It’s very easy to get lost in Las Vegas. Physically, each hotel is like a city itself. You can visit New York, Ancient Rome, and Egypt, all in a day. The distance between the hotel-cities is deceptively far, especially in the sweltering dry heat of Nevada, and the amount of oxygen they’re pumping into every casino floor is enough to inebriate you without the need for any sort of alcoholic beverage. You can get lost mentally, too. Get caught up in the lights, the glamour, the luxury that oozes through the upper-class Vegas residents. You can think you’re a winner, waging and gambling your money away in the 1001 different ways each hotel entices you to do so. You can go watch Usher, David Copperfield, and the Blue Man Group, or eat food served by some of the best chefs in the world. The point is: Vegas is set up to tire you out. To entice you to give in to your desires or to enable you to fully indulge in them.
And in the middle of all of that, basketball is being played.
At face value, it’s easy to look at the NBA’s Summer League, held annually in the place affectionately known as ‘Sin City’, and assume it’s just a trivial showcase meant to give fans a first glimpse at some of the rookies coming into the league or for some of the more seasoned young talent to show off how they’ve developed so far.
But there are real-life implications for all the other players. If you’re not Victor Wembanyama, Jabari Smith Jr, or any other guaranteed-contract hooper, the 2 weeks in Vegas are your opportunity to have the whole basketball world have their eyes on your skills. In my time walking through the halls of the Thomas & Mack Center and gallivanting into the smaller, AAU-like atmosphere of Cox Pavillion, I saw scouts from China, Europe, and South America, all suited with clipboards and pens, hoping to fill out their roster.
It’s easy to get caught up in the do-or-die, thinking that the Summer League is where hoop dreams begin or even expire, but if anything, it’s merely a battling ground to see where you land. An experience to prove to yourself and to others that you belong at the professional level, set in a place that is created to test you at every corner. It’s a daunting task for any player but especially for those who still have an unsure path ahead of them even after the Summer League.
And that’s where stories like J.T. Shumate’s come in.
The Newark, Ohio native was born and raised in a basketball-loving family. 7 children, three of whom are adopted and three who have played or are playing basketball collegiately, including J.T. All of the kids are in sports or a band of some sort.
J.T.’s father, J.R., is a die-hard hoop head. A basketball coach who spends time coaching a few club teams while working as an assistant principal at a local school in Newark. “I really love basketball and I coached basketball. From the time I got out of college until a couple of years ago, I coached high school basketball. So JT, Katie, and Emma are my three basketball players. They spent a lot of time in the gym with me,” J.R. told me just a few days before his son would play in his first-ever professional basketball game.
J.T., the oldest of the three hoopers, had a long and winding path to get to that point. Like many aspiring basketball players, he had a growth spurt in high school that turned him from point guard to big man. And after graduating high school, he spent 5 years playing college ball, two years at Walsh University where he was named G-MAC Freshman of the Year and first-team all-conference before transferring to the University of Toledo. In his 3 seasons playing for the Rockets, Shumate played alongside Washington Wizards guard Ryan Rollins and became one of the most efficient players in the MAC, averaging over 16 points in his senior year, all while playing out of position as a 6-foot-7 center.
“I mean, he started on Hunter Dickinson as you know, in the NIT, but that’s not ideal. That’s not where he should have been. And there just wasn’t anybody else there that could do it any better,” J.R. said, practically laughing to himself on the phone at the idea of his son playing Center.
J.R. is looking forward to his son playing on the wing more as a pro because he wants his son to show off that impressive jump shot. Throughout his journey, throughout his evolution as a player, his father has been there every step of the way. Especially, helping him work on his jumper.
“Sometimes it got really annoying, right?” J.T. said about his workouts with his father as we chatted in the hotel lobby in the Wynn Las Vegas, where the Raptors Summer League practice facility is located. He walked in with a backpack on, wearing Crocs with Spider-man stickers on them, shoes fit perfectly for a hoopers comfort. “He changed my shot a lot, so sometimes I had to just go workshop on my own and find out what works best for me… But then other times I’d seek advice. It’s just a blessing that it worked out the way it did. Because if I didn’t have a dad who was a coach, I probably wouldn’t shoot the way I do and I wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
J.T.’s right. Shumate shot nearly 44% from 3 in his three seasons in Toledo and was one of the best shooters in his conference. But how did that sharpshooting turn into a shot at the NBA?
“I don’t know if I ever knew. There was a time when I thought the NBA was a hope but always because of Jason’s love for basketball, and how much he plays it… But he absolutely thought he could be a pro. I didn’t know if it’d be in the NBA or not,” J.R. told me.
When I finally sat down with J.T. in Vegas, he relayed a similar message. “When I was little, I obviously dreamed about it. And in the back of my mind, I always had this thought ‘Well, man, if I just keep working, maybe I can, maybe I can’t,’” Shumate told me. “But there were definitely times when I was like, yes, it’s probably something happening for me. So to just have faith in my path, and keep working towards it, it’s just an awesome thing to be given these opportunities.”
Shumate’s faith in the process is what ultimately led him to Vegas and onto the Raptors Summer League roster. He participated in workouts for 9 different teams including the Pacers, Lakers, and Nets. Some went great, others, not so much as J.T. told me. Funny enough, he did not work out for the Raptors, but his agent was called up last minute to add him to the roster.
Unfortunately, the Raptors only played 4 games in Vegas thus far, losing all 4 of them and Shumate ended up receiving DNPs in all four. They play a 5th and final consolation game over the weekend where Shumate may finally have some extra run. But, It’s easy to feel demotivated after that. Easy to think that it’s the end of the road. Or to let your mind get lost in a city that wants you to do so. To succumb to the very purposeful test the NBA is throwing at these players by playing these games in Vegas.
“Imagine you’re doing whatever you’re doing when in your environment. Then you realize, okay, yeah, I’m also in this NBA environment, where there are eyes on me all the time. Yeah, it’s just like, I don’t know, it is a test.” Shumate told me after detailing all the crazy things he’s seen in his few weeks in Vegas. “But most of these most of these guys are so focused on what they need to be doing. It’s not that big of a deal.”
It’s still a challenge, nonetheless. And not one that every player passes with flying colors. Shumate has remained professional throughout his time in Vegas, training at Impact Sports alongside other pros, and spending most of his days off watching Netflix (trying to get into Peaky Blinders). He’s been listening to Jhene Aiko while at the pool whenever he gets a chance to unwind. Meanwhile, on the sidelines, he’s been as energetic of a teammate as ever, supporting them when they score and listening in on every huddle.
“I’ve just always been about winning since I started playing basketball like I don’t, I don’t really care how many times I shoot or how many or what position I’m even thrown into…So always my kind of motto is whatever I need to do to win,” said Shumate, who has the Will Ferrell quote “Everybody Love Everybody” in his Instagram bio. Somewhat fitting for the type of happy-go-lucky character he is.
And throughout the time I spent with J.T., he continued to reiterate to me how blessed he was to even be given the opportunity to be on a roster. How excited he was just to be there, embracing it all. There’s something freeing about knowing you’ve done all you can to get to a certain moment in your life. I got that sensation from J.T. when I was talking to him. It’s like he knew that all he could control he did and all that’s left is out of his hands, for the most part. But how does he do it?
“The work has been put in, it’s not really any. It’s not anything that’s in my control anymore. It’s kind of a freeing feeling because it’s like, it’s everything that I’ve needed to do to this point has been done.” Shumate said about reaching this point in his career. “But I feel like friends and family are the main reason why that’s daunting because they want to know where I’m going to be at, what I’m going to be doing…I’m going to play basketball. But I don’t know where.”
J.T.’s journey is far from over. His agent is already in contact with teams in Europe that are hoping to bring him into the fold next season. But his journey is an insight into the psyche of a basketball player competing in the Summer League. How it can represent an important moment in any player’s career but rarely, if ever signifies the beginning or the end of it.
In its simplest form, the Summer League embodies a sort of checkpoint in the pursuit of a dream. That moment in any video game when it auto-saves because you’ve reached the conclusion of a chapter. At first, you fall in love with the process of self-improvement, learning to fail and succeed through years of development, all in the name of reaching that end goal, the endgame. For every basketball player that endgame will be different. Having a good head on your shoulders and a loving family like J.T. only helps stabilize you in moments of doubt. But being able to reach it? Being able to actualize whatever picture it is you have in your head of the meaning of success? That is entirely up to you.
If the walls of the Thomas & Mack Center could talk, there would be thousands of stories like J.T’s. Hoop dreams from players who came to Vegas experienced it and went on to have long professional careers in basketball because of it. Players who reached their eventual endgame. What will J.T.’s be? That is entirely up to him.
I asked him if he had any thoughts on what life would be like after basketball. He mentioned teaching as an option. We both shared a moment, discussing how our parent’s own careers as teachers helped shape the people we’ve become.
He smiled afterward and said…
“But not yet … I’ve got to see this through.”
And he will.