It has been nearly three months since the crescendo of cheers for the retiring Kobe Bryant has died down. Bryant’s swan song left many wondering what would become of the Los Angeles Lakers, who would continue to undergo the difficult process of attempting to rebuild their struggling franchise without their marquee star.
With a new Coach installed in Luke Walton, and a pair of potential-laden rookies named Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac (perhaps you’ve heard of them), the Lakers headed to the Las Vegas Summer League, which marked the official start of the post-Kobe era.
It has only been one game, but so far, the future looks bright.
The young Lakers routed the Buddy Hield-led New Orleans Pelicans by a score of 85-65, but what was more impressive was the way that they did it. For the first time in a long time, the Lakers looked like a cohesive team.
They ran plenty of horns sets, with two big men starting at the top of the key, and created some great looks. We also saw improved passing, as players off the ball were moving even if the desired look wasn’t always there.
Sure, there were plenty of miscues and mistakes, which are to be expected in Summer League, where teams are thrown into the fire with only a handful of practices under their belt. However, those moments were heavily outweighed by the overall performance.
It seemed as though everyone played a meaningful role in the team’s success, with the five starters, all of whom have regular season contracts with the Lakers, leading the way.
Zubac was a force in the paint, deterring drives to the rim with three blocked shots and bullying his way to eleven points. The instant fan-favorite elicited cheers of “Zuuuuu” from the pro-Lakers crowd at the Thomas and Mack Center, and post-game revealed that his preferred nickname is “Zublocka”.
He has mentioned crafting his game with Marc Gasol as a template, and that was apparent as Zubac showed strength combined with a surprising dash of finesse.
Meanwhile, Anthony Brown largely snuffed out Hield, who won the Naismith award as the top college player in the nation. Known for his impressive shooting and scoring binges, Hield shot just 25 percent from the field with Brown draped all over him. When Hield did manage to slip away and drive to the basket the Lakers bigs were there to swat his attempts away. Brown himself chipped in with seven points, including a corner three that he will need to become proficient at if he hopes to stick in the NBA as a 3-and-D specialist.
Of course, most of the crowd was there to see number two overall pick Ingram, who many hope will be the star the Lakers badly need to fill the void left by Bryant. Those are big shoes to fill, but Ingram has already started down that path by taking over Bryant’s old locker at the Lakers practice facility.
In his first game as a Laker, Ingram certainly didn’t disappoint. He allowed the game to come to him, picking his spots to explode with flashes of brilliance. Ingram buried his first pull-up jumper, of the game, and followed it up with another off of a crossover, and then made perhaps the play of the night when he pump-faked defender Nick Minnerath into the air, drove past him, and then threw down a two-handed dunk.
Defensively, Ingram made good use of his 7’3” wingspan, collecting two blocks on plays where he looked out of position only to extend his arms like Dhalsim and knock the shot away. It was quite the debut performance and one that certainly had Lakers fans buzzing.
As impressive as Ingram was, it was two sophomores who truly stole the show for the Lakers.
D’Angelo Russell, the 2015 number two pick, had flirted with playing in the post last season, but against the Pelicans it was clear that he is now ready to make it a major part of his arsenal. The Lakers found him down low early and often, where Russell used his 6’5” frame to abuse smaller defenders. After a slow start in the first quarter, Russell took over the game, finishing with 20 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists.
Five turnovers were a bit of a disappointment, especially since Russell largely resisted the urge to fire off any of the flashy passes he has been known for. Instead, he coughed up the ball off the dribble, losing it to swiping defenders while trying to get into the lane. Still, once he settled down Russell got into the paint by using screens and scored with ease by using pump-faking defenders out of position. He also snagged three steals on the defensive end by making the correct read.
In spite of Russell’s gaudy stat line, the player of the game may well have been Larry Nance Jr., and not in a way that most would expect. Nance is known for his monstrous dunks, but he actually didn’t have any rim-rockers in this outing. What he did do was grab nine big rebounds, and then push the ball in transition.
That’s a play that we have become accustomed to seeing Julius Randle make, but it appears that Nance has now also earned the green light to start the fast break. It’s a welcome development for a team that will look to score easy baskets in transition and puts the Lakers’ power forwards in a role similar to the one played by Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors, which is certainly not an accident.
Nance also demonstrated his improved shooting stroke, knocking down a three on his first attempt of the game. If he can hit that shot consistently, the Lakers offense will find much more space to operate, and Nance could conceivably challenge Randle for the starting job.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Larry Nance performance without at least one “holy crap” moment, and he provided it when he soared to volleyball-spike a layup attempt from Hield. It was an emphatic block, and the moment seemed to drive home the point that the young Lakers mean business.
Individual performances aside, what really stood out was the focus and chemistry that the Lakers played with. They looked like a group that was excited to play together and believed in the sets they were running, which is a welcome change from what we saw last year.
Expectations should be kept in check because one good performance in a Summer League game certainly doesn’t equate to success in the NBA, but nonetheless, the new-look Lakers’ debut couldn’t have gone much better.