Last year’s Summer League was a nightmare for the Lakers, setting a negative tone for a very poor regular season ahead. The vibe this year is different. Whether it is attributable to the relaxed confidence of new head coach Luke Walton, or the excitement of seeing top draft choice Brandon Ingram in a Lakers’ uniform, there was a genuine expectation that the team was going to do better and create some buzz.
So far the young players have not disappointed. The first game against the New Orleans Pelicans was a feel-good experience in which everyone played well and the team won by twenty points. The second game, against the Philadelphia 76ers, was totally different. The first half was as ugly as anything we saw last summer, but for a change, the team responded down the stretch and managed to win a game they never led until the final shot as the clock expired.
There are at least three more games to play this summer, and hopefully more. The coaching staff wants the squad to continue to compete hard and improve, and by the end, there will be a larger body of work from which to draw more definitive conclusions. However, here are five initial observations from what we’ve seen so far.
1. Larry Nance, Jr. is a Very Good NBA Player
Larry Nance, Jr. may be only one year removed from his rookie season, but he handles himself on and off the court like a mature, seasoned veteran. Nance surprised a lot of people last year as a late first round draft choice, but by all appearances he has grown immensely and is already a very good NBA player. Nance knew that this offseason he had to work on his mid-range and long-range shooting, and so far he is taking such shots (and making them) without any hesitation.
Nance has a solid all-around game, and that is what makes him so valuable. His stat line against the 76ers was telling: 13 points, 8 rebounds, 7 steals, 4 assists, and 4 blocks. Plus, he played great defense on Ben Simmons and had two monster dunks, the first of which ignited the team’s comeback.
One of the most intriguing issues the coaching staff will face this fall is figuring out how Nance fits into the rotation. He is not expected to be a starter, but he was not supposed to start (or even play much) last season either. Nance is too good and contributes too much of what any winning team needs to sit on the bench for too long. He is the kind of player any coach would want on the floor in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
2.The Lakers Were Correct In Not Giving Up On D’Angelo Russell
D’Angelo Russell is going to continue to give Lakers fans a heart attack. On one hand, he is a turnover machine which is a major concern for a point guard. On the other hand, he is fearless, the kind of player who can look terrible for three-quarters but somehow manage to put the team on his back and win almost single-handedly in the end. Russell looks far more comfortable this summer, having embraced his leadership role on the court, and has shown once again that he has the courage to take shots in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
Another positive is that Russell is accepting responsibility for his mistakes. When interviewed after hitting the game winning shot against the 76ers, the first thing he did was point out how his poor defense had nearly lost the game the play before. In fact, he has shown a renewed dedication to defense and has improved.
Russell will thrill fans one minute and make them groan the next. It bears remembering that he is only 20 years old. His true upside is still unclear, but he shows enough high-end promise that the Lakers were absolutely correct resisting calls for him to be traded. For the time being, as Russell goes, so go the Lakers.
3. Ivica Zubac is an Intriguing Prospect
At 7’1”, 240 pounds, 19-year-old Zubac is becoming a fan favorite for the right reasons: he shows potential to be a good NBA player and does so with cheerfulness, a sense of humor, and a love of everything Lakers. He has shown skill on both ends of the court. He clogs the lane and blocks shots, and on offense, he shows a good touch around the rim and on mid-range shots. The question about Zubac will be whether he is quick enough and strong enough to be an effective NBA defender. He wasn’t being counted on for much this year, but like Nance last season, he could end up being a welcome surprise.
4.Brandon Ingram Is Going to Be Great But Will Need Time to Develop
Brandon Ingram is going to be everything advertised, but for Lakers fans who were hoping he would be an instant savior, that is not likely to happen. He played well in his first Summer League game, a low-key performance that was smooth and well-rounded. But he was off balance in the second contest, where the 76ers were very physical with him and knocked him around. The NBA has many tough defenders at the wing position, and Ingram will need to get a lot stronger or learn finesse in skirting aggressive moves by opponents. It will be interesting to see how Ingram rebounds from his disappointing performance in his much heralded first meeting with Ben Simmons.
5.Anthony Brown May Be On the Bubble
Anthony Brown made only 31% of his shots overall and 29% from three point range in a disappointing rookie season. It was important for him to come out with fire this summer as one of the squad’s few players with NBA experience. In the first two games, he made a couple of three-pointers but still looked tentative and too often invisible, in contrast to Nance and Russell who have grown immensely. In the fourth quarter against the 76ers, instead of playing Brown, the coaches went with D-Leaguer Jamil Wilson. Brown’s contract is guaranteed for next season,but unless he starts to assert himself in a big way, his future beyond that with the team may be in jeopardy.