Summer League is a ton of fun. Diehard fans from across the league converge on Las Vegas to give an enthusiastic welcome to their teams’ latest 1st Round picks, in a convention-style atmosphere that brings every component of the basketball world to the same place. You’re just as likely to stand behind a current or former NBA player/coach in line to get a beer & hot dog as a fellow fan. Last year, I got to shake Nick Van Exel’s hand and tell him that he was my favorite player growing up before scurrying away in starstruck embarrassment. I laughed as I listened to an overzealous Toronto Raptors fan sing “I’m In Love With Caboclo” at the top of his lungs to the tune of the O.T. Genasis hit “CoCo” until the perpetually two-years-away-from-being-two-years-away Bruno Caboclo acknowledged him with a laugh. How often do you get to watch games with the fans of dozen different teams who are so rabid that they know pretty much every player on YOUR team’s’ roster? This environment, combined with getting together with friends, both old and new, amidst the usual fuckery of Vegas makes Summer League a necessary pilgrimage for any hardcore fan.
But how much does the basketball matter?
Lonzo Ball & the Rookie Class
Lonzo Ball will surely be greeted with raucous enthusiasm as he makes his Lakers debut on Friday night, as the purple & gold take on the Clippers at 5:30pm PST, with no less than face of the franchise expectations and a stacked supporting cast. Lonzo has doubled down on this hype, expecting the Lakers to “win the whole thing“.
But he has a few obstacles to overcome if he wants to achieve this. The prospects at the top of the draft rarely compete in 1-on-1 settings leading up to it, much less in 3-on-3 or 5-on-5 situations. The scrimmages during the Lakers’ week-long Summer League practice schedule represent Ball’s first competitive 5-on-5 play since March, against much tougher and older opponents, with unfamiliar teammates, and a new playbook. Ball’s game is so predicated on having synergy with his teammates while being the most savvy player on the court that I expect him to struggle a bit, particularly in half court situations. The PGs who tend to thrive in Summer League are those with athletic advantages and the ability to drive to the basket against largely disorganized defenses. Kris Dunn was a future all-star at this time last year, as was Emmanuel Mudiay two years ago, and as such I expect guys like De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith, Jr. to look better in Summer League than Ball does.
Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma should have smoother transitions, both as older players and guys who mostly thrive off of the shot creation of others. Kuzma in particular may raise some eyebrows, as he will be able to show off his passing and improved pick & pop ability amidst spacing that he never enjoyed at Utah, as noted in my recent video on how he fits in with the Lakers. Despite his rookie status, Hart is older than six of his teammates on the Lakers Summer League roster, and has a 3-&-D + fill the wing type of game that shouldn’t be impacted much by this unique environment. Both Kuzma & Hart thrive in transition as well, so that may be the recipe for a Lakers Summer League title. If the rookies are able to get the requisite defensive stops that they’ll need to get out and run alongside their more experienced teammates, they’ll be in business. (Ssidenote: I will be making a drinking game out of how often Kuzma falls down while in Vegas. His tendency to do so is Hibbert-esque)
Thomas Bryant should be a bit more of an adventure. He’s capable of picking & popping in a way that’s simpatico with Ball’s tendencies and runs the floor well, but he has questionable defensive awareness and decision-making that may be exacerbated in a Summer League setting.
Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac have the most NBA experience on the Lakers Summer League roster, making them the seasoned pros of the team at the ripe, old ages of 19 and 20. As such, the expectations on them are rightfully much higher. Last year, I heard an NBA Front Office executive mention that you start to worry about your 2nd year guys if they don’t look like the best players on the court in Summer League, under the premise that they’ve had the benefit of a full year in the NBA, with access to all of the strength, conditioning, knowledge, and coaching that it provides. While that is a bit reductive, players like Devin Booker & D’Angelo Russell thrived, while Jaylen Brown has made quick work of the Utah Summer League this year.
It is fair to expect Brandon Ingram to be the best player on the team, after a season in which he played 2,279 NBA minutes, easily the most in his rookie class and the rest of this roster combined. I’ll be looking for him to continue the prowess that he demonstrated in attacking the basket toward the end of the year, while expecting an improved shooting stroke from 3-point range and the free throw line, as well as more disruption on the defensive end with his considerable length.
Zubac should be the primary beneficiary of whatever shot creation that Ball can muster, and I’d like to see him extending his range beyond the 3-point line. He is capable of hitting that shot, but it was under-utilized last year during the regular season, and the Summer League provides an excellent opportunity to get his feet wet in that respect. This, along with improved defensive awareness in pick & roll situations would constitute a successful Summer League for the big fella.
This week could be a bit of a coming out party for David Nwaba, whose defensive abilities can help the Lakers get out in transition, where he can fill a wing with the best of ’em in Vegas, and his feel for back-cut opportunities jives very well with the passing prowess of Ball and Kuzma. It may be too much to ask him to demonstrate a competent 3-point shot at this point, but that’s the only thing that stands in the way between him and a 10-year NBA career.
This is going to be the first time we’ll see the “Lakers” in any incarnation since April 12th, a stretch of nearly 3 months. We’re champing at the bit to get our first look at Lonzo, Kuzma, Hart, & Bryant, and see what improvements Ingram & Zubac have made. As a result of our eagerness, both the good and bad of Summer League are inevitably over-analyzed to an absurd degree. Every. Single. Year. Summer League is ultimately a mix of talented kids and journeyman veterans who just met each other, with a week’s worth of practice, with an assistant coach, all trying to showcase themselves for various leagues around the world. It barely qualifies as organized basketball.
So I’d suggest that you get out to Vegas this weekend if you can, set your DVR if you can’t, and treat any success that the young guys have as found money, while brushing off any struggles. But I know you won’t, and I’ll be arguing with someone about why Lonzo Ball isn’t the next Kendall Marshall at some point in the next week.
And that’s why I love you guys.