Andy Larsen: Utah’s pro-am Powder League was a joy to watch

Salt Lake City’s Powder League’s showcase shows off NBA stars in an up close and personal setting.

(Andy Larsen | The Salt Lake Tribune) Washington Wizards and former University of Utah forward Kyle Kuzma takes a photo with a fan at the pro-am Powder League's showcase game, Tuesday, Aug 9, 2022, in Salt Lake City.

There was, oh, I don’t know, about half a billion dollars of basketball talent at Highland High on Tuesday night. Thanks to the magic of pro-am basketball, four NBA players played nearly 40 minutes against each other in front of about 1,000 fans on the east side of Salt Lake City.

Former Ute Delon Wright just signed a $16 million deal with the Wizards. Kyle Kuzma is on a $40 million deal with Washington as well. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, meanwhile, signed a two-year deal with the Denver Nuggets for $30 million.

But the biggest star was Toronto’s Rookie of the Year, Scottie Barnes. Barnes is, naturally, still on his rookie deal. But he’s so promising that the Raptors are holding back on trading him in exchange for Kevin Durant.

Kevin Durant!

If the NBA’s rules allowed him to sign a deal now, you bet it’d be a max deal, worth in the neighborhood of $200 million. And what if basketball’s contracts were of unlimited length, like baseball’s? The Raptors would love to lock Barnes up for the rest of his career, and sign him to something worth $400 million over 10 years.

How in the world did this talent descend on Highland High? Well, it’s the Powder League.

The Powder League is Utah’s answer to the Los Angeles-based Drew League, or Miami’s Pro League. Essentially, it’s a league set up to present a competitive environment for Utah’s now-professional overseas basketball players and college basketball players to play high-level hoops during the summer.

It was founded three years ago by friends Keegan Rembacz and Neema Namdar, who had connections in the Utah basketball community. They knew Utah was a basketball-loving state, and that there was demand among its players for a pro-am league answer to play better basketball than what they could get at pickup runs at Lifetime Fitness or the like.

This year, about 20 teams signed up to play, but the league only had room for nine. As a result, a new rule was established: You have to have Division 1 college experience to play in the Powder League. Play started at the beginning of June, and a champion was crowned at the end of August.

In the end, Team Joyce won the championship game, led by Namdar (who plays pro ball in Brazil), along with UVU’s Connor Harding and Blaze Nield. They defeated Team Berger, led by Utah State University’s Rylan Jones, former USU player (and Jazz summer-league invitee) Spencer Butterfield, and Brandon Sly (who played last season in Romania). Team Joyce also had six games of former BYU center Yoeli Childs, though Childs didn’t play in the championship game.

The Powder League chose some of its best players to play in the showcase game — the one in which the NBA’s stars would play on Tuesday night. Kuzma and Wright have obvious Utah ties, while old Jazzman and former Wizard Raul Neto chose to attend, but not participate. Caldwell-Pope is friends with his Wizards teammates. Barnes, meanwhile, is a friend of a player in the league. Of course, the opportunity to compete against real NBA stars was a highlight for everyone, regardless of resume.

And boy, did the NBA stars ever make it worth their while. Walking inside Highland’s gym, I figured we’d see limited action from the NBA players. They’d largely sit on the bench, or hang out with friends, or just get some shots up. After all, too much was at stake — their upcoming NBA seasons, or those half-billion dollars.

Nope. The teams were established: Kuzma and Wright would take on Caldwell-Pope and Barnes, with six of the Powder League’s best joining them. On the showcase game’s first play, the Barnes isolated against Hunter Erickson, the former BYU player who just transferred to Salt Lake Community College. Erickson fouled Barnes to prevent the layup, sending the NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year to the deck.

Oh, it’s going to be like that, is it?

The game belonged mostly to Kuzma, who scored a whopping 67 points, adding 14 rebounds and 10 assists while playing all but about two minutes of the contest, which featured four quarters of 10 minutes each. Kuzma showed off an impressive array of stepback 3s and powerful drives to the hoop, most of which the pro-am players couldn’t, or didn’t dare, to stop.

Teammate Wright was more laid-back, but ended up scoring 20 points, including the eventual game-winning basket, and added 10 assists. For the other team, Caldwell-Pope scored 40, with seven rebounds, six assists, and four steals. Barnes did lower the motor a little bit, but ended with 35 points, 15 rebounds, and 13 assists. Full stats are available online.

There was, as you can imagine, no shortage of highlight-reel dunks and crossovers. I tweeted out the first clip of this video below featuring a Barnes dunk, and found dozens of Raptors fans in my mentions, salivating for Barnes to rejoin his team in Toronto for his second season. (Raptors fans: you have a special one. Barnes was relatively quiet in demeanor during his time on the court, but his body’s frame is so wide, his arms so long, his athleticism perfectly utilized. He’s going to be incredible.)

The whole event had a very authentic feel. Tickets were sold at a folding table in the hallway leading up to the arena; a portion of the proceeds went to the Utah Foster Care Foundation. Hip-hop played throughout the game, nonstop. An MC was on hand to call play-by-play while walking around the arena. The term “pro-am” also applied to the media covering the event: Dozens of photographers, professional and otherwise, crowded along the baseline to get their clips and photos for social media outlets big and small.

And at the end of the game, the crowd poured onto the court, getting selfies and autographs from the players involved for nearly an hour.

The event exceeded my expectations, by a long shot. But that’s because, in the end, it didn’t try to be more than it truly was. Tuesday’s game at Highland High was simple: It was friends putting together a run with the best basketball players they know, and inviting everyone who wants to watch to come through.

Not every such game has real NBA stars. But this one did — and it was a joy to witness.