Lonzo Ball, Lakers lead list of NBA summer league winners and losers

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Henry Bushnell
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Lonzo Ball and Dennis Smith Jr. might have been the two most impressive players at the Las Vegas summer league. (Getty)
Lonzo Ball and Dennis Smith Jr. might have been the two most impressive players at the Las Vegas summer league. (Getty)

On the first Friday evening of July, which just so happened to be the opening night of the NBA’s annual Las Vegas extravaganza, a murmur crescendoed into a buzz, and Lonzo Ball wasn’t even moving yet. He stood still, 30 feet from one basket at the Thomas & Mack Center, an orange pearl in his hands, and the eyes of thousands of purple-and gold-clad disciples glued to him. Laker Nation couldn’t contain its excitement. And that was before Ball ever flicked his wrists and let the orange pearl fly.

The pass was majestic. It delicately whizzed toward the far side of the rim. As it did, its gravitational pull yanked Laker fans out of their seats. There were more than 10,000 of them. And as Brandon Ingram glided to meet Lonzo’s pass and complete the alley-oop, the vast majority of them roared.

Ball’s career had gotten off to an ideal start. He was the basketball wizard that so many hoped he would be. His status as franchise savior was confirmed. And then two hours later, he stunk.

And people overreacted.

And other people advised them not to overreact, but it was too tempting.

And Lonzo Ball was the center of attention.

More than a week later, all three of those statements still apply, but the nature of the (over)reactions couldn’t be more different. Lonzo led the Lakers to a Las Vegas summer league title with enthralling performance after enthralling performance, his unrivaled passing ability on full display. He was named MVP despite sitting out two games, including the final. He’s suddenly the toast of L.A., and the subject of newly formed basketball addictions for viewers around the world.

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Yet, the advice still stands. In fact, the contrast between Lonzo opinions on July 7 and July 17 is why the advice was given in the first place. Not that we need yet another cautionary tale to guard against summer league overreactions, but let Lonzo’s 10 days in Vegas serve as one. He was immediately stunning. Then he was disappointing. Then he won back the label of franchise cornerstone.

And, ultimately, despite the fact that his six games were actually a mixed bag, Lonzo leads our list of the most notable winners and losers of the NBA’s various summer leagues in 2017.

Winner: Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers

So, where to begin? With the passing, of course. With the head-turning, wealth-spreading, inventive, stimulating, orgasmic passing. Everything about it is special, and it makes basketball impossibly fun.

But we already knew about the passing; the question marks were everywhere else: on-ball and off-ball defense, shooting, strength, off-the-bounce attacking, finishing, etc. Outside of his passing and vision, and perhaps his height (6-foot-6), he doesn’t have a demonstrably above-average NBA skill.

And after six summer games, many of those question marks are still, well, question marks. Ball shot just 12-for-50 on jumpers (per Synergy, via The Ringer’s Kevin O’Conner) in Vegas. He flashed occasional ability to get to the rim, but not with the regularity you’d hope to see against players on the NBA fringes. And he was hit-or-miss on defense. All those problems could be exacerbated when Ball takes the floor opposite John Wall instead of Larry Drew II or Spencer Dinwiddie.

But the passing was so captivating that it temporarily obscured every single one of his flaws. It made individual players better. It made the team better. And it should be even more influential when the talent level of the players on the ends of those passes improves.

It’s not time to crown Ball a superstar, just as it wasn’t time to hang a “BUST” tag from his shorts after Game One. As with all the players we’ll discuss below, the sample size wasn’t big enough, and the competition wasn’t representative of what Ball will see come October.

But the main takeaway from Ball’s summer league exploits is that his passing just might be so brilliant, so peerless, so transcendent that no defect can stop him from becoming at least an above-average NBA point guard. There’s no guarantee that it will be. But it sure looked that way.

Winner: Los Angeles Lakers

The Las Vegas summer league champions were more than just Lonzo. Much more. Ball and Ingram were the headliners heading into Vegas, but even without Ingram for all but one game, and without Ball for portions of three games, including part of the semifinal and all of the final, multiple summer Lakers starred. Point guard Alex Caruso earned a two-way contract with a standout performance in Lonzo’s absence. L.A.’s second first-round pick of 2017, Kyle Kuzma, and 2016-17 D-League MVP Vander Blue then caught fire during the final two games and led the Lakers to the title. Of the three, Kuzma’s performance was most encouraging.

Loser: Sacramento Kings

The Kings brought an incredibly intriguing roster to Vegas. It included seven former first-round draft picks, the reigning national player of the year in college, and nine players overall that have found or should find themselves on NBA rosters. The result? An underwhelming six games that left Sacramento with a 2-4 record and not many positive takeaways.

De’Aaron Fox was explosive but inconsistent in four appearances. Justin Jackson was fine, but nothing more. Harry Giles didn’t play. Buddy Hield, even with a year of real NBA experience under his belt, didn’t stand out. Georgios Papagiannis and Skal Labissiere didn’t look like NBA rotation players. Sacramento’s nice young core is more about quantity than quality at the moment, and nothing from summer league offered evidence to the contrary.

Winner: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

Mitchell already looks like a steal for the Jazz at the 13th pick, and he’s given Utah some much-needed cause for optimism in the wake of Gordon Hayward’s departure. Mitchell poured in more than 20 points per contest across five games in Salt Lake City and Vegas. He showed off his defensive chops and athleticism in the first three and his volume scoring ability in the latter two. He has a diverse offensive game that was on full display in his final game in Vegas — a 37-point, eight-steal gem.

Mitchell isn’t necessarily a point guard or a shooting guard; he’s a guard, and a really good one at that. Never mind how he fits; his bounce, quickness and tenaciousness will be valuable traits in the NBA. And if his outside shooting is consistent? He’ll be an above-average starter sooner rather than later.

Loser: Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

This is going to shock you, but a player whom most draft experts thought wasn’t one of the seven best players in the draft class … didn’t look like one of the seven best players in the draft class. Markkanen converted less than 30 percent of his shots, was a minus offensively, and generally didn’t look comfortable on either end. That’s to be expected, to some extent, but it shouldn’t make Bulls fans feel much better about what was already a questionable pick.

It’s possible we’re falling victim to confirmation bias here, and judging Markkanen’s performance harshly simply because we’re looking for evidence that the pick was a mistake. On the plus side, Markkanen did pull down nine rebounds per game. And the poor shooting is as much a product of the small sample size as anything. But the Finnish big man didn’t stand out like other top-10 picks did.

Winner: Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas Mavericks

Smith was wonderful throughout the tournament. He dazzled with a combination of athleticism and offensive polish that no other player in the rookie class possesses. The most promising sign was Smith’s ability to change pace, coupled with his knowledge of when to do so. When his jumper was falling, he looked close to unstoppable; even when it wasn’t, he consistently got to the rim and finished over or around secondary defenders. Even his missed dunks were wildly impressive.

Mavs fans are going to love Smith, and you really only have to spend a couple minutes in front of his summer league highlight reel to understand why.

Losers: Teams who passed on Smith

*Shoots brief sideways glance at Phil Jackson and the Knicks executives he left behind*

In all seriousness, if there’s one player who already looks to have been misevaluated by NBA scouts and general managers, it’s Smith. He’s a top-five talent who, for some reason, wasn’t viewed as one over the final few months of the draft process. Maybe those reasons will identify themselves in the future, but they certainly weren’t evident in Vegas. No team picking in the top five really goofed by not taking Smith, but the Magic, Bulls and Knicks are fair game for criticism if Smith turns into a star.

Winner: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Let’s chill with the Paul Pierce comparisons and 10-time All-Star talk. Once we do that, though, we can admit that, yes, Tatum was pretty impressive, both in Salt Lake City and Vegas. He wasn’t super efficient, and he kind of feels like the type of player whose game is naturally more aesthetically pleasing than conducive to winning (unless he’s on a team that desperately needs his one-on-one scoring ability).

But, man, Tatum is smooth. His tough shot-taking is rendered acceptable by his tough shot-making. The turnarounds and step-backs and pull-ups are pretty. He also teased passing ability at times and was a factor on the boards. He has a ways to go on the defensive end, but seemed to have everybody in attendance — including fellow players — buzzing. He flaunted some tools that could make him a special offensive weapon.

Loser: Philadelphia 76ers

Markelle Fultz will be fine, and remains the best bet to become a star from the 2017 rookie class. But Process Trusters had hearts in mouths when Fultz went down with a painful ankle injury in his first game in Vegas. The diagnosis of a sprain was a relief, but it made the rest of the summer Sixers’ stay in Sin City pretty useless. The team was neither good nor entertaining, and the injury robbed casual fans of the chance to finally see the No. 1 overall pick in action.

Winner: John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins put on a show. He moves like a gazelle in the open floor, and threw down some thunderous dunks throughout the 10-day event.

But Collins was about more than just rim-rocking. He had the highest field goal percentage (59.3) of any player in Vegas who attempted more than 50 shots. He exhibited a well-rounded offensive game, was a presence on the glass and was not a liability on defense. The Wake Forest product still has a ton of work to do on the defensive end — that’s why a player with such a deep offensive skill-set fell to No. 19 overall in the 2017 draft — but the scoring ability sure is enticing.

Loser: Zach Collins, Portland Trail Blazers

Collins showed promise as a rim-protector. Other than that? It was a pretty inauspicious start for the No. 10 overall pick in the 2017 draft. He was ineffective on offense — just 6-for-23 from the field — and foul-prone on defense. An injury limited him to just three games. The Blazers trekked all the way to the title game, and had plenty of bright spots, but Collins was not one of them.

Winners: Warren LeGarie, Albert Hall and the NBA

The 2017 edition of the NBA’s largest summer league took the event to new heights. Demand for tickets hit record highs. ESPN’s TV ratings were up 50 percent year-over-year, and the Lakers-Celtics game on the first weekend drew over one million viewers. This was the line (er, mob) outside Thomas & Mack — in 100-degree heat, mind you — prior to Monday night’s championship game.

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Las Vegas Summer League has come a long way since LeGarie and Hall founded it in 2004. More info on its background can be found here. The growth in popularity has been gradual, but 2017 was the first year where it really felt like a big hit.

More Winners

Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat: Adebayo was almost exclusively a low-post force at Kentucky. His still-developing face-up game and ability to put the ball on the floor were both surprising and encouraging.

Caleb Swanigan, Portland Trail Blazers: How he’ll adjust to the real NBA game is still unknown, but Swanigan was untroubled by his summer league opposition. He looked like the same “Biggie” who dominated the Big Ten.

Bryn Forbes, San Antonio Spurs: Averaged 26 points per game in 29 minutes and could be the Spurs’ latest hidden gem.

Wayne Selden, Memphis Grizzlies: An all-around scorer and contributor for the Summer Grizz. His game-winner against Washington on the first weekend was memorable.

Quinn Cook, New Orleans Pelicans: Averaged more than 20 points per game and shot better than 55 percent as the lead guard for the Pels. Cook, in his third year out of college, has only played five NBA games (on a 10-day contract last year in Dallas); he should get another shot to crack a roster this fall.

Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers: The aforementioned Kuzma really stood out. His final summer league averages: 21.9 points on 51.4 percent shooting, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals. In the semifinal and final, Kuzma totaled 54 points and shot 11-of-17 from 3-point range. On the whole, he might have been just as impressive as Lonzo.

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