EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Months later, Rob Pelinka was still searching for the right words to describe what he saw and experienced at the Las Vegas Summer League in July.
The Lakers general manager watched Lonzo Ball infect the Lakers’ summer league roster of young NBA hopefuls and nightly packed crowds at the Thomas and Mack Center with an energy and excitement that has the longtime agent still buzzing.
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The most famous dad in sports didn’t always hold that distinction.
“Las Vegas was an amazing experience,” Pelinka said on the eve of Lakers training camp. “The energy in that building — I’ve been 20 years in the NBA, [and] I’ve never experienced that level of energy around summer league games. It’s capturing that lightning in a bottle that we felt there and carrying it forward. We felt it every day [working out this summer]. The heartbeat and the soul of that Lakers team is what happens on the court.”
That “heartbeat and soul” was fueled by Ball, who started something in mid-July that has only snowballed with momentum ever since. On Sunday, Ball and the Lakers return to Las Vegas to play a preseason game against the Sacramento Kings.
Ball (mildly sprained ankle) is considered questionable to play and might miss another chance to face potential rookie rival point guard De’Aaron Fox. Ball did not get to play Fox in summer league, when the Lakers held him out of a highly anticipated meeting because of a groin injury.
No matter what happens on Sunday, Las Vegas will likely be a special place for Ball. After all, that is where it all started for the No. 2 overall pick. Ball might have opened his summer league slow, struggling with his shot, but he finished strong, registering two triple-doubles with four games of 10 assists or more and averaging 16.3 points, a summer-league-leading 9.3 assists, 7.7 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game.
Despite missing the championship game with a calf strain, the 19-year-old rookie was named MVP. He was the first in Las Vegas Summer League history to have more than one game with 10 assists. And no other rookie has ever had a triple-double in Vegas, according to ESPN Stats Information.
“Elite facilitator/passer, makes everyone better,” one longtime Eastern Conference talent evaluator said at summer league after only needing to see him twice to be sold on the Lakers rookie. “If you just do what you’re supposed to do, he will get you the ball right on time. He’s pretty incredible. No disappointment on my part. … The guy is special. He reminds me of J-Kidd.
“What all great passers do is the guy takes a picture in his head,” the talent evaluator added. “The guy rebounds the ball, and he looks up and takes a picture. Watch every other point guard. [Ball] looks up the floor and takes a quick snapshot. The other [point guards] don’t do that. That’s what he does. Like Jason [did].”
Some coaches and GMs saw a lot of Kidd in Ball at summer league. It wasn’t just the pass-first mentality that reminded some of them of Kidd. They noted how Ball had a knack for immediately pushing the ball up the court and firing, at times, pinpoint three-quarter-court passes over the outstretched arms of defenders and into the hands of teammates for dunks.
One particular pass dazzled the crowd and even Lakers president Magic Johnson, who stood up and applauded after watching Ball chase down a loose ball near half court and beat an oncoming Dallas Maverick to the ball before punching it ahead to teammate Alex Caruso for a dunk.
Lakers summer league coach Jud Buechler, a three-time NBA champion who played for 12 years, proclaimed Ball “already one of the best passers I’ve seen at this level.” And that was after the point guard played only his third game in Vegas.
“I know it is summer league and you are not playing against [NBA vets] but he is a winner. He really is. He makes his teammates better, people love playing with him. He makes the gym exciting to be in.”
Lakers coach Luke Walton
“He’s pretty good,” one Eastern Conference head coach said then in Las Vegas. “He’s just got a sixth sense, another sense. Certain guys have one more sense, one more ability to understand the game. And he’s got a great understanding, great anticipation.
“You can’t explain it, but there’s something there that is special.”
There was pressure on Ball. A lot of hype surrounded his debut not just because of his talent but because his father, LaVar Ball, had built a frenzy around the point guard with his headline-grabbing comments about how good his son already is and how he will be one of the best of all time when all is said and done.
There was a curiosity surrounding Ball, and fans flocked to Thomas and Mack. Ball and the Lakers sold out the arena by noon the day before the point guard played his second game against third overall pick Jayson Tatum and the Celtics. It marked the first time the Las Vegas summer league sold out a session a day in advance in its 14-year history. The league set an overall attendance record with 127,843.
The 6-foot-6 point guard even made others around the league who weren’t in Vegas tune in to watch.
“The fact that I am watching this game tells you he’s good,” one Eastern Conference assistant coach texted as he watched Ball play on television. “He is fun to watch. … I see Kidd all of the time when I watch him.”
And it wasn’t just his game that drew attention online. His choice of shoes seemed to go viral with each game. He not only wore his family’s Big Baller Brand shoes but also Jordan, Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. Some were not only wondering how he would play — even LeBron James stopped by to catch one of his games — but also what kicks he would play in with each game.
The soft-spoken point guard certainly had a lot to prove and back up in summer league. All the attention surrounding Ball was something even some of his teammates could feel.
“Nothing really [gets to him],” fellow first-round pick Kyle Kuzma said of his close friend and teammate. “[Ball] is really humble.”
“[But] I think [how he played] kind of gave him a little more reassurance,” Kuzma added. “He has a lot of pressure, of course, because everyone wants to talk about him. And then to come in and win, that is a great thing.”
Ball didn’t disappoint. His passing was contagious, spreading throughout the Lakers on the floor as they played an unusually exciting brand of basketball not often on display at summer leagues. While winning the league was great for the young rebuilding Lakers — who want to change their culture after four consecutive dismal seasons of 55 or more losses — team brass just wanted to see what Ball could do, and they found out quickly.
“That he is capable of doing it at this level,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said when asked what he learned about his point guard in Las Vegas. “I know it is summer league and you are not playing against [NBA vets], but he is a winner. He really is. He makes his teammates better; people love playing with him. He makes the gym exciting to be in.”
“When he is playing basketball, it is fun to sit there and watch,” Walton added. “That is what he is going to bring to our team. Like all the other rookies, he has got a lot to work on, but the intangibles that he plays with, by the way he just plays the game, is pretty special.”
Ball certainly has areas where he can improve. He made 10 of 42 (23.8 percent) from 3-point range. Some opponents, like the Clippers, opted on defense to sag off Ball, who shot 55.1 percent overall and 41.2 percent from 3 at UCLA. The point guard also had 23 turnovers.
“What we saw in summer league is he jumped in the air and got about two or three charges,” Johnson said. “I pulled him aside and said, ‘Look, man, that is what they are going to be looking for you to do. So you might want to stay on the floor and make the decision.’ I had the same issue when I started, too. I jumped and then I made my decision, and that guy didn’t move, and I got a few charges called. We talked about things like that, pick-and-roll.”
But like Johnson, Ball displayed the ability to lift his teammates’ play with his unselfish passing.
As is his understated way, Ball called the two weeks in Vegas “definitely fun.”
“I just went out there and played the game I know how to play,” Ball said on Friday. “Started slow, finished strong. That’s all there was to it.”
While Ball’s play reminded some in the NBA of Kidd, the way he credits his teammates and deflects attention also resembles the star point guard.
“His composure, just his mannerisms, just seems like he is always under control and is aware of what is always going on around him,” Kidd said of what he noticed during summer league. “His poise, just his ability to understand what the team needs at that time and how he makes the game easy for his teammates.
“He’s got vision. He’s got eyesight. He competes to win. If you have those traits, it is easier to teach someone how to shoot. That just takes time. And I think in due time he can have the whole package.”
Ball was a hit the first time he played in Las Vegas. And that in itself might have been quite an accomplishment considering all the pressure that surrounded him before he even tossed his first alley-oop to Brandon Ingram.
“We did exactly what we’re supposed to do,” said LaVar Ball, who has become a celebrity himself, with fans lining up the stairs to the concourse waiting to take a selfie with the elder Ball at the Lakers’ preseason opener in Anaheim. “Welcome to the Ball era. Everybody’s coming to the Ball era.”