They played to a packed arena every time, whether or not Lonzo Ball was playing. The Las Vegas Summer League is always filled with Laker fans, but they had never been treated to the kind of success from their team that they witnessed this July.
For the first time ever, the Lakers won the Las Vegas Summer League. They showed off their new point guard in front of current and potential future Lakers. Several of the Lakers' veterans attended the games. LeBron James, a Lakers free agent target for next summer, sat courtside one night when Ball nearly had a triple double with 36 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds.
The Lakers will return to Las Vegas on Sunday, taking with them lessons gained from this summer. Here is a look at what was learned there:
Summer League head coach Jud Buechler: "Our plan was from the start, talking to Luke [Lakers coach Luke Walton], the focus was going to be defense and running and trying not to run an offense. First two games things didn't go exactly how we wanted them to. We played well but we were 0-2. And then just kind of pulled it together."
Ball notched a pair of triple-doubles during Summer League, but he started slowly, shooting one-of-11 from three-point range in his first game: "[In] college, you get a week you can sit up, sit back and watch film and stuff. But the NBA, it's a quick turnaround, so, you've just got to put it behind you and move forward."
IS THE KID ANOTHER KIDD
Ball has been compared to Jason Kidd. Now the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, Kidd watched Ball's first game. He said: "They set up a great first play for him. Just understanding that it's not always going to go in the basket and the second game he had a triple double so it just shows he has a great feel. There's a lot of anticipation, a lot of hype around the game .… He came back and showed that he can be one of the best rookies in the league."
As Ball found his rhythm, his teammates learned from him. Alex Caruso, the Lakers' backup point guard in Summer League, earned a two-way contract after his play in July: "We had a really good chemistry .… I don' think anyone hurt themselves. Everybody improved their situation .… For me, when I was backing up Lonzo, I just tried to fit into any role that I was playing on a given night.
"He's an incredible player. He's still 19. When I was 19 I couldn't do the things he was doing. He pushes the ball well. He's just one of the guys. Everybody likes to make a big deal out of the Ball name and the BBB brand. But when he's on the court he's just one of the guys. I think guys gravitate toward that, that he can have all that but when it's time to play he just gets down to business."
Jeff Van Gundy spent a decade as an NBA head coach and is now the coach of USA Basketball. He watched Summer League and balked at the comparisons to Kidd: "Either way, rush to judgment that a guy is already a living legend, or rush to judgment that he is somehow disappointing [is wrong]. I think you have to give everything time and space to develop. He seems like a fine person and cares about the game and his teammates. I just get scared when I start hearing like Jason Kidd's name. I'm like, did we watch Jason Kidd? He was great. For 20 years. But he struggled some, too, early. Summer League is a very, very small step. For the NFL I would say it's the equivalent for me of he had a great OTA session."
Still, it gave the Lakers coaches a glimpse of what he could do. What did Walton learn? "That he is capable of doing it at this level. I know it is summer league and you are not playing against [NBA vets], but he is a winner. He really is. He makes his teammates better, people love playing with him. He makes the gym exciting to be in."
Magic Johnson didn't mention any names, but the idea of how free agents perceived the performance excited him. "Of course, free agents are excited .… He makes the game easy for you. How many layups did [Kyle] Kuzma average a game? Three? Dunks or layups at least three. All he has to do is get out on the wing. It's there. Again, that's what you want. You want a guy who can make the game easy for you."
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope agreed to a deal with the Lakers in the middle of Summer League: "I watched the championship game. That was pretty exciting. I saw the highlights of the other games. It just looked fun. I wanted to play with them how they were playing. Zo was throwing the ball in the air, they were getting easy layups, threes, they were just playing hard on the defensive end. That really just excited me and I wanted to just be a part of that."
Ball didn't play in the championship game with a calf injury, but he was named Summer League most valuable player for his overall performance: "I just went out there and played the game I know how to play. Started slow, finished strong. That's all there was to it .… Credit to my teammates, the coaching staff, our fans for helping us out. Those two weeks were definitely fun."