The Los Angeles Lakers begin their Summer League schedule Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. Their first game is against the New Orleans Pelicans who will feature high-scoring rookie Buddy Hield. The second game will match, for the first time, the Lakers’ Brandon Ingram against Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers. In the past, the Summer League attracted little attention and was thought to have no real importance, but times have radically changed.
Kobe Bryant’s control over the organization, for good or for bad, is over. The team has a new popular young coach in Luke Walton, who replaced the very unpopular Byron Scott. It is as though a fresh breeze is blowing across Laker-Land. It is important for the young players to show progress and gain confidence. Making a strong impression in Summer League will continue the positive momentum the team has achieved this offseason with the Walton hiring and the drafting of Ingram.
The Lakers certainly want to avoid the disappointment of Summer League 2015, when they began as a favorite. The roster included Jordan Clarkson, fresh off his great rookie season. The return of Julius Randle, the much-heralded power forward who missed his entire rookie season with an injury. Tarik Black, an undrafted big man who joined the team mid-season and showed high energy and overall promise; and Jabari Brown, Clarkson’s college teammate, who showed strong offensive skills in his brief tenure with the Lakers the season before.
That squad also included hot-shot rookie D’Angelo Russell, the team’s highest draft choice in over 30 years; high flying Larry Nance, Jr.; and “3 and D” man Anthony Brown, a four-year starter at Stanford. Adding to the intrigue was Robert Upshaw, an enigmatic center from the University of Washington who went undrafted due to personal problems but who people were saying could be the steal of the year for the Lakers.
Enormous crowds showed up to watch the Lakers in Las Vegas last summer, so much so that the promoters unexpectedly had to open the upper deck of the arena to accommodate the demand for seats. It was a spectacle, something unprecedented for a Summer League contest.
Unfortunately, the Lakers were awful from start to finish, finishing with a record of 1-4 and missing the playoffs. The players were confused and disorganized most of the time. Russell looked intimidated and not at all ready for the NBA; Randle played out of control, and while he could get to the rim he could not finish. Black had the distinction of fouling out of a game in which each player could have up to 10 personal fouls, and the team registered the fewest assists of any Summer League squad.
Last summer’s performance was an eerie reflection of what the Lakers would become during the regular season, and it was not pretty.
But this is a new year, and there is reason for guarded optimism. For most Lakers fans, this will be their first chance to see Ingram in an actual game. The expectations are high, as many observers considered him the top player in the draft. Ingram is only 18, and deserves our patience, but hopefully, he will show more NBA readiness than Russell did last summer and showcase some of the skills that make him such an outstanding prospect.
Speaking of Russell, there is no remaining margin for error in his young career. Much has been written of his struggles on and off the court last year. He is a lightning rod within the organization, around the league, and among Lakers fans who constantly debate whether he is a future superstar who will carry the team to a championship or a total bust who should be traded immediately.
How Russell develops will in no small measure decide the Lakers’ fate over the next five to ten years. If he gets off to a quick start and shows the maturity and leadership he lacked last season, it will be exciting. He has reportedly been working hard and is said to be thrilled with the idea of playing for Walton. Hopefully, this weekend fans will see the Russell that everyone thought the Lakers were getting when he was drafted in 2015.
There are many other intriguing subplots to Summer League that should interest Lakers fans. Has Nance developed an outside shot that will make his value to the team even greater? Can Anthony Brown rebound from a disappointing rookie season when his defense was solid, but he was not scoring? Can Jabari Brown bounce back from losing his spot on last year’s roster to Metta World Peace, which might not have happened if Walton had been the coach? Will second round pick Ivica Zubac give any sign that he could become the center of the future for the Lakers?
It will be fun to get a glimpse of what Walton brings to the team, for he plans to be actively involved behind the scenes. The Lakers were disorganized last summer, and it carried over to the regular season when it looked like players did not know what they were supposed to be doing on offense or defense. That may have been a product of Byron Scott’s ineffective coaching, and with Scott gone, observers will be curious to see if this year’s squad looks more cohesive and prepared.
While Summer League is traditionally a low-key showcase for rookies and undrafted/unattached players struggling to catch on with an NBA team, for the Lakers, coming off three straight years of fewer and fewer wins, it should be serious business. Several players on the squad are being counted on to make a significant contribution once training camp starts, and there is always the possibility that an unheralded member of the roster will step up and force the front office to take notice.
If the Lakers Summer League squad makes a strong showing, not only will it get to play an additional game or two in the playoffs, which would be more experience for the young players and fun for the fans, it would engender at least a small degree of confidence for an organization that has struggled in recent years and would welcome positivity wherever and whenever it can be found.