Raptors' Markquis Nowell makes one thing clear at Summer League: Prepare to be entertained

"I like entertaining, I like winning, and I work so hard at it that I feel like I could do pretty much anything on the court."

LAS VEGAS — It can be a small miracle to make sense of a Summer League floor.

The action is fast, the passing comes closer to cannonball than heat-seeking precision, communication ranges from cacophony to crickets — all to say it isn’t the most beautiful of basketball. The why of it varies.

Rosters only have a few days leading up to games to, in many cases, meet each other for the first time and then go about sorting roles on the court. For recent draft picks, there’s an adjustment period in spacing and one’s own awareness within that space from a college to an NBA court.

It is, at its frenetic heart, showcase basketball. The point is to stand out.

Markquis Nowell made a strong impression with the Raptors at Summer League in Las Vegas.(Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

For many athletes tapped to play in Las Vegas, Summer League is the biggest stage they’ll play on and even if they’re wearing casual shorts and t-shirts, chatting up agents with half an eye on the action, there are still GMs sitting and watching in the stands.

Because of all that, Summer League is also for bright spots. For the rare phenomena of a game slowing down and a floor, for a few minutes, making sense. In his four-game debut with the Toronto Raptors, Markquis Nowell took to the court like a ferocious auditor and never let up.

"It feels like a puzzle," Nowell told Yahoo Sports after the Raptors fell to Cleveland in their second matchup of the tournament. "When you’re scattering all the different puzzle pieces, and you find the one that fits the puzzle and fits perfectly, that’s kind of how it feels whenever I’m making a play out there."

On court, Nowell is a gunning engine, all self-made energy that comes peeling off him and goes crackling onto his teammates. He talks, he motions with his hands to direct, as happy to kick the ball out and back on a drive for an assist on a three as he is to lob it up from the lane for someone else to convert to a dunk. Part of Nowell’s knack for organization comes in the unselfish way he plays basketball, preferring to give up the shot if he sees a better fit for a teammate.

"I like to get people organized so that I can scan my options out there," he said. "I know where guys are supposed to be and where their strong suits are, so I just try to get them in their best position and try to make everybody happy.

"I like getting assists," Nowell continued, smiling. "I like getting people involved, because it doesn’t only make myself happy, but makes other people happy. I’m just out there trying to have fun and win some games."

The Raptors didn’t come away with too many wins in Vegas, but Nowell, alongside Toronto’s first-round pick Gradey Dick and second-year Summer League vet Ron Harper Jr., looked at home and happy every time he hit the floor. You only have to glance at Nowell’s long list of honours and highlights at Kansas State to grasp the kind of competitor he is, and while that comes out even in lopsided games, it was his balanced perspective that probably pushed the Raptors into signing him.

When Nowell talks about basketball it’s clear he knows how to slow the game down. Even in a chaotic, post-game tunnel that connects the arenas at Summer League’s UNLV compound, where media swirls, NBA stars arrive and every other second has someone rushing by or calling for something, Nowell is quiet and considerate.

"I'm trying to play chess out there," Nowell said of his individual approach. "Whatever the defence tries to take away, or tries to force me into, I use it against them. And I use my teammates around me to help use it against them."

Beyond striving for balance on the floor, other words Nowell used often to describe the way he likes to play were "fun" and "entertainment." For some, this just comes in watching a 5-foot-7 guard go barrelling down the floor to make a basket that looks, by virtue of Nowell’s stature compared to everyone else around him, like pure acrobatics.

For Toronto, scouting Nowell, a New York City native who cut his teeth in brash, flashy runs at Rucker Park and transferred to Manhattan, Kansas to blow the roof off Bramlage Coliseum, the knack for entertaining basketball was likely as important as his athleticism and drive.

The Raptors, more now than they were when they picked Nowell up after he went undrafted, are facing a season that looks wildly different than the one they left behind. Part of that, led by an almost entirely new coaching staff, is by design, but some is out of error.

Whether it was a tough conceit or a misread of the circumstances that had their last undrafted player turned franchise cornerstone, Fred VanVleet, signing a new deal with Houston, the Raptors have another difficult decision ahead in how they’ll move forward — notably with or without Pascal Siakam. The value of entertainment — and a return to player development — amidst all that upheaval can’t really be understated.

None of that does or should fall directly on Nowell’s shoulders, but as someone who considers himself a "reflector," it’s likely to be on his mind, along with everything he took from Summer League.

"I was always like that since I was a kid. Just the way I grew up, I tend to reflect. I try to stay focused," he said. "I don’t try to get too high, don’t try to get too low, but stay focused and even-keeled. When the time comes, and I have some down time, I try to reflect on the good and the bad."

Within the small sample size that Vegas gave him, there was a lot of good. Over the four games he played, Nowell led the team in total assists with a whopping 27 (or 6.8 per game), often one of the obvious elements that kept everyone involved and disconnected games from going completely off the rails. He also averaged 12 points per game, with a steal per game and two pretty emphatic blocks.

"When I'm in the moment I try to stay in the moment, have fun in it and cherish it, because all this is a journey and a process," he said. "I'm trying to get my feet wet in the NBA and stay here."

Though his time in Toronto immediately after the NBA Draft was short, Nowell says he can’t wait to get back. He’s heard a lot about the food and how much fun it is to be in the city in the summertime. While he’s likely to be a mainstay with the 905, if the Raptors re-activate the once flourishing pipeline between the two teams and Nowell sees minutes at Scotiabank Arena, he’s likely to become a fast fan favourite.

And not just because of his resemblance to (and recent advice he received from) another small guard in former Raptors star Muggsy Bogues, but in how he works the floor.

"I don’t know what comes out of me when I'm on the floor, but it’s a totally different person," Nowell said. "I feel like that’s when I can be an artist. I can do whatever I want out there, paint my own canvas.

"I love playing the game of basketball, but I love doing it my way. I like entertaining, I like winning, and I work so hard at it that I feel like I could do pretty much anything on the court."