by ERIC PINCUS, Bleacher Report
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.
— NBA (@NBA) July 8, 2017
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.
One NBA player said tonight to notice how often Lonzo’s passes lead to shots b/c of how confident teammates are when they get ball from him.
— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) July 14, 2017
“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.
Stages of Summer League Lonzo
Game 1: bust
Game 2: might buy a lonzo jersey
Game 3: might get a Lonzo tattoo
— ☕netw3rk (@netw3rk) July 16, 2017
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.