LAS VEGAS — Every Las Vegas Summer League, most of the attention is (rightfully) on the current crop of lottery prospects competing in the desert. To the vast majority of NBA aficionados, the rest of the players fighting for their careers might as well be traffic cones for players like Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram to weave around as they get Los Angeles Lakers fans hyped for the season.
Amidst the NBA’s highest-rated summer league games ever, those tuning in for Ball or Ingram may have noticed a vaguely familiar figure. Lakers summer league guard Vander Blue — the final D-League MVP before its G League re-brand — played in two games for the Lakers in 2015 and has spent his last three years toiling away for their minor league team.
With a strong summer league in the books, he’s hoping he can stay with the parent squad permanently, but he’s not going to publicly beg for a spot.
"I'm going to let my work speak for itself,” Blue said. “I pray to God [my opportunity is] here with the Lakers, but we'll see what happens in the next couple of days."
Blue left it all out on the floor in Las Vegas, averaging the second-most points he’s ever averaged in summer league (15) on by far the highest percentage he’s ever shot in summer ball (50 percent), all while averaging the most assists (three) he’s ever dished in summer league. Blue also shot 40 percent on threes while snaring 3.8 rebounds per game.
The numbers, and the way Blue often compiled them while helping steady the summer Lakers in crunch time, were enough to catch president of basketball operations Magic Johnson’s attention.
"Vander Blue has really surprised me. He's been playing really good,” Johnson said during a broadcast of one of the Lakers’ games in Las Vegas.
"I tried to do a little bit of everything. Rebound, score, assist. Try to make the right play for my team. I think they got a good chance to see me run the team and show my leadership,” Blue said.
Blue helped lead the Los Angeles D-Fenders (now the South Bay Lakers) to a D-League Finals appearance two seasons ago and their best regular season record ever in 2016-17, all while ranking top-three in the league in scoring over his three seasons in Los Angeles.
His scoring exploits consistently left him amongst the top performers in the D-League, but only resulted in two brief cups of coffee on the Lakers and Boston Celtics’ rosters, mainly because most NBA teams have guys that can score. They need players who can help in other ways as well, which is what Blue was trying to show in Las Vegas.
“I know coming up in the D-League, it might seem like I was a selfish player or just all about myself because of the amount of points I was scoring at the rate I was scoring them, but my whole life I've been about winning,” Blue said. “I want to play with winners. There's no better feeling than that. I think I got to show everybody, not just Magic and [Lakers general manager Rob] Pelinka, I got to show everybody that I'm a team guy and at the end of the day I'm just a winner."
Former D-Fenders point guard and current Atlanta Hawks two-way point contract guard Josh Magette has seen Blue’s style not only contribute to winning, but make life easier on his teammates as well.
“As a point guard, Vander would take a lot of pressure off me. Everyone knows about his scoring but he can handle the ball and make plays for others. Other defenses key on him so much that it opens up lanes for me and others to make plays easily,” Magette told Silver Screen and Roll.
Easing the burden on a pass-first point guard would be a critical skill if Blue wants to fulfill his wish to join the Lakers on an NBA deal or two-way contract, and during summer league his ability to quickly and aggressively attack the defenses Ball compromised off of kick-outs and capably score down the stretch were keys to several of the Lakers’ victories.
Blue also caught the passing fever Ball brought to the whole Lakers team, making solid read after solid read to find teammates over the course of the tournament.
Blue is never going to be a team’s primary ball handler. His main skillset will always be scoring, but the small increase in diversity in his game might be enough to land him a two-way deal or camp invite, either from the Lakers or another team. After the Lakers were done with summer league, Blue said he just wants to make sure he’s ready for his next chance.
“I want to tighten up everything. I had a two-month setback on my shoulder after the season. My shoulder is messed up, so I really couldn't work out as much as I wanted to. I really couldn't prepare for this. I just want to get back into a rhythm, get fully healthy. I had to fight through the pain and play through this,” Blue said. “[I just want to get] fully healthy, get to camp. Like I said, I pray it's this camp, but we'll see what happens."
Blue laid it all out on the line in Las Vegas, hitting the floor over and over on a bum shoulder, literally sacrificing his body for one more chance at his NBA dream. Even if it doesn’t work out, it led to him getting his other wish: winning a Las Vegas Summer League title on his 25th birthday.
For now, Blue is happy with that.
"Everything is good,” Blue said, grinning from ear to ear after the game. “God is amazing, nothing but smiles on my face today.”
If Blue’s play earned him a shot at Lakers training camp, it seems a safe bet that smile will stay in place a while longer.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per Real GM. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.