In the post-Kobe Bryant era, the four seasons for Lakers fans have gone something like this. Fall = Cautious hope about a young, directionless team. Winter = pure, unyielding pain. Spring = More pain coupled with anxiety over lottery ping pong balls. Summer = unbridled optimism over the new lottery pick and the dawn of the franchise’s next dynasty mixed with absolute denial over another strikeout in free agency.
In that vein, welcome back to Las Vegas Summer League, the peak of the Lakers’ calendar. Sin City’s annual showcase for rookies, second-year players, undrafted contract-seekers and other assorted journeyman is set to tip off on Friday, when 2016 No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram and 2017 No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball lead the Lakers into a nationally-televised game against the Clippers.
Recent iterations of the Baby Lakers stumbled because their collection of individual talents never quite molded into a true young core. With the uber-talented Ingram approaching his 20th birthday and Ball, a natural playmaker for others, stepping in for D’Angelo Russell, this group has a chance to be more functional, more entertaining and more hope-inspiring than previous renditions. While Ball might be entering with more buzz thanks to his father’s… uh… online marketing savvy, Ingram really should be regarded as this year’s headliner.
Knocked for his slight frame and his inefficient play as a rookie following a one-and-done year at Duke, Ingram will have the opportunity to explore his multi-dimensional scoring game against less seasoned defenders. With 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons siting out, Ingram has the stage to himself and has a point guard whose NBA debut will be judged primarily by how well he gets his teammates involved. He can’t ask for much more than that.
Under new executives Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, the Lakers have pursued a patient approach this summer, dumping Russell to offload salary and biding their time for 2018 free agency and a shot at Paul George and the dream of LeBron James. Although skeptics will always say “It’s just Summer League,” demonstrated progress from Ingram is a key step for the organization’s long-term vision. As L.A. has learned in recent years, attracting top talent is difficult when the cupboards are bare.
Of course, the Lakers are just one of 24 teams headed to Las Vegas for the 11-day, 67-game event that will culminate with a championship game on Monday, July 17. And even without Simmons, this year’s field is fairly loaded: 10 of this year’s lottery picks—including the top five—and 10 lottery picks from 2016 are slated to compete.
With that in mind, here are five other storylines to watch in addition to L.A.’s latest youth movement.
1. The Celtics/Sixers trade, revisited
In one of the boldest moves in an NBA summer full of them, Boston’s Danny Ainge elected to trade the No. 1 pick, and the rights to Markelle Fultz, to Philadelphia for the No. 3 pick and another pick next year. The trade looked like a win/win/win for the Celtics, Sixers and Fultz at the time, as it delivered this year’s consensus top prospect to a rebuilding team on the upswing with a need for a ball-handling scorer rather than a conference finalist that’s keen to win now with a backcourt that’s already loaded.
Summer League is the perfect forum to rush to judgment, and Fultz’s Sixers will face off against No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum and the Celtics on July 11. As if this wasn’t a must-see showdown already, the two teams met for a pre-Vegas appetizer at this week’s Utah Summer League, with Tatum delivering a game-winner in an 89-88 Boston win that saw both players turn in strong performances. Round 2 should be considered appointment viewing for basketball nerds everywhere.
2. The post-Boogie Kings in all their glory
No hyperbole: Sacramento might have the most legendary Summer League roster in NBA history. Thanks to the midseason trade of franchise center DeMarcus Cousins and years of being really bad, the Kings have accumulated a stunning number of first-round picks heading into the 2017-18 season: 2016 first-rounders Buddy Hield, Georgios Papagiannis, Malachi Richardson, and Skal Labissiere plus 2017 first-rounders De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles. This year’s rookies also include Frank Mason III, the No. 34 pick in June’s draft.
That group of seven players has basically every flavor of intrigue imaginable. There’s Papagiannis, the giant Greek question mark. There’s Labissiere and Giles, two super-highly-ranked prep stars who fell down draft boards. There’s Hield, the older-than-most-people-realize centerpiece of the Cousins return package who was underwhelming as a rookie and really needs to prove he’s capable of being an impact player in year two. But most importantly there’s the freakishly athletic Fox, who was the fifth pick in June after one season at Kentucky. What’s the best way for Kings fans to move on from the Cousins era? To fall head over heels for a 19-year-old point guard with franchise-player potential and a franchise-player personality.
3. Second time around for the 2016 draft class
Ingram isn’t the only rising sophomore looking to take the next step, as he is joined on Summer League rosters by fellow 2016 lottery picks Jaylen Brown, Dragan Bender, Kris Dunn, Hield, Marquese Chriss, Jakob Poeltl, Thon Maker, Papagiannis and Denzel Valentine.
That’s a wide-ranging group that provides varying reasons to watch. The 7'1" Bender struggled in Las Vegas last year and logged less than 600 minutes while undergoing ankle surgery as a rookie. The rebuilding Suns could desperately use a Bender breakthrough. Maker, meanwhile, was one of the biggest pleasant surprises from his class, delivering quality minutes in Milwaukee’s exciting first-round series loss to Toronto. His activity and versatility should allow him to shine against Las Vegas competition. As for Poeltl, he may be in line for an increased role next season as the expensive returns of Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka cost the Raptors both Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker. The 7'1" Poeltl will be joined in Las Vegas by Pascal Siakam, another 2016 first-rounder who should see meaningful frontcourt minutes for Toronto coach Dwane Casey in 2017-18.
4. What are the Bulls doing?
Even though a few weeks have passed, Chicago’s decision to trade All-Star Jimmy Butler to Minnesota on draft night still looks like one of the worst moves – if not the single worst – of the summer. What exactly were Gar Forman and John Paxson thinking?
Las Vegas will represent the first time for Bulls fans to get some answers, as Kris Dunn (a 2016 lottery pick sent over by Minnesota) and Lauri Markkanen (a 2017 lottery pick drafted with Minnesota’s pick) will both suit up. Dunn impressed with his physical, tenacious play before sustaining a concussion at last year’s Summer League, and his development after a forgettable rookie season will be central to the Bulls’ rebuilding effort. The 7-foot Markkanen, who hails from Finland, will look to showcase his shooting ability after connecting on 42% of his threes during his one year at Arizona. That pair will be joined by 2016 Summer League standout Denzel Valentine, 2016 second-round pick Paul Zipser, and point guard Cameron Payne, a 2015 lottery pick who was acquired in a midseason trade from Oklahoma City. With so many questions swirling around the franchise’s zig-zagging path in recent years, Chicago needs all the help it can get from anyone capable of providing it.
5. Is Donovan Mitchell for real?
Remarkably, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell is entering Las Vegas with buzz comparable to top picks like Fultz, Ball and Tatum. The No. 13 pick in June’s has put on show after show in front of the home crowd at this week’s Utah Summer League, following up a 23-point debut against San Antonio with 15 points against Philadelphia and a memorable steal/staredown sequence against Boston’s Tatum.
Mitchell’s high-motor, highlight-reel showings couldn’t come at a better time for a Jazz franchise and fanbase sent reeling by All-Star forward Gordon Hayward’s departure for the Celtics. Next season, coach Quin Snyder will need to fill the big playing-time holes left by Hayward and George Hill, and he’ll need all the offensive punch he can get to keep the Jazz in the West’s playoff picture. Additional promising showings from Mitchell at Las Vegas would go a long way to helping the post-Hayward transition feel a little less demoralizing and a little more manageable.