When undrafted guard P.J. Dozier left the game with an ankle sprain, the Lakers literally had more players on the court than available to play on the bench.
Given that the Kings’ roster boasted recent lottery picks De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Justin Jackson and Georgios Papagiannis along with well-regarded young talents like Frank Mason and Skal Labissiere, the Lakers didn’t look like they had a chance.
"I was in that position quite a few times in my career, so I was really happy to see guys that hadn't had a chance to play, who have worked incredibly hard in the last week-and-a-half get a chance to go out there,” said Lakers summer league head coach Jud Buechler as the water the team doused him in to celebrate his first Las Vegas win dripped to the floor. “I thought [they] really showed that they can be professional basketball players."
Those “professional basketball players” put on a display of ball movement and teamwork atypical of the usual “I’m going to get mine” mentality demonstrated by summer leaguers looking for their one NBA shot.
Instead, David Nwaba knifed through the lane for dunks on or around Kings defenders. Thomas Bryant made correct read after correct read on whether to shoot or make the extra pass. Gabe York and Alec Brown hit huge threes off the bench. D-League MVP Vander Blue hit timely basket after basket for the Lakers down the stretch as part of his team-high 21-point night.
"We were just playing together, trying to get not good shots, but great shots,” Blue said.
Shining brightest -- and perhaps most unexpectedly — was Alex Caruso, who started in place of Ball and had a magical night where seemingly nothing could go wrong for the undrafted point guard who had averaged 7.5 minutes over the Lakers’ first two games.
At one point Caruso threw a no-look pass over his shoulder and across his body to Travis Wear, whose missed three he snuck in to tip home as part of the magic surrounding his impressive outing. It was just one of those nights for the one-year D-League veteran.
"I know that I can play basketball. I believe in myself, and once I started making shots early I knew it was going to be a good night," Caruso said. "Guys making shots makes it a lot easier. When I make shots and then I make good passes and good decision and then those guys get buckets too, it just makes the game a lot more free-flowing and the defense is off-balance, it's just really easy to get going. We found a groove early and just kind of rode that."
One fan wearing a Kings jersey and crown held up a sign saying that Ball — who sat out with a groin injury and was not in fact listed as DNP- (Afraid) — “feared” Fox, an unlikely claim that certainly wasn’t true of Caruso, who roasted the fifth overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft for 18 points and nine assists with a flurry of threes in a dazzling display that led some to wonder whether he is a better prospect than Ball and Fox going forward.
Okay, so no one was actually wondering that. However, the performance was exactly what Caruso needed in order to get on NBA radars and potentially earn himself an invite to the Lakers’ or another team’s camp.
"We hadn't seen a ton of that type of level from him,” Buechler admitted. “Obviously he played well in camp, but that was next-level stuff he was doing out there. He was going against Fox, really competing against him and controlling him too, so I'm really happy for the kid. He's worked really hard and he proved himself tonight."
The Kings nearly closed at the end before some timely plays from Blue, Caruso and Bryant gave them enough to hold on. Whatever happens to the Lakers’ motley crew of overlooked-and-undervalued prospects going forward, the most impressive part of the night was the way the team didn’t roll over despite an 0-2 start and a showdown with much more highly regarded prospects, all while missing most of their own best players.
For one night in Las Vegas they didn’t miss them, and the win was emblematic of the pass-first, team-centric mindset the Lakers so desperately want to instill.
“We just all play together. The first two games, that's what got us close was playing together, so we just had to keep it going again,” Nwaba said. “I'm just glad we got this win.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per NBA.com. and Basketball-Reference.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.