For fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, starved for any sign that better times are ahead for their beloved purple and gold, the team’s 2017 Summer League performance was epic.
Yes, the media keeps reminding everyone that it is “only Summer League,” but for two weeks, the Lakers fielded a squad that played the most exciting brand of basketball fans of the team have witnessed in years.
Not only that, they did something that has been in short supply for the Lakers the past four years: They won games, and they finished as the Las Vegas Summer League champions.
It was refreshing that for once, the team had a No. 2 draft pick who actually played like a No. 2 draft pick – or better. Instead of the overhyped, underperforming Summer League teams the Lakers have fielded in recent years, which left fans with a sinking feeling of what was ahead, the 2017 team created a blueprint for how the regular season squad hopes to play in a few months: moving the ball, knocking down open three point shots, and playing defense when it really matters in the fourth quarter.
Of course, the biggest winner was the Lakers franchise itself. Under the leadership of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, the team is continuing a successful offseason which has built momentum and positive energy. Individually, here are the biggest winners and losers for the Lakers from the past two weeks.
1. Winner: Lonzo Ball
Could the Lakers have hoped for or scripted a better start to Lonzo Ball’s career than what occurred the past two weeks? He was everything the team hoped for and more, on his way to winning the award for the Las Vegas Summer League’s Most Valuable Player.
Ball’s ability to control the pace of the game and create open shots for his teammates was nothing short of remarkable. Some of his passes were as good as anything Tom Brady could have made. Reportedly, no player had ever registered a triple-double in Summer League, but Ball did it twice.
Yet, in his best performance, he missed a triple-double but finished with 36 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds, and five steals. His second best performance was his last game when he left early in the third quarter because of an injury, where he had 14 points and 10 assists by half time.
Through it all, Ball remained humble, grounded, and focused. Whenever he was asked to comment on his performance, he gave credit to his teammates and said he was just happy to win. He quietly proclaimed before it all started that the Lakers would win Summer League and they did.
Somewhere in heaven, Dr. Jerry Buss is smiling right now, because Lonzo Ball is going to make the Lakers relevant and exciting again and he will make the team a marquee attraction wherever they play. After three years of underperforming lottery selections, Ball is everything advertised.
2. Loser: Ivica Zubac
Not long ago, Zubac thought he would be battling Timofey Mozgov for the starting center position this season. After the team had traded for Brook Lopez, it looked like he would have to settle for significant minutes in a backup role. After his Summer League performance, however, one has to wonder if the notion that he is the team’s center of the future is losing steam.
In a nutshell, Zubac looked slow, out of shape, and played with little energy most of the time. He did not display the joy he played with last summer and during his rookie season. Despite a summer in which he has reportedly worked hard, it was difficult to detect any improvement in his game, and to the contrary, players no one has ever heard of roughed him up on both ends of the court.
The front office and coaching staff must be puzzled about what to do with Zubac at this point. When Lopez takes a break next season, it is entirely possible the team will go with a small ball lineup featuring shooters who can run and space the floor.
3. Winner: Kyle Kuzma
Kyle Kuzma finished an auspicious Summer League stint by winning the most valuable player in the finals while scoring a team-high 30 points. He made the Lakers look like geniuses for moving up in the draft to select him. He was, in a word, outstanding, playing confidently on both ends of the court, running the floor, rebounding, acting like a team leader, and, of course, scoring. He shot 48 percent from three-point range but also excelled at getting to and finishing at the rim.
The coaching staff must be salivating about the diverse skillset he brings to the team.
The dilemma now is finding a role for him once the season begins. Yes, it was “just Summer League,” but Kuzma sure looked like the real deal and finding minutes for him will be imperative, perhaps at the small forward position as Ingram’s primary back up. It does not hurt that he and Ball have bonded quickly both on and off the court. Kuzma looked like a star and has the fan base excited.
4. Loser: Josh Hart
Summer League was a big opportunity for Josh Hart to get comfortable playing against NBA level talent, gain experience, and create a role for himself once training camp starts. Instead, he suffered a sprained ankle in the second game and missed the rest of the competition. He had to sit and watch while less heralded players like Vander Blue and Matt Thomas assumed his role and did very well on what became a Summer League championship team.
While Kuzma used the opportunity to forge a clear and compelling identity for himself, Hart’s potential and role on the team will remain unknown and undecided until the fall. He will be starting from scratch. It was a setback for someone the Lakers hoped to test over the past two weeks to get a better idea of what he could contribute against professional competition.
5. Winner: Matt Thomas
Most people still do not know who Matt Thomas is, or how it came to be that he was starting for the Lakers Summer League team. But make no mistake about it, without Thomas, it is doubtful the Lakers would have won as his amazing three-point shooting was a key. He was 5-for-5 on three point shots in the championship game and 6-for-7 the game before.
For the record, he is a 22-year-old shooting guard who played three years at Iowa State before going undrafted this summer. He was an outstanding shooter in high school but had an up and down college career. Lakers fans are wondering right now how someone who shoots that well could not be signed to an NBA team, as he is somewhat reminiscent of Kyle Korver who has had a pretty good career knocking down three-point shots.
6. Loser: Brandon Ingram
Brandon Ingram struggled in last year’s Summer League and for most of his rookie season. By all accounts, he has been training like a demon this summer, and due to his strong finish last year, Magic Johnson repeatedly said that Ingram was the one untouchable player on the team.
Ingram had a strong start to Summer League this year scoring 26 points in the first game including a late basket which sent the contest into overtime. But he suffered a leg spasm late in the game, and it so rattled Johnson to see Ingram lying on the ground that he immediately removed him from Summer League competition altogether.
That is a shame because Ingram could have benefitted from the experience. No matter how hard a player trains, it is no substitute for playing eight actual games against NBA-level competition.
No one wants to see Ingram hurt, but it is unfortunate that a mere leg cramp caused the Lakers to deprive him of the opportunity to build chemistry with Lonzo Ball under game conditions and to contribute to a team that won games including a championship. It would have provided a good measuring stick of his improvement.
7. Winner: Alex Caruso
Caruso may be the oldest-looking 23-year-old basketball player in history, but he possesses some solid point guard skills that allowed him to lead the Lakers to two important victories when Lonzo Ball was out. He played in college at Texas A&M where he became the school’s all-time leader in assists and steals. He also earned All-Defensive Team honors in the SEC and was Second Team All-Conference.
Undrafted out of college in 2016, he played well in the D-League last year and was invited to join the Lakers Summer League squad this year. Caruso’s solid contributions were rewarded with one of the new “two-way” contracts which will see him play part time for the Lakers this next season and part time for the South Bay Lakers in the G League.