El Segundo — Isaac Bonga walked onto the UCLA Health Training Center court during the South Bay Lakers’ pregame warm-ups with a basketball in his hand, and an infectious smile on his face.
But while Bonga might be smiling, he’s also in the zone. From pregame music blaring, to teammate Joel Berry II loudly celebrating threes during warmups or various members of the Salt Lake City Stars yelling to one another, nothing could distract Bonga from being locked in on his pregame work with South Bay’s coaching staff, quietly canning jumpers in preparation for the game that evening.
The lanky 6’8” forward, now a Los Angeles resident and draped in the Lakers’ G-League affiliate’s gear, was originally born and raised in Germany, where he honed his skills playing point guard in his native country’s highest professional circuit — Basketball Bundesliga — at the tender age of 16.
The team’s interest in the then 18-year-old was spearheaded by their 20-year old international scout, Can Pelister, who had reportedly been to Frankfurt “seven or eight times” to watch him play.
“I really thought his upside was pretty high,” Pelister told the Athletic this summer. “I believe that this is a guy who in time can be a really special player.”
After trading what potentially could be a solid asset in the form of Chicago’s 2019 second round pick, as well as cash, to Philadelphia for their 39th overall pick, the Lakers seemingly agreed with Pelister’s assessment and selected Bonga in the second round despite notable players still on the board.
The team acted swiftly after that and inked the mysterious prospect to a three-year deal, the first two years of which are guaranteed, in order to get him to come over from Germany and develop in the G League.
While still raw, one needs to look no further than Bonga’s physical measurements (6’8” with a 7’0 wingspan) and his impressive on-court flashes to see why the team is so enamored.
Bonga has shown the ability to play nearly every position, start and finish in transition, and has impressive passing chops. When I asked him how comfortable he would feel filling a similar role with the Lakers given their current similar style, Bonga remained grounded.
“(I’m) pretty comfortable to be honest. But I am still improving a lot, and feel like everything out here is a process.”
Bonga often takes a moment before answering questions, looking for the right words the same way he surveys the floor for the right passes. He comes off mature beyond his years, although he understands that development still has to be his number one priority.
“I feel like I have already improved a lot, but I am still young and just want to work on everything. My shot, dribbling, defense, everything,” Bonga told Silver Screen and Roll.
Bonga’s jumper, specifically his confidence in letting it fly from 3-point range, has seen drastic improvement in his short stint with South Bay.
In his Summer League and preseason play with the Lakers, Bonga attempted only four 3-pointers in total. In his first seven games with South Bay, he has let it fly over 33 times already, averaging more 3-point attempts per game (4.3) than he put up during his entire exhibition slate.
Bonga’s sudden volume from deep is even more impressive given that he is the same player who passed up a wide open three in the closing seconds of a Lakers’ preseason game a few months ago.
“I have worked all summer and kinda feel more confident in my jump shot right now,” Bonga said.
On the court, his hard work is paying off.
Currently shooting 48.5 percent from three on nearly five attempts a game, Bonga is in the 91st percentile in catch-and-shoot opportunities among all G-League players, according to Synergy. When looking at his jumpers in the half court, his numbers jump into the 97th percentile, scoring an unreal 1.46 points per possession.
Playing alongside lead guards like Alex Caruso and Scott Machado with South Bay has allowed Bonga to work more off the ball, which he seemingly has adjusted to well after rough moments in Summer League.
“I just want to work on my game and win games. And if it’s like run a pick and roll or like cut or something off the ball, I don’t care to be honest. I just want to work on my game and get better,” Bonga said.
These off-ball reps, and his shooting in particular, have been especially encouraging considering his adept feel for passing and making reads out of the pick and roll.
Bonga has impressive natural passing instincts on the floor, which coupled with his advantageous height has created passing lanes unavailable to players shorter than him.
“Oh definitely, I have the advantage of just looking over people and finding and making a play for my teammates,” Bonga said.
Bonga has functionally taken advantage of his height well, but stressed it was important to play and keep his dribble “low,” considering shorter players will have an easier route to strip the ball from him.
It is these type of playmaking nuances Bonga likely picked up after spending a summer with some of the league’s best passers in LeBron James, Lonzo Ball, and Rajon Rondo, the latter of which, Bonga said he has communicated with often.
“They always gave advice, to be honest. And also, actually, like after the games I asked Rondo if I could do stuff better,” Bonga said. “I actually like keeping communicating with those guys.”
Bonga also cited the importance of getting stronger, putting on weight, improving his dribbling, but especially perked up when asked about his defense.
“Yeah I feel like that is one of the things that coach has been saying, like play really hard defense and get deflections, especially with your height, and you are going to play,” Bonga said.
Bonga has already tallied eight steals and five blocks in only seven games in the G-League, so he is starting to leverage his length and foot speed in the way his coaches want, and was also quick to shout out some of the current Lakers’ players as examples of this.
“You see that with guys like Josh Hart, BI (Brandon Ingram) and all those star players, like they got height, they got speed, and all that stuff. I am just going to keep working on my defense,” Bonga said.
After chatting with the 19-year-old about everything from Universal Studios to Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Venom before he dropped 25 points on the Salt Lake City Stars, it was clear Bonga still possesses a refreshing youthful enthusiasm.
He is sill plenty young, and likely a ways away from contributing on the court for the Lakers, but his rapid growth thus far has been nothing short of stunning. Still, he’s the first one to pump the breaks on any over-enthusiasm or overselling what he’s shown so far.
“I feel like I just have to work on my game and gonna see how it is going to end up,” Bonga said.