Las Vegas — The first time Moe Wagner saw Isaac Bonga working out in the Los Angeles Lakers practice facility, he thought he was watching a center prospect. Given that the Lakers’ latest roster addition measures in at 6’9 with a 7’0 wingspan, Wagner’s misconception is understandable.
After all, most point guard prospects don’t look like Bonga.
”The first thing that stands out is his overall size, but even more so his length. He has these thick shoulders. He’s very strong. He’s tall, he’s lean, so those are the things that really stood out at first,” said Laker summer league coach Miles Simon.
Those things, in addition to Bonga’s smooth handle and floor vision, were a tantalizing enough combination to get the Lakers to essentially promise him they would draft him, a vow Bonga was happy to accept.
“They kind of shut me down to be honest. I had like a promise the Lakers liked me. It was good, I like the team, I like to be here to play with those guys and to be with such a good franchise like this,” Bonga said. “I’m just kind of happy to be here right now.”
Getting here — to Las Vegas Summer League — wasn’t easy for Bonga, who couldn’t be acquired until the new league year began on July 6 and thus missed the Lakers’ Sacramento Summer League stint.
But after flying to Los Angeles to sign his contract with Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, Bonga quickly hopped aboard a plane to meet the Lakers in Las Vegas.
Once he landed, Bonga was quickly whisked from the airport to a Lakers practice that he joined midstream for the final 20-25 minutes on Friday. At shootaround the next day, the Lakers only gave him four or five plays to run when on the floor against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Lakers’ Saturday night game.
Following that walk through, Bonga ran the lengths of the practice court, loping around in an effort to continue to improve his conditioning because he knows how the speed the Lakers play with — ranking third in the NBA in pace last season — is going to be his biggest adjustment.
“We’re just trying to play fast,” Bonga said.
The teenage rookie did seem to have a problem with such speed in his debut against the Sixers, coughing up 7 turnovers in his 13 minutes of floor time while scoring just 3 points on 1-2 shooting. Bonga didn’t appear to be entirely comfortable in the offense yet, either, as teammates attempted to direct him where to go on the floor when he didn’t have the ball.
Still, given Bonga’s limited prep time, box score success wasn’t the barometer the Lakers were measuring him by.
”First, I just wanted Isaac to have fun. He’s 18 or 19 years old, he’s suiting up for the Lakers tonight in front of eight or nine thousand people and he really played with a calmness. He was relaxed, so you could tell he’s played pro basketball before,” Simon said.
“He wants to always make the open pass, and once he becomes a better finisher and shooter, it’s really going to open up his game. We put him as a point guard, he can handle the ball really easily. He’s a guy that can defend multiple positions. I know I’m excited from what I saw tonight.”
Bonga’s teammates were also impressed.
“He’s a great player. He’s only been with us a couple days, but he’s a really big point guard and he has a pretty good skill set,” said Bonga’s fellow second-round pick Svi Mykhailiuk.
“He’s a very long, big guy for a point guard. I think you could see flashes from him guarding, as well as passing. I think he’s an excellent passer for his size,” added Wagner.
Wagner, who is speaking with Bonga in German to help him continue to get acclimated while the teenager moves nearly 6,000 miles from home, is also trying to help his fellow countryman get confidence on the court.
“I just told him to keep shooting, that’s why we’re here, you know?” Wagner said. “Just be confident and don’t worry about misses.”
Bonga doesn’t need to stress, because even after the Lakers made the unexpected decision to add him as the 14th player on their 15-man roster, barring either an explosion of development on his part or catastrophe befalling the rest of the team, L.A. won’t be counting on him for much this season. Instead, it sounds like Bonga will spend significant time with the South Bay Lakers, much as Thomas Bryant did last season.
No one is more aware of this than Bonga, who still helped the Lakers get their first win of July on Saturday night and knew he’d only get better moving forward.
”It was just the first game. We’ve got a couple more days to come, so I’m just trying to do one thing: Improve my game,” Bonga said. “Oh, and get more wins.”
Bonga’s patience proved prescient. The rookie wasn’t a world beater by any means in the Lakers’ second game of summer league against the Chicago Bulls, but he was far better than his first outing. And the Lakers got the win.
Bonga finished the second game with 4 points on 2-4 shooting with 3 rebounds and 4 turnovers, but his box score didn’t tell the whole story.
Bonga showed improved comfort making reads within the Lakers’ offense, including a beautiful sequence in which he comfortably penetrated into the paint before finding a trailing Wagner behind him at the top of the arc without looking for him first.
Bonga also looked more fluid with his handle in a larger ballhandling role, although the Lakers say they aren’t quite ready to play him at point guard in this environment.
Still, on one sequence in the fourth quarter, Bonga easily blew by his man to get to the bucket, showcasing the rare dribbling skills that factored into the Lakers selecting him before missing at the cup to demonstrate the reason he’s considered a long-term project.
Simon liked how Bonga was “much more aggressive” against the Bulls, even though he says the rookie still has to clean up his footwork after shuffling his feet for several travels. But Simon says the biggest improvement Bonga has to make is simple: Getting more confident, something the Lakers already have a solution for.
”Repetition,” Simon said. “He’s only been with us for like 36 hours. Once he gets in the gym with our coaches and our staff, he’s going to be fine.”
It may take him a while, but if Bonga continues to adapt to the NBA game as quickly as he did from his first LVSL game to his second, he soon might be as impressive as he looks.