The highlights from LeBron James’ epic outing at the Drew League (his first appearance there since the 2011 NBA lockout), and Irving’s yes-he-will, no-he-won’t fireworks, served as perfect microcosms of their respective current statuses in the league: the King won another bought with father time, while the individual Charles Barkley dubbed “Half-Man, Half-a-Season” failed to make good on yet another lengthy tease.
But capping off a day where the league’s biggest news centered around the Lakers’ biggest star and one they’ve been linked to all summer, the Lakers actually played a basketball game.
In Vegas, contrasting with the star-studded exhibition in Los Angeles this afternoon, the court was littered with lesser prospects and NBA wannabes all hoping to make a name for themselves in the sport’s premier league.
Playing like a connected unit on both sides of the court, the Lakers dominated the Dallas Mavericks early and often, hanging onto a 20-point halftime lead for an 11-point win — their third straight to close out their 2022 Summer League.
Though quite a few Lakers flashed upside at times in this contest, it was the legitimate development from a pair of unheralded returners from last season’s South Bay squad that caught my eye.
After leading the Lakers to two straight wins to open their Summer League slate in the California Classic, Jay Huff fell into the league’s health and safety protocols, missing the team’s final game in San Fransisco and their first three in Las Vegas. In games Huff missed, the Lakers finished 1-3, while winning all four of the ones he was able to suit up for.
Like the Summer League Rudy Gobert, Jay Huff’s mere presence seems to singlehandedly singlehanded raise the quality of the Lakers’ defense from poor to well above passable.
While the level of basketball chaos in this particular environment is too great to assign all of the Lakers’ success to Huff, his ability to provide a foundation of elite rim protection seems to connect the rest of the Lakers’ defenders and consistently create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. In Saturday’s contest, the Lakers were +11 during Huff’s minutes while he stuffed the stat sheet with 13 points, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 2 rebounds, and a steal. In addition to his defensive impact, the 7’1’’ big man’s fluid finishing around the rim was particularly impressive.
His G League teammate, Mason Jones, also showed out in the Lakers’ victory, tallying 8 points and 4 assists, highlighted by this (probably ill-advised) circus shot:
However, it was the improvement upon his sometimes out-of-control ball-handling and passing that I found most exciting regarding his prospect potential. Becoming capable of corralling his constant downhill attack and genuinely solid self-creation skills into a more efficient, team-friendly skillset could help eventually propel him into a backup role in the bigs.
Cole Swider continued his unreasonably sharp shooting, making 4-6 attempts from downtown for a team-high 16 points. If he can shoot anywhere close to as well as he has in Summer League, and play enough defense to keep himself in an NBA rotation, he has a chance to be one of the better movement shooters in Lakers history.
Shareef O’Neal even had a highlight moment or two, drilling a midrange leaner for a pair of his 6 points to complement his 3 boards in only 9 minutes of action.
Shareef O’Neal creating his own shot off the bounce pic.twitter.com/mJqCcxhyIt— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) July 17, 2022
The Lakers’ only draft pick, Max Christie, again struggled to score consistently, finishing with just 2 points on 1-6 shooting, continuing to look as far away from contributing at the NBA level for at least as long as his newly-signed two-year contract.
The agility and bounce at his size are impressive, particularly on defense, but he needs a whole lot more polish to become viable.
How about this freaking tag by Max Christie to break up an oop!?!! pic.twitter.com/rOByEXVS3r— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) July 17, 2022
For the Mavs, Jaden Hardy, their 37th overall selection in this year’s draft, showed hyper-athletic flashes of contributing to winning basketball with 15 points, 3 assists, and 3 boards, though his 7 turnovers held back his overall contribution.
However, it was actually Moses Wright, the Clippers’ undrafted signing of last season who only just earned a two-way contract with the Mavericks that stood out the most for the opposition, using his sturdy 6’8’’, 225 pound frame to bully the Lakers inside, finishing with 17 points, 6 rebounds, and a pair of dimes.
In the end, the Lakers’ halftime lead was too much for the Mavs to overcome, despite a valiant second half effort under the highly-touted leadership of Laker legend Jared Dudley. With the win, the Lakers’ conclude their Summer League with a 3-2 record in Las Vegas and a 5-3 overall mark.
It remains to be seen how many of the players on Lakers’ Summer League roster will return on Exhibit 10 contracts, effectively giving them a chance to prove their mettle during the team’s upcoming training camp, other than Swider and Scottie Pippen Jr., both already signed to two-way deals, and second round draft choice Max Christie who has already locked down two years of guaranteed money.
Players like Huff and Jones are virtual locks to return to the South Bay Lakers, if they don’t earn two-ways elsewhere, and rookies like O’Neal and McCoy have a solid chance of hanging around for at least a while.
Nonetheless, for now, the Lakers’ future resides almost entirely in LeBron’s ability to continue being one of the game’s most dominant forces, and secondly, the team’s ability to surround him with stars. Therefore, it’s reasonable to focus on the scuttlebutt in Los Angeles, due to the potential impact it may have on that aforementioned dynamic.
But still, NBA Championships are won on the margins, and if Summer League is any indication, the Lakers have set off their 2022-23 campaign as winners in at least that respect.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.