The young Los Angeles Lakers shone bright in Las Vegas on Friday night. In their first outing of Summer League, the team put together a total effort, beating the New Orleans Pelicans 85-65.
But while the final score was certainly pleasing, the on-court product was better. The effects of a new coaching staff and experience under the belts of several of the players were immediately felt despite limited practice time.
This was a Lakers team featuring much more ball movement, much more player movement, and as D’Angelo Russell put it after the game, “funner.”
Reading into a Summer League game is dangerous, of course. The level of competition is severely lower than what these Lakers will face in late October and beyond.
But for at least one night, the Lakers looked competent again. And while this product will not translate to a large number of wins, it is setting in place a future for the franchise – a future that looks imminently more bright than it did just a few months ago.
The Lakers were led by their star point guard D’Angelo Russell. The sophomore point guard looked incredibly comfortable in starting his second season in the league. Russell finished the game with 20 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, and three steals. The seasoning he had last season proved valuable in playing against a largely inexperienced Pelicans team.
D’Angelo had some issues to fix, as well. He played too loose at times, racking up four turnovers and losing focus on his off-ball defense at times. However, he made up for it with efficient shooting (7-12, 1-1 from three, 5-5 from the FT line) and a revamped post-up game, improving the skills he showcased last year.
That post game figures to be a big part of the Lakers offense. Luke Walton, watching the game as a spectator, told Amin Elhassan of ESPN that the team would use it within the flow of the offense. Walton also cracked that Russell had certainly learned a thing or two from Kobe Bryant last season. Russell also learned to take leadership of the team, caught on camera speaking to Brandon Ingram during a timeout as we routinely saw Kobe do with the young point guard last year.
Second year experience was not exclusive to Russell, however. Larry Nance, Jr. expanded on a surprisingly great rookie season by starring in the Summer League opener. Nance finished with 11 points and nine rebounds and added two monstrous blocks on the defensive end.
The power forward also flashed his improving jumper, hitting a three from the top of the key to the joy of the many Lakers fans in attendance. Nance also seemed to have taken Walton’s calls for a faster tempo to heart. Time and time again after a defensive rebound, Nance pushed the pace by either taking the ball down court himself or throwing outlets to guards already on the move.
Anthony Brown looked comfortable in his second season, especially on the defensive end. Brown, tasked with defending Pelicans rookie Buddy Hield for most of the game, did a phenomenal job. Hield was held to 13 points on 5-20 shooting and committed four turnovers.
Brown’s offense is still a work in progress as he 3-7 and 1-5 from three. But the manner in which he received shooting opportunities were better and he did show an ability to run off screens to get good looks. Now, it’s just a matter of making them count.
But the story of the night was the debut of two new Lakers. Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac both impressed in their rookie debuts, wowing the crowd with their NBA readiness.
Zubac was the most surprising showing of the night. The big man displayed more prowess than originally expected of him, finishing with 11 points (3-4 shooting) and adding five rebounds and three blocks. He played with touch around the rim on offense and with conviction protecting the rim on defense.
Zubac showed some rawness, as well. He was often left off-balance due to his poor defensive stance and was not too effective in his screen setting. But in a debut as the 32nd pick in the draft, Zubac was more than promising. And as fans adored the new Laker, he officially announced his chosen/given nickname of Zublocka.
Finally, Brandon Ingram, the heralded number two overall pick. As expected, Ingram showed the smoothness in his game, scoring almost effortlessly. He did not let the moment diminish him either, swishing his first shot, an off-the-dribble jumper on the right wing. Ingram finished the game with 12 points, shooting 5-9 from the field, and added four rebounds.
But while Ingram’s offensive game was expected, his defensive effort perhaps shined brighter. The Duke product finished with two blocks and one steal, using his much discussed length to his advantage. Ingram struggled a bit with boxing out on the defensive glass, but it was an altogether stellar effort from the small forward.
Again, patience must be preached. This was only one game against players who, for the most part, will not be on NBA rosters in a few months.
But for one night, we caught the future of the Lakers clicking together seamlessly. We saw a confident D’Angelo Russell having fun while dominating smaller players. We saw a gifted Larry Nance, Jr. do a little bit of everything and lead the charge on defense. We saw Anthony Brown take the responsibility of guarding the other team’s best player and delivering. We saw Ivica Zubac become America’s new sweetheart as he surprised everyone with his skillset, leading to Russell calling him “a big fella with some sweetness.” And we saw Brandon Ingram, a smooth and effective scorer who’s much more than a scorer.
Lakers basketball is here for a few days before the dullness of the offseason begins. But this outing by the team is enough to keep a fanbase bereft of any hope looking forward to a season that may not feature many wins, but will showcase plenty of promise for the future.