The Los Angeles Lakers' time at Summer League was a disappointment to most, especially in light of the expectations that this would be the most talented squad the Lakers had ever sent to Las Vegas. Julius Randle started out rusty, D'Angelo Russell needs more time to adjust to the speed of the NBA game, and the half-court offense the Lakers ran could best be described as a bunch of guys running in circles hoping something would happen.
But now, with the benefit of hindsight, what did we learn from the Lakers' Las Vegas excursion? Here are some thoughts, with insight from covering the team at the Thomas and Mack Center.
The team took this seriously
From Mark Madsen taking full responsibility for the Lakers' elimination from the Summer League "playoffs" to Julius Randle nearly choking up after the team fell to the New York Knicks, the Lakers' summer time was far from a vacation. "Lakers are not used to losing. When we lose, it's not like we let ourselves or the team down. We let the whole Laker nation down," said Russell after the loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
The team was not completely lacking in perspective though. "We're young, we definitely want to grow .... we're going to continue to progress, and continue to get better," Jordan Clarkson said after the team lost its opener to the Timberwolves. That may sound like the typical and tired recycled postgame quotes players always give after a loss, but it wasn't just Clarkson talking about the need for improvement. Every Laker was on the same page.
From Julius Randle telling reporters "I have to get my teammates going, and I've got to get myself going. I think it starts with me. I've got to be better," to D'Angelo citing that he "had a lot of mental mistakes, not paying attention to my guy, sleeping a little bit on defense, just little things that you can do in college that you can't do in the pros;" the Lakers' postgame scrums were brought to you by the word "improvement." While most would be happy to cite the relative unimportance of Summer League in the grand scheme of things, the Lakers' three most important players are not among them, and honestly care about every win and loss no matter the environment.
The spotlight on this team was as bright as Las Vegas is hot
You knew expectations for this team were a bit inflated when D'Angelo Russell was receiving "MVP" chants on his first free-throws on his first possession at an exhibition game in Las Vegas. Things only got more out of control from there. The upper deck of the Thomas and Mack Center needed to be opened to accommodate the rabid fan interest for the first time almost anyone I talked to could remember:
Today's crowd for Lakers/Sixers SL game. Hi, Upper Deck. pic.twitter.com/Qu7iOq0qD9— Rey-Rey (@TheNoLookPass) July 12, 2015
And here is a picture of the upper deck after the Lakers finished their game for the day:
The weekend kept getting crazier. Larry Nance, Jr. went from draft night goat to GOAT, with fans chanting his name and calling for him to be re-inserted to the game during his breakout performance against the Philadelphia 76ers when Randle sat out for precautionary reasons. During the Knicks game, fans booed the team off the court after a lackluster first quarter. During a Summer League game!
The attention did not let up off the court. Several outlets from the Philippines sent reporters just to cover Clarkson. Russell was reportedly being hounded by TMZ reporters hoping to catch him "messing around" in Las Vegas for a "gotcha moment" to blame his struggles on. The spotlight used by cameras was literally too bright for Russell after game one. Analogies don't get much more perfect than that. And with all of this attention, it is important to remember:
These were kids with little experience playing in a slow-developing system
They may have a fire to win and improve that goes beyond their years, but Russell is just a 19-year-old rookie that still wants to use a Gatorade bottle as a microphone to ask questions to Clarkson in a post-win media scrum. Randle is basically a rookie after barely playing more than 10 regular season minutes last year. Clarkson is 23, but is only a year removed from being the 46th overall pick in the NBA draft. While this core may have plenty of promise, the reality is they require some patience while they grow.
Madsen was quick to blame the team's sluggish start against New York on it being a "mistake" to give the team a day off on Sunday. He may be right, but just as responsible was the Princeton offense the team was attempting to quickly implement and run to effectiveness despite very little practice time. The fact that grind-out halfcourt possessions is pretty much the opposite of what this team's strengths should be only made it harder to witness.
"Once I get under the system and get the hang of it a little better, I think the better I'll possibly be," said Russell, who did start to show signs of getting comfortable with his best game of the tournament, a 21-point explosion in the Lakers' consolation game against the Utah Jazz. The summer experience in the Princeton may pay off when the team is more familiar with it during the regular season, but as far as Las Vegas Summer League, it was just about the least effective way to utilize the very inexperienced players on the roster.
The inexperience of the youth that will make up a big chunk of the Lakers' roster is the biggest takeaway for fans from the Lakers' field trip to Vegas. Like the many inebriants flowing freely on the strip, the promise of the Lakers' Summer League squad left fans intoxicated and feeling just a bit overconfident. It was fun while it lasted, but the results just left everyone with a hangover. The only real solution is to have patience, ride it out, and wait for everything to develop. Watch Russell make passes like this, or Randle drain a few midrange jumpers, and it's easy to see the light at the end of the tunnel.