LAS VEGAS- After the Lakers' first game of summer league, Larry Nance, Jr. couldn't help but throw a little bit of shade at his former rivals at UNLV.
"This is the Wyoming Cowboys' house right here," Nance, Jr. cracked with a straight face when asked about hearing fans chant his name at his second consecutive trip to Las Vegas Summer League. "It was really cool, just the outpouring of support we have from our fans, it means the world."
While Nance, Jr.'s rookie season showed promise, the level of acclaim he attained in Las Vegas was a little unexpected. He was far from the most heralded player on his own team, much less the entire tournament, but he might have been the most embraced.
The Las Vegas contingent of Lakers fans have become famous for making games a raucous affair, but they scream loudest for Nance, Jr. Whether he dunked, grabbed a steal, or hit the deck in dogged pursuit of a loose ball, the deafening chants of "LAR-RY" invariably tumbled down from the rafters to shake the Thomas and Mack center.
Nance, Jr.’s time in Las Vegas may have ended in an unfortunate injury during the Lakers’ disappointing 88-80 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but that shouldn’t overshadow what was a phenomenal performance overall from the second-year forward.
The crowd and Nance, Jr. fed off of each other's energy during the Lakers' time in summer league, and if D'Angelo Russell has ice in his veins, Nance, Jr. often appeared to have mainlined the applause of the Lakers' rabid Las Vegas fanbase.
In a tournament in which some players, for whatever possibly-Las-Vegas-related reasons, don't always give 100 percent effort, Nance, Jr. never dropped below 110, and it allowed the Lakers' defense to find another gear and kick off the team's transition attack.
"He's been great, really on the defensive end he's made it easier on a lot of players," Russell said of his fellow 2015 first round pick. "He's everywhere covering up, blocking everything, he's rebounding, getting his hands on everything, deflections. He's a valuable piece, as I said before, he's a valuable asset to a winning team."
The Lakers did plenty of that before their surprising loss to the Cavs, getting off to a 3-0 start and earning a bye into the second round of the “playoffs.” Even on Wednesday, far from Nance, Jr.'s best game, his screens, rim runs, and defensive stops doused the Warriors in gasoline before Russell lit them on fire.
That clip highlights Russell, but it’s Nance, Jr. screening for him, a consistent aspect of a Lakers' offense that led to so much success for the latter in summer league.
That isn't the only thing the Lakers' sophomore forward did that doesn’t show up in traditional metrics. He continually put his long wingspan to good use to help create what often looked like a sea of arms when the Lakers were playing their best defense, as well as doing little things like hitting opponents out of the way so one of his teammates can clear the boards.
Outside of the pace of play, there were countless examples of Nance, Jr. mentoring and encouraging the Lakers' young players.
Larry Nance, Jr. is talking to Zubac about the last foul. “Go straight up.”— Anthony F. Irwin (@AnthonyIrwinLA) July 12, 2016
“I thought I did.”
“I know, I know. But you didn’t.”
Far from his family and other support systems in his home country, Zubac has appreciated his frontcourt partner taking him under his wing in moments like the one above, and for having his back as he attempts to adjust to the NBA level.
“It really means a lot,” Zubac said of Nance, Jr.’s support following the Lakers’ second game, when he promised to get revenge after the rookie center was dunked on. “Every time somebody is down, he comes to that guy and helps him and says good things, and you feel better after that and you play better.”
One of Zubac's fellow frontcourt rookies is also without family in town for summer league, but has appreciated his "Bash Bro" taking him under his wing.
“He's definitely been my vet, he's definitely been the most helpful,” Zach Auguste said of Nance, Jr. “He's been telling me throughout practice if I'm missing plays or kind of what to expect. How to come out here and handle certain things, he's definitely been like a big brother out here."
Nance Jr. has been helpful in the ways listed above throughout the tournament, but the Lakers' third game was his worst in a tournament in which he averaged nine points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.8 steals, and 1.8 blocks in 29.3 minutes per game.
Following the win, Nance, Jr. took responsibility and promised Lakers fans much better.
I was an ugly part of an ugly game tonight but good team win, bench came up huge for us.. 3-0 so far, might as well win this whole thing— Larry Nance Jr (@Larrydn22) July 12, 2016
The Lakers were unable to convert it into a win, but Nance, Jr. was much better in the team’s loss to the Cavs, scoring 12 points to go with 10 boards, two steals, and a block in just under 32 minutes. The forward had his fingerprints all over the Lakers’ stellar first half, from throwing outlet passes to key the break:
To getting out and taking the ball himself in transition:
As well as fearlessly attacking the basket out of pick-and-rolls:
Unfortunately, that fearlessness led to misfortune in the last of Nance, Jr.’s 32 minutes, when he crashed to the hardwood attempting to finish on the break:
It was a heartbreaking end to what would have otherwise been Nance, Jr.’s Heisenberg-like trip to the desert to make fans say his name. It’s unknown as of right now just how long Nance, Jr. will take to recover, but the Lakers at the very least know that whenver Nance, Jr. does bounce back, it will likely be with the lift of one of his countless dunks.
Questions about whether or not he or Randle are a snugger fit with the young core may ultimately have been premature, but one thing that can’t be debated after his play in Las Vegas is that whether he or Randle better complement the rest of the group, Nance, Jr. is undoubtedly a member of that nucleus now.