is 80 percent confidence; if you got confidence you'll be successful."
Knowing that opportunity for minutes exists this coming season helps with the swagger.
Webster might miss the start of the regular season after back surgery. After Ariza signed with the Houston Rockets in free agency, the Wizards signed 36-year-old Paul Pierce. The future Hall of Fame forward remains a potent threat, but no longer plays heavy minutes each game.
"It definitely boosts your confidence," Porter said of expectations for a larger role in the regular season. "My job is to come here, work better and play hard." Wright capped the Georgetown tripleheader as the Nuggets faced the Utah Jazz. The point guard, who was previously diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, did so with his usual brand of energetic, all-guts brand of basketball.
In this particular matchup against the Jazz, Wright clicked as a passer, leading Denver in assists and then had eight in a 28-point win over the Toronto Raptors on June 12.
Perhaps his performance in Las Vegas helps Wright hit the professional basketball jackpot, a spot in the NBA. He experienced that life once before with a brief three-game stint with the Dallas Mavericks during the 2012-13 season. If not, the overseas game awaits.
Rest awaited Freeman after finishing his game against Starks on Tuesday. Rather than return to his hotel room, he stuck around the Thomas & Mack for more basketball. Nestled into an aisle seat a couple of rows behind one of the team benches, Freeman stayed to watch Porter's confidence grow. He stayed to watch Wright battle. He stayed to watch fellow dreamers dream.
"Of course I'm still here," said Freeman, his head turning in the direction of Wright, whose powerful frame and quick feet were headed down the court with the ball in hand. "That's my guy."