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All eyes are on Isaac Bonga as South Bay Lakers tip off season

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Isaac Bonga will continue his development with the South Bay Lakers this season, and there’s a lot to be excited about with the 18-year-old German.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers-Media Day
Isaac Bonga, facing a much bigger crowd of media than he’ll deal with in South Bay.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

El Segundo — While the Los Angeles Lakers were getting ready to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves in Minneapolis on Monday, Lakers rookie Isaac Bonga was making his rounds at the South Bay Lakers’ media day, which looked like a small family gathering compared to the media circus at the Lakers’ media day in September.

The atmosphere was fitting for Bonga, however, who won’t be dealing with Lakers-size crowds or expectations for at least another year or two, developing in what qualifies as NBA anonymity while the Lakers wait to see if he’s their scouting department’s latest diamond in the rough.

The Lakers assigned Bonga, the No. 39 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, to their G League affiliate last month after Bonga went through training camp with the senior squad. In five preseason games with the Lakers, the 18-year-old averaged 3.6 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 10.7 minutes per game.

Bonga’s breakout game came against the Golden State Warriors, where he put up an impressive stat line of 12 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists. However, earlier in the preseason against the Denver Nuggets, he passed up a potential game-winner and it stuck with him.

Bonga said he’ll be ready to take the next big shot in crunch time.

“Oh yeah, I’m definitely (going to take it),” Bonga said. “Those mistakes, I’m going to learn from them and I’m just the guy to keep on going.”

Unfortunately, he won’t be taking those shots for the Lakers again any time soon. The 6-foot-9, German-born point guard is expected to spend a good chunk of his rookie season developing with the South Bay Lakers under head coach Coby Karl.

Karl already likes what he’s seen from Bonga in their brief time together, especially his versatility.

“Isaac, he’s already shown in his time in America, playing professionally over here, he’s so versatile,” Karl said. “I think his game actually might fit a little better with the European game because there’s a little more space on the floor, less physicality. With his age, he’s a little lean right now so I think he’ll pick up on some of that stuff as he stays in the weight room, but he’s versatile.”

Bonga said he is lifting weights every day and is eating a “normal” diet to put on weight. Despite his wiry frame, Karl said he plans to play him at power forward at times this season.

Aside from his size, Karl said that Bonga’s feel for the game makes it easy for the coaching staff to play him in different positions.

“There’s a lot of things that he just does naturally that I don’t have to coach, or Luke doesn’t have to coach, or our assistants, we don’t really have to worry about,” Karl said. “That’s fun to see as we put him in different situations and different spots and he just figures it out, which is a healthy skill for a player.”

Bonga believes the Lakers picked him because of his defensive upside, and hopes to be a player that can guard positions 1-4.

If Karl plans to play Bonga at power forward, there are going to be nights where he shares to front court with fellow German rookie Moritz Wagner. When Silver Screen and Roll spoke to Wagner last month, Wagner said he and Bonga didn’t have a relationship prior to teaming up in Los Angeles. Since then, Bonga says he has developed a “special” relationship with Wagner.

“It’s special. I would say it’s special to have a different German guy out here,” Bonga said. “The other day we had a scrimmage against Zu and Svi and we speak German all the time. It’s kind of fun to have someone like that out here. It’s cool because Moe has great energy at a really good age, so it’s special to have him out here.”

That energy is something Karl and the coaching staff appreciates from Wagner as well, even in the short time he’s spent in South Bay rehabbing.

“I think with Moe, last game was his first game since summer league when he hurt himself. He was rusty and that was to be expected, but what we loved about that is he was probably the happiest guy in the gym, even though he wasn’t playing well,” Karl said. “I think that’s part of why he’s been brought in here, to be part of this culture and do things the right way. We love that as a South Bay team and I think the Lakers really appreciate that about him as well.”

The two rookies are expected to switch back and forth from Los Angeles to South Bay throughout the season. Bonga and Wagner got a taste of life as a Laker during the preseason and as a result, a front row seat to the LeBron James show in L.A.

Bonga said that even in his brief time with the Lakers he has learned a lot from James.

“Every day. I learn every day something from him,” Bonga said. “It’s insane, all the details and little things. It’s just kind of a blessing for me to be in that position right now, and I’m just trying to enjoy it.”

Bonga also singled out Rondo and Kuzma as two guys that have helped him since he came into the league and said that he wants to watch as much film as they do.

Bonga will make his regular season debut for the South Bay Lakers Saturday when they host the Stockton Kings at the UCLA Health Training Center. And while there will be a number of familiar names on the roster including Wagner, Johnathan Williams, Alex Caruso, Andre Ingram, Scott Machado and Joel Berry II, all eyes on South Bay this year will be focused squarely on Bonga.

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RadRivas.