LAS VEGAS — Amidst all the madness of NBA free agency, the Los Angeles Lakers sent a group of players to Las Vegas Summer League to play some actual basketball.
The summer Lakers went 0-4 and are headed for a consolation game later this week, but I spent a week out there and learned a few things, so here are a few storylines from Las Vegas that fell under the radar while most of us waited for Kawhi Leonard to make his decision and then watched the fallout.
The Lakers were as abuzz about free agency as we were
NBA players: They’re Twitter addicts just like us! Well, maybe not just like us, but the Lakers’ summer league squad was definitely keeping track of everything happening in free agency, and they weren’t shy about admitting it.
“Yeah, I’m not sneaky. I looked at it like every 30 seconds,” laughed Lakers summer league head coach Miles Simon. “We’re obviously on free agency/Kawhi watch.”
The Lakers had missed out on Leonard by that point, but Simon said he and the other coaches were monitoring the deluge of other signings, and all the rumors leading up to that point.
“I don’t do the notifications on my phone. So I just go right back on the app, refresh, refresh,” Simon said on Saturday. “It was probably too much, and I probably needed to put my phone down and turn it off. But today was a great day for signings and the roster they’re putting together, so it makes me excited and I’m looking forward to the season.”
And it wasn’t just the coaching staff tuning in for free agency. The players on the Lakers’ summer league team — all of whom are ostensibly competing for the same roster spots the team was so quickly signing players for — are just as enamored with Woj Bombs as we are.
“It’s been crazy, it’s been exciting. The NBA is wide open, a lot of opportunities, a lot of diversity around the whole league,” said Lakers wing Jordan Caroline. “It’s really cool to have an inside scoop on it, it’s awesome.”
Not everyone was quite as excited about the free agency fireworks, however, as before he officially signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Lakers, undersized center Devontae Cacok was taking a more business-like approach to the rumors.
“A little bit, but not crazy,” Cacok said when asked if he was following all the latest updates on who was signing where. “It’s kind of different when you’re a part of the NBA because everything kind involves everybody, it’s like a trickle effect. It’s kind of crazy how free agency is, but it’s cool. It happens every year so it’s just something that’s part of the NBA.”
This summer was a little crazier than just any year, though, and even if his self-described “Kawhi watch” didn’t actually end in Leonard joining the Lakers, Simon said he’s still thrilled that the team re-signed a few names from last year: JaVale McGee and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope*.
“I think those two guys are such essential pieces to us on the court. JaVale with the shot-blocking ability and with his championship experience. KCP, the way at the end of the year he was carrying us into some days, shooting the three-ball so well, he’ll help space the floor for Anthony Davis and LeBron. So great additions with them.”
*Editor’s Note: Simon spoke before Caruso had officially been announced as re-signing with the Lakers, so him being left out was not some slight.
Talen Horton-Tucker is preparing for his rookie season, even while injured
When the Lakers ruled their only draft pick out of summer league on the night of their first game, it removed much of the intrigue surrounding this team, as Las Vegas was supposed to be the first chance for fans to see where the 18-year-old rookie is in his development process.
While that wasn’t great, there is good news: Even though Horton-Tucker hasn’t been able to practice with the team due to the stress reaction that’s kept him out of the summer slate, he’s been doing everything he can to learn as much as possible from the sidelines.
“He’s been great at just wanting to learn the offense and learn what to do defensively. We’ve had coaches showing him film, so he has stayed heavily involved and is really just trying to absorb as much as he can without really physically being able to do anything,” Simon said.
I asked Simon if it was normal for rookies to take that approach, and his answer was interesting.
“They should. I don’t know if all rookies do that, but they should because it’s a great learning curve coming from college to the NBA,” Simon said.
If Horton-Tucker is able to earn some minutes in the regular season and keeps up his extra film work with the coaching staff, maybe he’ll see that learning curve lessened.
Miles Simon thinks Zach Norvell Jr. can be an NBA player
Horton-Tucker isn’t the only rookie that’s left Simon impressed with their approach. Zach Norvell Jr. — the Lakers’ only player on a two-way contract, as of right now — has been one of the few bright spots for the team in their Sacramento and Las Vegas Summer Leagues.
Norvell is averaging 12.4 points on 36.4 percent shooting from behind the arc across the two tournaments, and if the smoothness of his game can translate to actual NBA competition, Simon thinks he might be the latest Lakers two-way player able to contribute when called upon.
“If he can make shots and continue to be good defensively. For rookies, the way to get on the floor is to not hurt your team on the defensive side of the ball. And we’ve already seen in just a week’s time some great improvement, especially on film. He really picks things up fast, coverage-wise,” Simon said. “He’s a super vocal guy. He’s a guy that I think has a promising future for the Lakers.”
Simon said that Norvell’s basketball IQ has made him “fantastic” to work with, and while Norvell himself says that he thinks his “confidence” and his shooting skill will take him “a long way” in the league, he also knows that there are several things he needs to continue to get better at, in both summer league and beyond.
“Just my body and touching up my handle,” Norvell said of what he’s trying to improve. “There’s a lot more switches and a lot more physicality in the NBA.”
Cacok and Holman also impress
Cacok and his summer league teammate Aric Holman both received Exhibit 10 contracts on Tuesday night. Check out this post for more on what that means, but put simply, such deals basically guarantee them a training camp invite with a bonus if they’re cut but opt to stay with the South Bay Lakers in the G League.
Still, the two earning such contracts is notable given that the Lakers still have one final open roster spot, and Cacok in particular has impressed coaches and teammates alike with the energy, toughness and camaraderie he brings.
LeBron made his presence felt, and he’s not the only one mingling
He may not have played, but LeBron James was arguably the story of Las Vegas Summer League, with his courtside interactions drawing as much or more attention as the actual basketball team in purple and gold.
Everyone wants a LeBron and Jason Kidd picture pic.twitter.com/swm5pbacuW— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) July 5, 2019
Yes, he’s in the tunnel there. That’s what the crowd trying to photograph him and Jason Kidd talking looked like.
Courtside conversations pic.twitter.com/UeNdxojIMg— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) July 6, 2019
LeBron and Jerry West sharing a moment courtside before Lakers-Clippers starts pic.twitter.com/KiIW04UVWu— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) July 6, 2019
The summer Lakers all seemed to have enjoyed James’ presence.
“It’s crazy having one of the best players in the game right there supporting us,” Cacok said, noting that James has also been at the team’s practices to give them advice.
“He’s a great guy obviously. It’s crazier having him right there on the floor like that,” Cacok continued following the team’s loss to the Celtics last Friday. “I want to try and bounce back tomorrow and get a better result for him.”
“It was pretty cool (to have him there),” Norvell added. “Him being a guy that you look up to growing up, it’s special.”
James hasn’t been the only one using the event as an opportunity to catch up with his new teammates, either. New Lakers coach Frank Vogel has been going around chatting with various members of his new roster who have filtered through the Thomas and Mack Center at UNLV.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel is catching up with new signing Quinn Cook as this game winds down. pic.twitter.com/8BFctHQ7CY— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) July 9, 2019
Kidd was also a frequent attendee, and fellow new Lakers assistant coach Lionel Hollins was similarly frequent in attendance. And interestingly, rumored possible Lakers assistant Ron Adams sat just a seat away from Vogel — with current Warriors assistant Mike Brown serving as a buffer and joining Adams and Vogel in conversation — during the team’s loss to the Warriors.
That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it was interesting seating to say the least, and a conversation that Lakers fans would probably love to have been a fly on the wall for.
The Lakers’ scouting department was also a fixture at the event, including Bill Bertka, who was sitting courtside at the media tables diagramming opposing players as light glimmered off of one of his many championship rings. Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times wrote a wonderful feature on the 91-year-old scout who just was recognized with the Tex Winter Assistant Coach Lifetime Impact Award, and he was working as hard as ever in Las Vegas, spending the second half of Sunday’s game chatting with and pointing things out to the Lakers’ youngest scout, the soon-to-be 21-year-old, Can Pelister — the youngest full-time scout in the NBA absorbing knowledge from one of the best and most experienced to ever do it.
This summer team all enjoyed the chance to be Lakers
Most of all, despite the team going 0-4 so far due to a lack of drafted players, the guys on the roster seemed to really relish their chance to be Lakers, even if only for a few weeks.
Whether it was Cacok smiling and stopping to sign autographs for eager kids, or Caroline admitting the opportunity was something he’d always dreamed about, this mismatched group of undrafted rookies and overlooked veterans of various European leagues seemed to appreciate what it meant to put on a Lakers uniform.
“It’s a dream come true getting to wear the purple and gold. It’s what every kid really dreams of, especially with a historic franchise like this. I really can’t complain. I just want to take each and every day and cherish every opportunity that I have,” Caroline said.
Vegas may not have gone how anyone wanted, but at least there were some small positives, not the least of which is how much less the team’s annual trip to Sin City matters now that they’re contenders. The Lakers have traded back-to-back summer league finals appearances for a chance at the real thing, and no one but opposing teams can be mad about that.
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