Las Vegas — As Josh Hart effortlessly got wherever he wanted on the court to help the Los Angeles Lakers blow out the Philadelphia 76ers 96-79, he looked like what he is: A veteran beating up on overmatched prospects who aren’t ready for the bright lights and the crucible of the postseason.
The difference between Hart and most players considered league veterans is that the sweet-shooting shutdown defender is only just now entering his sophomore season, but Hart has had the three-and-D-plus skills of a seasoned playoff contributor from the moment he began playing significant minutes last season.
That year was a trial run for the role Hart is showing he’s ready to play now for what looks to be a surefire actual playoff team this year, and while there probably isn’t a lot Hart has left to learn from playing in Las Vegas, his own readiness isn’t his primary reason for heading to the desert.
“At the end of the day the biggest thing is winning,” Hart said after a Lakers win in which he smoothly poured in 24 points and knocked down four of his eight 3-point attempts.
“Whether I have two points or 24 points, if we win I’m happy about it. My biggest thing is to go out there and help these young guys learn more about this game.”
Hart showed his fellow young players plenty while playing shutdown defense on Furkan Korkmaz of the Sixers, who was coming off of a 40-point explosion the previous night.
Hart watched that game, and how Korkmaz was able to get loose for an array in transition threes, which he looked to snuff out by helping the Lakers eliminate turnovers and communicating with his teammates to make sure someone ran the flame-spewing guard off of the arc on fastbreaks.
It all worked, and Korkmaz finished with 4 points on 1-9 shooting, almost enough to make everyone forget Korkmaz’s night to remember the previous evening.
“I want to shut guys down. I saw he had 40 yesterday,” Hart said. “I wasn’t going to have that happen today.”
The total package of offense and defense left his regular season teammates Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma celebrating and cheering from their seats on the sideline, and Lakers summer league head coach Miles Simon impressed.
“I think Josh found a great balance between passing and scoring tonight. He obviously hit some big shots for us,” Simon said. “We want him to be a leader in this setting. Today he set the tone defensively.”
Simon was especially pleased with the way Hart “took (Korkmaz) out of the game,” and knows that end of the floor will be the most important way for Hart to get minutes on the Lakers’ regular season roster.
“The offense is a total bonus. I know Josh is going to be able to score, he’s proven that,” Simon said. “The leadership is the biggest thing we’ve been looking for from him, and he really provided that tonight.”
Hart certainly won’t be looked to as a leader as a second-year player on a team that just added LeBron James and Rajon Rondo, but Vegas has re-emphasized how prepared he is to contribute to the type of focused, veteran basketball the Lakers will soon be playing.
Still, Hart isn’t guaranteed a huge role, not with the Lakers re-signing last year’s starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and acquiring Lance Stephenson in free agency. He’s going to have to fight for every second he gets on the court, but he’s ready for the challenge.
“I’ve been working my butt off for the last couple months and I want to show my coaches and my teammates that I’ve gotten better,” Hart said. “Just because I played in the league for one year and I started some games and I played some big minutes that doesn’t really mean anything right now.
“That was last season and I’m still fighting for minutes, fighting for time, and I’m just trying to get some momentum here and go into the season with it,” Hart said.
Summer league is ultimately just summer league, but Hart is off to a strong start in Las Vegas. And hey, if he wants to earn playing time, wearing his boss Magic Johnson’s All-Star throwback jersey isn’t a bad move, either, even if Hart claimed his sartorial decision was more based in practicality.
“It’s Vegas, it’s gets 100, 115 (degrees), so I wanted to get something light. It was in the closet, so I might as well bring it out,” Hart said.
Still, he’s hoping to trade it back in for a Lakers jersey again on Sunday night, and moving forward.
“I want to play every (summer league game), but I’m probably going to have to talk to RP (Rob Pelinka) about that after we get done with this interview to see what my plan is for tomorrow,” Hart said. “But I want to play.”
Hart’s composure has shown he’s ready to.