Los Angeles -- It started with the chants. "Lar-ry, Lar-ry, Lar-ry." They rained down from the rafters in the Thomas and Mack Center on a sweltering Saturday night late in the Los Angeles Lakers' only win in five tries in Las Vegas. Summer League taking place in Vegas is fitting, as both are often filled with reckless gambles, poor choices and over-hyped attractions.
Lakers' rookie Larry Nance, Jr. was having his best game of the tournament that night in the absence of Julius Randle, but given how excited a hope-starved crowd of Lakers fans was becoming, he also looked set to be the latest example of something looking better in the lights of Sin City but fail to live up to expectations when brought home.
Initially that proved to be the case. Nance, Jr. was acceptable in limited preseason action (4.4 points and 3.6 rebounds on 66.7 percent shooting in just 11 minutes per game), but there was little to suggest he would be much more than a high-flying novelty, and certainly not a legitimate contributor to the Lakers during the regular season.
This notion was reinforced when the subject of those delirious Las Vegas chants did not appear in the Lakers' first four games of the '15-16 campaign, seemingly buried on a team with frontcourt depth. Nance, Jr made his first appearance in the fifth game of the season, registering just three points and five rebounds, but providing energy and hustle, especially on defense, that helped spark a previously morose Lakers' team to their first win.
The 27th-overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft had earned his way into the rotation and didn't look back, playing in 30 of the Lakers next 31 games. A Lakers front office that nabbed Jordan Clarkson with the 46th-overall pick a year ago had plucked out another contributor late in the draft once again.
Nance, Jr.'s season compares favorably to his draft class. Among rookies, the springy forward ranks 14th in points per game (5.8), 13th in steals (0.6), seventh in rebounds (4.8) and offensive rebounds (1.6). His field goal percentage (54.8) also ranks first among rookies playing more than 20 minutes per game. None of those numbers will blow anyone away individually, but collectively they are unquestionably above the average expectations for one of the final picks of the first round.
"I think if you were to re-do the draft he'd be a lottery pick, so we got a steal at 27," gushed Lakers head coach Byron Scott. "Each game he seems to get better on both ends of the floor and he seems to be playing with a lot more confidence."
Rather than his own confidence, Nance, Jr. actually credits his teammates belief in him for his strong play.
"Every time they throw it back to me, Jordan [Clarkson] or Roy [Hibbert] is yelling 'shoot it' and hearing that confidence in me is pretty cool," said Nance, Jr. "And it's given me that added boost to start shooting it."
Whether it is self-confidence or his teammates' trust, to say Nance, Jr. has merely been "shooting it" as of late would be a massive understatement. The Wyoming product has been setting nets on fire over his past five games, shooting 70 percent from the field and 72.2 percent on shots not right at the rim despite taking 3.1 more shots per game over that stretch, prompting talk about whether or not he can eventually become a stretch four.
While talk of that type of development might be a bit premature, the scarier thing for opponents, rims, and Festus Ezeli than Nance, Jr. developing a jump shot? The springy son of inagural slam dunk contest champion Larry Nance, Sr. may not even be fully healthy yet.
"You are supposed to be completely healthy and back to yourself about two years out of surgery, and I'm about a year and seven months. So there is still some improvement to go and I'm still really getting back to myself," Nance, Jr. said in an explanation that couldn't help but come off like a warning. "I'm getting a little more comfortable within the offense and the game is slowing down for me. So hopefully the more and more comfortable I get my game will continue to expand."
Even more promisingly on a team full of players who want the ball in their hands, Nance, Jr. is amassing this production using just 13 percent of the Lakers' possessions while he is on the floor, the lowest usage rate on the team.
"You know what I thought about that last night after I talked to you guys and went home? I was like 'have I called a play for him?'" Scott wondered aloud to reporters. "I'm serious, it might have been four or five plays that I've called for him [since inserting him into the starting lineup], and that made me kind of think about calling more, but then like you just said, why call more when the guy is getting so much done without putting the pressure [of calling] plays for him."
For his part, Nance, Jr. is just fine with only getting table scraps on offense.
"I like being the guy that teams sometimes forget about. It's fun," said the constantly smiling Nance, Jr. "I mean you got Kobe [Bryant] on the court, you got Lou [Williams] on the court, you got Jordan [Clarkson] on the court, you got guys that at any given time can go off for thirty points... So teams are going to be keyed in on those guys and when they put their shots up I'm the one chasing them down, so hopefully they keep forgetting about me. I would love it, I would love that."
The Lakers front office, coaching staff, players, and fans of the team would all love it too. And If Nance, Jr. continues to grow at his current pace, the chants of "Lar-ry" may just travel from Las Vegas to Los Angeles yet.
All quotes obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of NBA.com