As the Las Vegas strip bustles with tourists mere miles away and temperatures shoot past triple digits, basketball — in perhaps its rawest form — is being played inside the Thomas & Mack Center. It’s a safe haven from the oppressive neon and heat, but also doubles as a time machine that provides fans a sneak peek into the sport’s future.
Per tradition, the Lakers’ faithful were among the many who made the trek out to the desert. They packed the arena not for a first glimpse at an exciting new lottery pick, but instead, to see what gem the team’s decorated scouting department had unearthed this time.
While there has arguably not been a singular player who has stood out over the rest, there have been enough glimmers of promise during the exhibition period that have whet the appetite of those looking for hope in the dry heat of the desert.
What follows are three odes to the boys of summer, and the skills that have made these games worth tuning into.
Scotty Pippen Jr running down that hill
There’s an Uncut Gems level of anxiety that comes with watching Scotty Pippen Jr drive into the lane.
The 6’3” (which seems generous) guard holds a heavy foot over the gas pedal at all times, weaves through congestion without hesitation, and somehow — even in the most narrow of windows — makes it to out the other side.
Pippen, who quickly signed a two-way contract with the Lakers after going undrafted, has routinely showcased his ability to get downhill this summer with a deceptively fast first step and a creative enough handle to carve out space. These skills have popped on a roster lacking in terms of on-ball creation (especially following the departure of South Bay Laker Mac McClung).
Likely because of this, the Vanderbilt product has been given the lion’s share of the playmaking duties for the team in Las Vegas, where he’s averaging just under five assists in 24 minutes per game.
Despite being surrounded by larger, more physical players, Pippen simply makes advantages happen with the ball in his hands. Whether it’s out of the pick and roll or an isolation possession, he’s shown a willingness to set up others and score on his own when collapsing the defense.
Although Pippen has only played in a handful of games as a Laker, his relentless drives to the basket aren’t something new, but rather, a staple of his basketball career. As a junior last season, Pippen set both a school record and led the nation in free-throw attempts (299) with his frequent attacks at the rim.
While his penetrating ability has helped provide his brightest moments thus far, it has also been the source of his nagging warts.
“Tonight I pulled him aside. It just felt like he was doing a little bit too much, and that’s what he’s going to have to learn here at the next level,” the team's Summer League (and new assistant) head coach Jordan Ott said of Pippen’s play.
“Where’s that line? Where can I draw a foul? Where is it too much?” Ott soliloquized on Pippen’s behalf.
These are the questions Pippen will have to answer if he wants to find success as a professional.
His ability to get downhill and probe a defense is an immensely valuable skill, but as his 3.3 turnovers per game these past couple of weeks has demonstrated, it also is one that can lead to offensive implosions in unstable hands.
Nate Pierre-Louis embracing his inner pest
Outside of sheer talent and outlier size proportions (see: Chet Holmgrem), one of the attributes that consistently sticks out the most in the Summer League setting is effort. And effort is exactly what all 200-plus pounds of Nate Pierre-Louis is composed of.
The guard, who played 32 games with the Lakers’ G-League affiliate last season, has forced both commentators and fans alike to take notice of his constant hustle during the Lakers’ exhibitions. This dogged effort is never more apparent than in his pit-bull-like style of defense.
Tasked with defending the opposition at the point of attack, Pierre-Louis has hounded ball-handlers the length of the court, around screens, and even from behind, often poking the ball loose the second his target foolishly takes a sigh of relief.
“I see myself as a pest on defense,” Pierre-Louis told NJ.com this week. “I guard 94 feet, so I can guard the guy who brings the ball up, it doesn’t matter who it is.”
With the South Bay Lakers last year, Pierre-Louis’ defensive prowess helped him rack up the sixth-most steals in the G-League (57). And among those six players, the Temple alum also posted the most blocks (27) despite being listed at only 6’4.”
“I’m just trying to show everyone that I’m the best defender out there,” Pierre-Louis added. “I want to show everyone that I’m a leader, I’m vocal and I take my job very seriously on the defensive end.”
In an environment where scoring is often the easiest way to stand out from the crowd of NBA hopefuls, Pierre-Louis has gone all-in on leaving his stamp on the game through his defense. And on a Lakers’ team who will definitely need as much defensive help they can get, it's probably not a bad strategy.
His offense may ultimately put a ceiling on his playability at the next level (25.3% from 3-point range last season), but one can’t help but root for a guy who works his tail off to prevent his opponent from scoring like Pierre-Louis does. He always spends all of his minutes arms and legs outstretched, waving them around like his career depends on it.
Because in many ways, it does.
Javante McCoy’s sweet spot
Javante McCoy is a player who knows where he wants to go and how to get there.
This ability was on full display on Tuesday against the Clippers, where McCoy did his damage in the second half from his very own sweet spot on the floor — the free-throw line.
His points do not come via fouls called however, as he rarely ventures into the restricted area. Instead, his production comes from his impressive shotmaking, often off-the-dribble, and almost always culminates around the charity stripe.
McCoy, who signed an exhibit 10 deal with the Lakers, has arguably been the team’s best isolation scorer this summer in large part to his ability to get to the elbow and then convert once he arrives (54.5% shooting from the field).
Despite his wiry frame, McCoy has been able to carve out space against bulkier competition with his tight handle, ability to decelerate on the drop of a dime and a Tasmanian devil-like spin move that has frequently dusted defenders.
There have been many moments during the team’s summer play were the offense has stagnated once defenses have started switching, which is where McCoy’s talent has shined the most.
Like most players, McCoy’s spot on an NBA team is still up in the air. He hasn't shown much in terms of getting to and finishing at the rim, nor has he had many chances to showcase his off-ball viability.
But in a basketball landscape where switching and conceding the midrange jumper have never been more en vogue, McCoy could make himself some money somewhere (G-League or overseas) by being able to get to, and take advantage of his sweet spot.
Although the Lakers didn't trot out a singular blue-chip prospect like they have in years past, this squad’s sum of its parts still made them an entertaining watch.
Maybe one of these players has enough to make it onto the parent squad, and maybe they don't. But if nothing else, the valiant effort given from those trying to make a name for themselves still deserves attention.
Whether it’s Pippen somehow finding his way out of a forest crowded by redwoods, Pierre-Louis pounding his chest after drawing an offensive foul or McCoy swishing home a jumper from the same spot five times in a row, these Lakers are chockfull of the minutia that help make Summer League special, and therefore worth remembering.