2016 NBA Summer League Observations: Russell takes over

After hearing many times over how amazing the NBA Summer League was to attend as an NBA fan and blogger, I finally made the commitment and flew across the country for both my first flight and my first trip west of St. Louis.

It was easily one of my favorite trips ever. Seeing the Lakers (even the Summer Lakers) up close with friends I’d interacted with online together in Las Vegas made for an amazing trip.

During the trip, I got to see the Lakers up close and personal for two of the team’s three non-playoff games, including Russell’s game-winner, was an amazing and eye-opening experience. Seeing players before, during and after games and how they interact with one another gave lasting impressions.

With lots to take in from the Lakers (and the experience as a whole), I thought it’d be best to organize my thoughts into one post.

  • This is D’Angelo Russell’s team. The biggest takeaway overall from watching the team live was that Russell has embraced the role as a leader. He’s constantly talking to players during and after plays, offering directions. As Anthony Irwin pointed out, Russell and Summer League head coach Jesse Mermuys were oft-seen together before games with the former constantly talking.
  • Larry Nance has made big improvements this off-season, especially defensively. Nance was the primary match-up for Ben Simmons when the two teams met and Nance was quite impressive. His quick hands led to a handful of steals and deflections. Offensively, he’s worked on extending his range and looked great in pick-and-rolls with Russell. He’s in store for a big year and could really push Julius Randle this season.
  • Brandon Ingram is long. And yes, he’s very skinny, but boy is he long. While he struggled with his jumper, he drew an astonishing number of fouls. Obviously, it was Summer League against inexperienced defenders, but his length allows him to keep the ball away from defenders when they reach, helping him draw fouls. It was also clear that Ingram had “it” in terms of a feel for the game. While his shot wasn’t falling, he was making the right decisions and the right reads. Eventually, those shots will fall.
  • Anthony Brown is really testing how badly he can perform offensively while still keeping a roster spot. Prior to his final game, Brown was anything but good from behind the arc. His defense, meanwhile, was a welcome surprise and something that makes him a worthwhile keep on the roster. However, he’s going to need to keep hitting shots like he did in his final game to find playing time and not just a roster spot.
  • Ivica Zubac was a very pleasant surprise. After flying down draft boards due to being unwilling to be stashed in Europe, Zubac proved he was a worthy selection by dominating down low. He was handed lofty comparisons to the Gasol brothers, but his defense and mid-range game give you a sense that you’re watching the Spaniards. More than anything, he’s become a fan favorite if not for anything more than his love of In-N-Out (which is better than Five Guys and was one of the highlights of my trip).
  • Zach Auguste, like I predicted (toot-toot of my horn there), also looked solid for the Lakers. He had issues on defense, occasionally getting lost on rotations or failing to ICE defenders, which was especially noticeable down the stretch against Philly. However, his activity on the boards and in general on the court reminds me a lot of Nance. If nothing else, Auguste earned himself a training camp invite where he can fight for one of the few roster spots left.
  • Jamil Wilson had a surprisingly nice Summer League. Overlooked given the names on the Lakers’ roster, Wilson saw lots of time due to the lack of depth at the wing and Brown’s struggles with his shot. When the Lakers played small with Ingram at the four, it was Wilson who often played the three. He didn’t light up the scoreboard, scoring just 4.0 points per game, but he was a nice glue guy and was solid defensively. Like Auguste, he earned himself a training camp invite and could be a nice addition to the D-Fenders next season.
  • Xavier Munford was another nice addition. As the back-up point guard, Munford led the Lakers’ second unit which, at times, ran the offense better than the starters. He certainly is worthy of a spot on an NBA roster as a third point guard, but with the acquisition of Jose Calderon and re-signing of Marcelo Huertas, the Lakers are short on spots. In an ideal situation, Munford is brought on for training camp, released, and signs with the D-Fenders.
  • Guys like Moustapha Fall, Trevor Lacey and Jarvis Varnado all looked solid in limited action. None will likely make an NBA roster, but if the Lakers can hang onto them in the D-League, they could make interesting fringe prospects and potential call-ups should the Lakers deal the likes of Calderon or Lou Williams at the deadline.
  • From a head coaching perspective, the difference was night and day compared to last year’s Summer League. The offense was constantly flowing and open looks were created within the offense, things you couldn’t say about last year’s version of the team. It was also interesting to hear/see Russell compliment Mermuys’ play calls, especially on his game-winner, which is something he never did under Byron Scott.

Overall, the Lakers looked really good for most of the Summer League. Even in the game they lost, they surged out to a big lead and looked dominant. If the offense ran in Las Vegas is a precursor to what the team will do this season, then expect a fun, enjoyable season in LA, something we haven’t had in years.

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