In Lakers practices sometimes, Anthony Davis will play one-on-one against undrafted rookie Devontae Cacok or 21-year-old Kostas Antetokounmpo, who is on a two-way contract. He doesn’t go easy on them, but the competition comes with some teaching.
He shows them how he uses his length to get separation and how important balance is when you’re finishing at the rim.
“It’s an experience that I’ve never had before,” Cacok said. “Just being able to play with these guys and learn from them, it’s just been a blessing.”
Often DeMarcus Cousins, out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, is on the sideline when they practice, contributing to the lessons. He tells Antetokounmpo to be patient with his moves.
“He doesn’t have to do that,” Antetokounmpo said. “That’s not his job. Just showing us attention and trying to help, I really appreciate that.”
On Friday night, players like Cacok and Antetokounmpo had a big opportunity. The Lakers played their final exhibition game against the Golden State Warriors and rested Davis, LeBron James, Quinn Cook, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo along with their injured players.
That left an opening for a handful of players who likely will spend most of their season with the South Bay Lakers in the NBA developmental league. Cacok was in the starting lineup, and Antetokounmpo, Marcus Allen, Zach Norvell Jr. and Demetrius Jackson all played heavy minutes in the Lakers’ 124-103 loss.
“I was happy with how they competed,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said. “They stood toe-to-toe for stretches of the game with Golden State’s starters and they should be commended for how hard they played, how selflessly they played and I was proud of them.”
The Warriors played their available starters. Stephen Curry played 33 minutes, Draymond Green played 31 and D’Angelo Russell played 28. All three played in the fourth quarter. Curry led all scorers with 32 points.
The Lakers’ young players took advantage of their playing time. Norvell, a former Gonzaga guard who’s also on a two-way contract, led the team with 29 points, making eight of 17 shots and delighting his teammates with fancy ball handling. At one point he executed a crossover that knocked Warriors guard Jordan Poole off his feet. He’d done that before and his teammates reacted exuberantly both times.
“Just trying to break him down, get to the basket,” Norvell said. “It was pretty cool to see the guys go crazy though.”
The 6-foot-10 Antetokounmpo blocked five shots — three in the first half. Cacok had a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Jackson nearly had one with 11 points and nine assists.
They form their own group within the team — each staying at a hotel arranged by the team during training camp. They’ll play “Fortnite” together and go out when they aren’t in the gym (and aren’t too exhausted from being in the gym).
“I feel like almost everybody on the team gets a lot of attention” from the coaching staff, Antetokounmpo said. “You don’t see that on a lot of teams.… Everybody gets the same attention.”
That’s by design. Friday morning the Lakers’ film session was geared toward their young players.
“It’s the responsibility of the head coach at this level to make sure you’re pushing your veteran guys but developing your young guys,” Vogel said. “These are all weapons in your arsenal and they’re getting a lot of attention in this preseason. And they’ve responded to it.”
Throughout training camp, they’ve become more and more comfortable with their surroundings and their superstar teammates. Cacok was a little awestruck during summer league. James and Davis didn’t play on his team, but they came to games to watch. Now he’s less overwhelmed by their presence, and just tries to take advantage of what being on their team means.
“AD’s definitely helped us out, LeBron talks to everybody. They have great knowledge,” said Cacok, a 6-7 forward from North Carolina Wilmington. “The way they talk about the game, it makes you think that you don’t really know it as well as you thought you did. But those guys got great knowledge and I just listen.”
For Antetokounmpo, some of it is familiar; his older brother, Giannis, was the NBA’s most valuable player last year. He nodded when asked if he sees similarities between the Lakers’ stars and his brother.
“Just the focus and the locked-in [attitude] they have before the games,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you see a leader, you just right away know and you see it, and you understand it right away.”