LAS VEGAS — The Lakers, under new management and a new flashy floor general, entered Summer League needing to make a statement for more reasons than can be easily counted.
There was the tiny matter of a proud, championship-laden franchise desperate to regain a little luster after a brutal four-year stretch of losing. There was the new basketball operations department, led by Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, looking to make a name for itself. There was the new lottery pick point guard, Lonzo Ball, facing significant hype generated by his father and the pressure of taking the reins following the core-altering D’Angelo Russell trade. And there was the urgency to begin the long process of generating enough positive momentum from a young core led by Ball and Brandon Ingram to position the franchise to chase LeBron James, Paul George and other All-Stars in 2018 free agency.
On Monday night, L.A. will face Portland for the Summer League title, a matchup that is unlikely to evoke memories of the 1991 or 2000 Western Conference finals. However, with so much turmoil during and after Kobe Bryant’s sunset ride and in light of a regime change that briefly led the Buss siblings to square off in a legal battle over control of the organization, a little winning and a little hype can go a long way, even on this smaller stage.
“Our stated goal going into this was to win the Summer League championship because a winning mentality is developed in these small moments,” Pelinka told reporters on Sunday, at halftime of L.A.’s semifinal win over Dallas. “Every day, Magic and I say: ‘How are we pursuing excellence?’ To win the Summer League [would be] a step in that direction.”
The ride to the title game has seen good, bad and ugly chapters. Ingram enjoyed a sensational debut but was quickly shut down for the week due to leg cramps. Early on, Ball struggled with his unorthodox shooting stroke and turnover issues before emerging as a Summer League MVP candidate and sneaker icon as the tournament went on. And Kyle Kuzma, selected with a first-round pick acquired in the Russell trade, has played well enough to shed the “throw-in” label.
Ball has been in the middle of everything, immediately putting his stamp on the up-tempo, pass-happy Lakers. His strong showing—including the only two triple-doubles posted at the event over the last decade—represents a major win for Johnson and Pelinka, who trusted that he had the right skills and personality to lead the franchise following Russell’s uneven two-year stint. His elite vision, understanding of space and desire to get his teammates easy baskets and clean looks has given LA its best shot at establishing an identity and clear style of play since Bryant’s retirement.
Johnson, perhaps the greatest passer ever, has regularly stood and applauded Ball’s dimes from his courtside seat, and he has praised the Lakers’ transition attack. Ball’s teammates have spoken openly about how fun it is to play with him, and his Summer League coach, Jud Buechler, has found it hard to take him out of the game. His impact was never more obvious than during the semifinals against Dallas. Ball was a +17 through two-plus quarters, handing out an endless string of smart, savvy passes. When he sat out the fourth due to right calf tightness, the Lakers held on for dear life and nearly blew a 26-point lead as the crowd chanted “We Want Ball!” down the stretch.
“It’s just an infectious thing the way the way the ball is being passed around,” Pelinka said. “When we drafted guys and thought about free agents, we didn’t want ball-stoppers, we wanted ball-movers. The way we’re playing in Summer League is the way we’re going to play when the regular season opens in October, too.”
To be clear, Ball (16.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 9.3 APG), hasn’t played perfectly. His cross-body three-point stroke has produced numerous airballs, bricks and 24% outside shooting. He’s been bothered somewhat by NBA-level defenders in the half-court, finding it difficult in certain matchups to collapse the defense off the dribble and set up his preferred drive-and-kick looks. He’s also been caught in the air at times, leading to turnovers, and dealt with minor groin and calf injuries.
Even with those shortcomings acknowledged, he’s been a revelation for a fanbase that has packed the house to watch his every move, for a coaching staff that needed a point guard it could trust, and for a front office that needs a star to sell. Ball has filled all of those roles, and he’s kept his head despite endless speculation over his shoes, LeBron James’s unexpected presence at one of his games, and some harsh assessments from his outspoken father, LaVar, early in the week. Tougher times and much tougher competition are coming for the 19-year-old Ball, but his Summer League portfolio, highlighted by a 36-point effort against Philadelphia, amounts to a dream launch. With his touch lobs and touchdown tosses, Ball has made it clear that the worst of the Lakers’ hopelessness is behind them and that the franchise might finally be ready to land a big fish (or two) 12 months from now.
While Ball and the Lakers have unquestionably emerged as Summer League’s biggest story, here’s a quick rundown of the other winners and losers from the week.
The Blazers make for an unlikely championship-game participant. Their 2017 lottery pick, Zach Collins, looked like an overmatched, unprepared teenager before he was shut down early, and their returning roster players, Jake Layman and Pat Connaughton, aren’t exactly household names.
But Portland fought through the playoff bracket anyway thanks to tenacious efforts from first-round pick Caleb Swanigan (aka “Biggie”) and the well-traveled likes of Jarnell Stokes, RJ Hunter, and Nick Johnson. While the 6’9” Swanigan (14.9 PPG, 10.4 RPG) butters his bread with high-energy play inside, he’s also displayed a little diversity, stepping out to shoot occasionally and facilitating from the perimeter. Swanigan’s role going forward in the short term isn’t entirely clear given that Portland’s roster saw limited turnover this summer. Regardless, his strong showing helps make up for Collins’s slower acclimation and gives Portland one more option if president Neil Olshey is finally able to unload some of his cap-busting bad contracts.
Wffffffffffffffffft. The post-Jimmy Butler era opened with a whoopee cushion sound effect. Bulls fans hoping that Las Vegas would help turn the page from the stunning trade of the organization’s franchise player were left sorely disappointed. Kris Dunn, the apparent point guard of the future, played just one game and shot 3 for 12. Lauri Markkenen, the No. 7 pick in June’s draft, shot just 6 for 25 on threes despite being billed as perhaps the best outside shooter in the draft. Cameron Payne, a midseason acquisition from Oklahoma City, registered more turnovers than assists and shot just 35% overall and 17% from deep in two games. Fellow second-year guard Denzel Valentine was similarly forgettable.
Meanwhile, Mavericks point guard Dennis Smith Jr., selected two spots behind Markennen, rivaled Ball as Summer League’s top overall performer. Overreacting to Summer League is almost always a mistake, but the last two weeks only heightened the possibility that Gar Forman and John Paxson’s 2017 draft night could wind up producing years and years of angry second-guessing.
So many of the factors surrounding the Lakers described above apply to the Mavericks too. Really, they’re Lakers Lite. Dallas needs a plan after its icon, Dirk Nowitzki, heads towards retirement. Dallas needs a dynamic floor general to provide some hope and pop after a few disappointing seasons. And Dallas needs some polish if it wants to get back into the mix for top-level free agents, especially now that both Houston and San Antonio are imposing in-state rivals.
Dennis Smith Jr., like Ball, could represent answers to some of these foundational questions. In Las Vegas, Smith (17.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.2 APG) looked powerful, insatiable and slippery on the ball, drawing comparisons to Derrick Rose and Damian Lillard from coaches in attendance as he helped lead the Mavericks to the semifinals. He’s a freak athlete—rising high off the court and bursting to the rim—and his toolbox of off-the-dribble moves is deep. Smith welcomes the challenge, he is a tough shot-maker, and he dunks with homicidal intent. Given the Mavericks’ obvious backcourt needs and the uncertainties of a post-Dirk reality, whenever that hits, Smith exits Las Vegas looking like a godsend.
Let’s not belabor this one any more than necessary: The last thing Philadelphia wanted or needed was another No. 1 pick to succumb to injury. Thankfully, 2017 top pick Markelle Fultz only sprained his ankle, but it still proved to be an ultimate bummer given that the fluky injury happened in the Sixers’ first game. So much for watching Fultz go head-to-head against Ball. So much for a post-trade showdown with Jayson Tatum.
With Fultz sidelined and 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons held out following a season-ending foot injury last year, the highlight of Philadelphia’s July wound up being Joel Embiid’s cameo at MLB’s Home Run Derby. Oh well. Training camp will be here soon enough.
After previously participating in the Utah Summer League, the Celtics opted to take their ball and go home halfway through the week. It’s hard to fault them. Jayson Tatum posted big stats (17.7 PPG, 8 RPG) through three games and that was enough to declare victory and avoid an unnecessary injury. The No. 3 pick mostly stuck to his game of getting to his favorite mid-range spots, and he didn’t shoot much from deep or regularly play-make for others. That said, his footwork and pretty old-school turnaround jumpers had some media members gushing, and his overall poise definitely came through at this level.
Honestly, the Kings were all over the place. Lottery pick De’Aaron Fox (11.8 PPG, 3 APG) had turbo-charged flashes of open-floor brilliance, and first-round pick Justin Jackson (16.7 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.3 APG) proved to be a steady, reliable presence on the wing.
Unfortunately, the Kings’ returning players were far less impressive. Second-year guard Buddy Hield got hot against the Lakers, hitting six threes in a flurry, but he was unremarkable overall for a 23-year-old who should be dominating this level of competition. Hield registered twice as many turnovers as assists and shot just 36% from the field. Although second-year big Skal Labissiere (10 PPG, 5 RPG) had his moments, he didn’t quite deliver on the hype that started to build down the stretch following the DeMarcus Cousins trade. Finally, second-year center Georgios Papagiannis (5.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG) endured some nightmare outings before taking a hard fall in Sacramento’s final game.
The hope for Sacramento surely was that all its large contingent of roster players could develop some strong chemistry and roll through this level of competition. Instead, the Kings took more than their fair share of lumps and were badly outscored in multiple games with Hield and Papagiannis, two former lottery picks, on the court. If Las Vegas is any indication, the Kings will be in for some serious growing pains next year despite Fox’s evident talent and the franchise’s most respectable showing in free agency in recent years. Expectations are low, though, so that helps.
As SI.com’s Jeremy Woo noted, the Warriors received encouraging performances from second-year guard Patrick McCaw (20 PPG) and second-round steal Jordan Bell (5 PPG, 9 RPG, 2 SPG, 2.6 BPG).
Bell, in particular, looked like an unfair addition for the defending champs. His defensive timing and aggressiveness were both excellent, as was his motor and his understanding of his role. Look for him to give quality rotation minutes early in the 2017-18 season—he looks more helpful than Damian Jones and Kevon Looney—and start drooling over the frontcourt lineup possibilities now at coach Steve Kerr’s disposal. After the draft, Bell was quickly typecast as a Draymond Green-like successor, but it’s tantalizing to imagine the two versatile big men playing alongside each other in smothering defense-first looks too.
Rookie Josh Jackson (17.4 PPG, 9.2 RPG) had some rough edges but played hard and well enough to earn All-Tournament Second Team consideration. His jumper has a hitch, he goes to his flat mid-range floater too often and he was a little out of control at times. Still, Jackson’s furious athleticism led to some highlight plays around the basket and disruptive defense.
It was a shame that Phoenix’s 2016 lottery picks—Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender—didn’t leave the same type of imprint on the game. Chriss (14.4 PPG, 6 RPG) has a superstar’s body, but his motor, shot selection and glasswork all left a lot to be desired. Too many pointless long twos, too much random jawing, and too much ball-watching. Bender (14.2 PPG, 6 RPG), meanwhile, struggled with his scoring efficiency and spent good chunks of the tournament, especially early on, looking invisible.
In opting to shell out the big bucks to retain Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka in free agency, Raptors president Masai Ujiri made a sacrifice and a bet. The sacrifice came in the form of trading away DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph while watching free agents Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker sign elsewhere. The bet, in turn, was that Ujiri’s deep collection of lower-salaried youngsters would be ready to step in and fill the gaps created when those four veterans all went poof.
Toronto enjoyed a promising Summer League, claiming the tournament’s No. 1 seed with a 3-0 start driven by guard Fred VanVleet (18.8 PPG, 5 APG), forward Pascal Siakam (14.3 RPG, 4.5 RPG) and center Jakob Poeltl (13.5 PPG, 9 RPG, 71% shooting). Returning players should be expected to consistently make a positive impact at this level, and all three of Toronto’s Summer League veterans hit the mark. While the Raptors’ roster still looks a little top-heavy, Las Vegas showed that some of its younger pieces are ready to handle more.