Summer League Champion L.A. Lakers Have a Star in Lonzo Ball

LOS ANGELES —  It’s an annual tradition for throngs of Los Angeles Lakers fans to make the trek from California to Las Vegas to support the team’s NBA Summer League squad. They’ve been there for top prospects like Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. They’ve been there for Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly and Darius Morris.

But nothing has compared to this year’s crowd, entranced by the play of UCLA rookie guard Lonzo Ball. Never have they been rewarded like they were on Monday night, the Lakers winning their first summer league title. The excitement had spilled out onto the streets of Vegas, where taxi drivers, bartenders and even talkative dealers are excited to ask, “How about that Lonzo?”

On July 8, for the first time in summer league history, the arenas sold out a day before the Lakers‘ battle against Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics.

The buzz is real, and it appears for good reason.

In Game 1, it took all of 19 seconds into Ball’s first game of the summer to stun the NBA community with a perfectly executed lob to Ingram for a dunk.

Then reality set in as Ball missed 10 of 11 attempts from three-point range in a 96-93 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Lakers desperately need the 19-year-old Bruin to be a star, but the hype will only last if he can back it up on the court. With Ingram out for the remainder of the summer with a leg cramp, the Lakers fell to 0-2, but Ball recorded the league’s first triple-double since 2010.

The Lakers finally got a win with Ball sidelined against De’Aaron Fox and the Sacramento Kings—with the unheralded Alex Caruso channeling Larry Bird and earning a two-way contract with the Los Angeles for the coming season in the process.

 

It was the Lakers‘ fourth game that set the town ablaze. Ball scored 36 points in 36 minutes with 11 assists and eight rebounds in an exciting 103-102 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. The team had found its chemistry and advanced all the way to Monday’s championship game against the Portland Trail Blazers.

“His court vision is outstanding. He’s showing that his shot may translate. He’s showing the ability to get to the rim,” said a Western Conference scout. “The extra space of the NBA game is really going to open up more stuff for a guard who can do so many things with the ball.”

 

Jud Buechler, the Lakers‘ summer coach, said the team’s offensive system is essentially Lonzo Ball:

“It’s probably 90 percent his talent and 10 percent guys just knowing if they get out on the wings that they’re going to get easy layups. He’s just incredible at getting that ball and pushing it. And we really want him to set the pace for our team, set the pace for the game, which is just up and down, get out, run for layups, get easy baskets.”

Ball said he started summer a little slowly because he hadn’t played a full-court game since the Bruins were ousted from the NCAA tournament.

“My wind—the first couple games I was getting tired fast. This was my first time playing in I don’t know how long,” Ball said. “[Now], I’m playing the whole fourth quarter. … I felt good out there.”

Ball has looked every bit of the player the Lakers hoped he’d be, averaging 16.3 points, 9.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds through six appearances. He’s finding ways to help the team win, despite shooting just 38.2 percent from the field.

“He’s really, really talented. Clearly, he has amazing court vision. He runs the floor well, shares the ball,” said a scout who works for a player agent. “I think his on-court demeanor is good. He has leadership qualities but he’s a little too quiet, a little too reserved.”

Unlike his biggest advocate, boisterous father LaVar Ball, Lonzo has kept a stoic countenance on the floor. He’s just starting to reveal bits of his personality to reporters but mostly answers questions with short sentences.

Ball has clearly shown out in Las Vegas. Instead of playing back-to-back-to-back, the Lakers sat him out the final game after he suffered calf tightness on Sunday. But Ball had already shown everything necessary this summer.

Ball had to adjust to the summer league game before he felt comfortable, and his transition to the NBA in the fall will take some time as well.

The Lakers have landed a dynamic point guard who can toss a pass nearly the length of the court with pinpoint accuracy. The playmaking will be there, but the bigger question will be his ability to score off the dribble and at the basket against NBA caliber talent.  

“He prefers to pass first, but if they give him the option, he’s going to get to the rim and score,” said the Western Conference scout. “I’d say he’s not the best finisher at the rim yet [at the NBA level], but he’s very good there. It’s just a complement to the rest of the stuff he does. It’s not one of the main components of his game.”

At UCLA, Ball was a highly efficient scorer, both inside and out, but some remain skeptical that it will translate to the NBA level.

Given the Lakers struggles over the last four seasons, and their lack of faith in their 2015 No. 2 pick (Russell, since traded to the Brooklyn Nets), the franchise needs Ball to be a high-impact player.

It may only be summer league, but Ball has been a revelation. He earned the most valuable player honor and helped lead the team to a title.

The Lakers may have finally landed a transcendent player, provided Ball’s game can translate to Staples Center.

Lakers Insider Notebook

Kuzma Standing Out

The Lakers selected Utah forward Kyle Kuzma with the No. 27 pick in the NBA draft.

Kuzma has rewarded the team with a tremendous summer league, including a most valuable player award for his performance in the championship game.

At 21.9 points per game on 51.4 percent shooting, the 21-year old Kuzma is the league’s fourth-best scorer (among players with five or more appearances).

“I think my expectation was just to come in and try and dominate and try to impose my will,” Kuzma said. “Every single game I play, I play with a chip on my shoulder and feel like I have to go out there and prove myself every single night.”

Ball has often found Kuzma streaking down the court to catch his pass some 50 feet away.

“He’s faster than a lot of 4s, plus he can shoot,” Ball said. “On picks, he’s popping—he’s wide open and knocking it down. He can get to the rim. He can do a little bit of everything.”

The Lakers have Larry Nance Jr. and Randle at power forward. Corey Brewer and Ingram play the 3. Veteran Luol Deng is well compensated to play forward as well.

It’s unclear just where Kuzma will find his minutes in the regular season, but his play in Las Vegas suggests that coach Luke Walton needs to find a role in the rotation.

“I love him,” said the Western Conference scout. “[Kuzma] is a great player to have in today’s NBA. He’s long he shoots it well. He’s competitive. I think he has a really bright future in the league.”

     

Nwaba in Chicago

The Lakers were lucky to sign guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope after the Detroit Pistons chose to trade for Avery Bradley (from the Boston Celtics) instead of reinvesting heavily in Caldwell-Pope.

The Celtics had hoped to land Gordon Hayward while keeping their core together, including Bradley. Instead, the NBA’s salary cap fell $2 million short of the league’s $101 million projection.

At $99 million, Boston had to make a difficult decision that ultimately benefitted the Lakers.

While Los Angeles could have offered Caldwell-Pope a contract starting at $17.2 million, they gave the defensive-minded guard $18 million.

That meant the team had to waive David Nwaba’s non-guaranteed salary of $1.3 million, which in turn, opened up the extra cash needed for Caldwell-Pope.

While various members of the team’s coaching staff and front office hoped that Nwaba would clear waivers and become eligible to re-sign at the same $1.3 million figure, the Chicago Bulls claimed the second-year guard.

Nwaba was a standout on the D-Fenders (now South Bay Lakers) in the NBA’s Development League (now known as the NBA G League).

After signing a pair of 10-day contracts with the Lakers this past season, Nwaba was rewarded with a two-year deal—the second to be completed in Chicago.

Caruso Two-Way Payday

Playing without Ball, 23-year-old guard Caruso gave the Lakers a sublime performance against the Kings by scoring 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting with nine assists and four steals.

Undrafted in 2016, the Texas A&M product spent last season with the Oklahoma City Blue, where the Lakers first noted his potential.

Soon after the Lakers‘ win over Sacramento, the team signed him to their first two-way contract, a new tool in the league’s collective bargaining agreement that allows for a player to play in both the NBA and G League throughout the season.

While with the South Bay Lakers, Caruso will earn a G League salary (roughly $26,000), but for up to 45 days, he’ll make NBA prorated minimum money at approximately $4,608 a day.

“I knew coming in after the D-League, coming into this offseason, that I was probably going to have a chance at [a two-way]. I did my research and homework,” Caruso said. “Once I get on the court, by the way I play, hopefully you can tell that I just want to win.”

Caruso’s opportunity for big minutes came out of ankle injuries in the backcourt to P.J. Dozier and Lakers‘ No. 30 pick Josh Hart.

For South Bay, Caruso can fill the role vacated by Josh Magette, who signed a two-way with the Atlanta Hawks.

          

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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