AUGUSTA — T.J. Maines knows how important the summer can be for building a basketball team. The Cony High School boys coach saw it for himself.

Maines had a Rams team last year that was high on energy but low on size. So he came up with an idea. Five-at-a-time substitutions. Full-court presses. A barrage of 3-point shots.

He had the plan, and with the Cony summer league, he had the sandbox necessary in which to see if it could work.

“We started doing it, and that’s where I figured out kids had bought in, fun as heck, guys liked it, they’re jacking up shots, it bothered other teams. And that’s where I was like ‘This is it for us. We hit on something,’ ” he said. “Without that opportunity to do it in the summer league, it would have been way more of a risk and a gamble to start the season off.”

And there lies the value of the summer league, which gives varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams at schools around the area an early chance to play each other in an extensive slate of competitive scrimmages — games in which the score is kept but takes a backseat to teaching and player development.

The benefits for the 36-team league are two-fold; coaches get to try out schemes and players in new positions, getting a consequence-free chance to see what works and what doesn’t, and new or up-and-coming players get an early look at the sort of competition they’ll need to handle in the winter months.

“Summer’s about preparing kids for the winter. It’s about getting better,” Skowhegan coach Tom Nadeau said. “We’re rotating kids in and out, learning to compete, learning to adjust. I’ve got young kids coming in that need to adjust to the speed and physicality of the game. … This allows kids to develop confidence and expand their roles.”

And they do it against a competitive backdrop. It’s the middle of July, but the final minute of a game can take on the intensity of one in the middle of January. The final score doesn’t matter, but watch players in mismatched jerseys lead a break in transition or a coach signal frantically at the start of a defensive series, and it becomes clear that the games do.

“It really gives you a chance to see all your kids in the program. (You’re) playing to win, but you play an awful lot of kids,” Gardiner coach Jason Cassidy said. “You see a lot of the situations you’ll see in the season. … (And) you’re seeing how they react in those situations.”

At the core of the league are the young players — freshmen who are getting their first look at the varsity pace and sophomores who are preparing to handle bigger roles after playing sparingly or not at all in their first seasons. Some of these players turn out to be finds; Messalonskee freshman Matt Parent was being looked at as a swing player, but Eagles coach Pete McLaughlin said he’s had to re-evaluate since Parent has come into the league and been regularly scoring in the mid-teens.

“When Matty came in he was … a varsity player, probably, because of his shooting capability,” McLaughlin said. “But we started to see his decision-making. You see zones, you see traps, and understanding his basketball I.Q., it’s almost on steroids for a summer because of the intensity level we’re able to have.”

While Parent’s made a lasting impact, he acknowledged that it hasn’t been easy, and that seeing the play in the league has been an eye-opening reminder of the challenges that wait in the winter.

“It’s definitely a lot faster-paced, and all of these players are a lot bigger than players I’m used to playing against,” Parent said. “It’s been a jump. Going from middle school to high school, everybody’s about four inches taller, 50 more pounds. It’s a big difference.”

Players also get a head start on becoming acclimated with their teammates. Even the established senior starters turn out for the summer, and the newcomers get an early chance to get a sort of on-court bond going with them.

“I think it’s very important, because you’ve got to get chemistry with this team and start playing with this team,” Maranacook freshman Cash McClure said. “It’s not just a luxury just to be here. You’ve got to work hard and you still try to win.”

It’s a two-way street; young players learn to play with the veterans, and the veterans get to see what they have in their new teammates.

“It’s where the chemistry starts so we don’t have to work on it during the season,” Skowhegan senior Cole Pierce said. “It can already be a foundation for more to build (upon).”

Summer play can be just as big a boon for the coaches, however. Each one has his own objective. Nadeau said he looks for hustle and effort from his players. Maines said he focuses on skill development for his. And Monmouth’s Wade Morrill uses the games as a chance to try sets, schemes and strategies against teams from schools that can be twice or three times the size of his own.

“For us, it’s all about coming here and competing against kids who are used to competing at a higher level,” said Morrill, whose 214-student school played 674-student Lawrence on Wednesday. “That’s exactly why we’re here. I never liked playing against schools I see in a season in the summertime. I’d rather play up. If the Boston Celtics would let us come to their practice and play them, I’d go up and down with them.

“It speeds us up, it makes us uncomfortable. And you only get better when you’re uncomfortable.”

It’s also a chance for trial and error, the kind of opportunity that becomes rare during the regular season. Teams are free to try that new fast break, or that point guard in the shooting guard spot, or that taller guard as a forward. Sometimes, as Maines saw last year, it works. And other times, it doesn’t.

But there’s no harm in trying.

“There are no Heal points given out in the summer,” Winthrop coach Todd MacArthur said. “You have opportunities as a coach to experiment and try things out that may fail. And it’s okay. If it fails, you lose a summer league game. That’s what this is for.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM