From 2007 to 2016, the Lakers went 17-29 at the Las Vegas Summer League, never winning more than three games.
But for the last two summer trips to Sin City, they’ve done very little but win.
After dropping their first two games in 2017, the Lakers reeled off six straight W’s to take home their first championship. The 2018 squad, despite having just two players carry over, started 6-0 before losing in the final game, for a total record of 12-3. That’s a shift from 36.9 percent (2007-16) to 92.3 percent (2017-18).
Behind that movement towards the win column has been a vision laid out by Joey Buss, the President/CEO of the South Bay Lakers. When his older sister and controlling owner Jeanie Buss hired Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, Joey Buss saw it as an opportunity to more fully integrate the teams.
Towards that end, Summer League is the place where the Lakers and SBL meet, where all is cohesive.
“That’s something I’ve been really wanting to have happen for a long time,” said Buss. “Status quo has a way of preventing change, so when Rob and Magic came in, it was pretty much a blank slate to reimagine how the teams interact with each other, how the system should be."
Buss already had a great relationship with Luke Walton, who has really embraced SBL over the past two years.
“I sat down with Rob, Magic and Luke and explained what my vision for a minor league system should look like, and how it should connect with the major league franchise, and they were 100 percent bought into that vision,” he recalled.
Johnson, Pelinka and Asst. GM/Director of Scouting Jesse Buss certainly got things off to a good start with their haul from the past two NBA Drafts.
In 2017, No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball wound up as the Vegas MVP, and No. 27 pick Kyle Kuzma the Championship Game MVP. The next summer, No. 30 pick Josh Hart won the MVP, while No. 47 pick Svi Mykhailiuk was named to the Second Team. Meanwhile, No. 25 overall pick Moe Wagner helped them get off to a 3-0 start before a knee contusion shut him down.
On the 2017 Summer League champion, SBL were repped by starters Vander Blue and Travis Wear plus Alex Caruso, (who went off for 19 points and 9 assists while outplaying lottery pick De’Aaron Fox). In 2018, Caruso was the lone holdover aside from Hart – who was limited in 2017 due to an ankle injury – but was joined by DeMarcus Holland and Steph Branch from the South Bay Lakers. Meanwhile, SBL head coach Coby Karl (62-38, .620) was on Miles Simon’s staff, as was SBL assistant Brian Walsh, further integrating the groups.
“Every year moving forward we’re going to try to bring in guys from the G League team to the summer league team to give them opportunity,” said Buss. “We’re also trying to interconnect the coaching staff, and that allows you to introduce these coaches to the draft picks, so you can have more success moving forward.”
Take the case of 18-year-old Issac Bonga, the 39th pick in the Draft, who will undoubtedly be playing for SBL this season. Instead of showing up blind to SBL after Lakers training camp, he’s already familiar with the coaching staff, and likely with some of his teammates. Furthermore, since Karl makes sure to run what Luke Walton runs with the Lakers, Bonga will have familiarity in that sense as well.
“We feel that it’s our mission to develop any player that’s on assignment with us, but, the key characteristics I think are required for an assignment to be successful is for the player to be 100 percent bought into it,” said Buss. “I think Bonga is a really fascinating player, because he has so many different skillsets. When he comes into the G League, he’s going to be very fun to watch, and play with a pace that we want to play with. And hopefully develop the skills that Luke needs him to develop to be able to contribute at the NBA level.”
At first glance, Bonga appears more like a long-term “upside” play, but Buss doesn’t see that as a modus operandi.
“I think there’s a misconception that in order to develop talent, you have to only get one type of player, which would be a young, undrafted player with no experience,” he said. “The problem with that philosophy in the G League is you end up getting a collection of these players that may not play well together. If they’re not playing well together, the team may struggle. Then, are you really going to be able to properly evaluate those players?
Furthermore, since all G League players are on a one-year contract, it’s very difficult to develop any continuity with that strategy. In other words, if you’re not forming continuity, what’s the point of getting the youngest guy in?
“I see development as something you want to have blossom on a winning team,” Buss explained. “You develop better on a winning team than on a losing team … Our goal is to get players on the G League team every year until they’re at the NBA level. That’s the ultimate goal for us, getting these guys to the NBA. But until that happens, we want them on the G League team so that they can continue to get better and form that continuity.
While Buss lays out the vision, his GM, Nick Mazzella, is the one executing it. Long before the summer league roster takes shape, Buss (often) and Mazzella (always) sit in on Lakers draft meetings amongst the scouts. Buss and Mazzella don’t scout the college players themselves, but they want to familiarize themselves with the players for varying purposes.
“If there are undrafted players we like, we can bring them into Summer League, and bring some of those players to training camp or the G League,” said Joey Buss. “I see these teams as all connected, and the more cohesive it is, the more stories you’ll get of a Travis Wear, a David Nwaba, an Andre Ingram where they come through the system one way or the other and truly develop as a better player through that process so they can contribute to your team when you need them.”
Indeed, Wear just signed a two-way contract with the Lakers for the coming season, while Nwaba played well enough for both the Lakers summer league, SBL and full squads that Chicago claimed him when L.A. had to make room for an offseason trade last summer. We all remember Ingram’s story from last April.
Jonathan Williams could be looking to follow in those footsteps. A defensive standout at Gonzaga who went undrafted, Williams was a target of the scouts and, in particular, summer league coach Miles Simon. He wound up starting in the California Classic (where L.A. actually lost three games while tuning up for Vegas) and in Sin City, and his effective play got him signed to the training camp roster after the tournament. Mazzella was also a fan of Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a key contributor in both the Sacramento and Vegas Summer Leagues, and made sure he was on the roster.
“We build the teams to win,” said Mazzella. “We want to put the Lakers players and our draft picks with players that will help them succeed and put them in the best situation to win. We’re able to use the South Bay guys that we know are talented and are team players to compliment some undrafted players that may have some upside to round out the roster, and it’s really worked out well these past two summers.”
Winning has also become standard operating procedure for SBL, who lost in the G League Finals two years ago, and went a combined 62-38 (.620) across the last two seasons. They’ve had 29 total call ups from 21 different players to NBA teams, with 22 player assigned from the Lakers to SBL.
This coming G League season, depending on circumstances and playing time as determined by Walton, Mykhailiuk and Wagner could join Bonga as they try to stay sharp for the senior team.
That worked out for Josh Hart and Ivica Zubac last season. Hart was struggling with his shot and not playing much in October and November, before getting called to join SBL for a few games. Shortly after he came back, Hart made a start at Cleveland, and posted an 11-point, 10-rebound double-double that he very much built upon moving forward. Ditto for Ivica Zubac, who stayed sharp for the Lakers by playing 14 games with SBL, returning averages of 21.7 points on 60.7 percent field goals plus 9.1 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.7 assists per evening.
The precedent goes back far longer, of course, to the days of Jordan Farmar playing for the fledgling D-Fenders at Staples Center a few hours before the Lakers game started, then suiting up for Phil Jackson as well.
“A lot of that had to do with trying things out, and to have a championship coach on board with the D-League was inspiring.” recalled Joey Buss, who’s heading into his 12th season in charge. “Phil would see Farmar play in D-Fenders games, and (perhaps) build confidence in him to be able to eventually start him in a playoff game. That’s part of the idea, to show the coaching staff what these guys can do in a game setting. They say minutes in an NBA game is a currency, so the G League is another type of currency you can spend on these players to help them develop.”
WHERE IT BEGAN: DR. BUSS
Who was the first person to purchase a minor league franchise in the NBA? Who else but the greatest owner in sports history, Dr. Jerry Buss.
That came back in 2006, and while several teams followed suit, it hasn’t been until the last two years that every team now has a G League affiliate.
With his move, Dr. Buss helped spark the conversation about whether the NBA could have a legitimate minor league farm system similar to that of MLB, the NHL or international soccer, where players could be groomed and turned into assets for the senior team.
His son Joey has been working to prove the concept.
“From a basketball perspective, the goal is to have these players become an extension of the L.A. Lakers roster,” he explained. “It’s why we run the same system, why we’re in the same city, why we collaborate with the L.A. scouting staff and coaching staff on the players that we bring in. We want to give these guys on opportunity, a pathway to get to the NBA, and more specifically, to the Lakers, if possible.”
“Joey is, first off, a great boss.” said Mazzella. “He puts the people around him in situations to succeed. He knows the game, he’s smart, and he fights for his guys. He cares so much about our G League players, and to have a part owner of an NBA team being that invested in our G League guys really makes a huge difference. We just want to do our best to bring in guys that can help the parent team. “
Even more pointedly, Buss was watching closely when SBL’s Travis Wear got called up to the Lakers last year on a 10-day contract and made his debut at San Antonio. Checking into the game in the fourth quarter, L.A. was trailing by 11, Wear hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to eight. Then with four minutes left, Wear drained back-to-back jumpers to pull L.A. within five, before the Lakers ultimately won behind a series of Lonzo Ball three-pointers.
Meanwhile, Alex Caruso was depended upon far more than would have been expected, the two-way player starting seven games and playing in 37. That got Buss to think about the two-way deals in a different way.
“If our two-way players can help produce anywhere from even one to five wins for the Lakers, considering how tight the West was last year and looks like it will be this year, that’s huge,” he said.
As such, instead of signing young, undrafted players with upside, L.A. has Caruso and Wear on two-ways for this season, precisely because they could step in and immediately help the team win a given game. They essentially raise the Lakers’ floor. And while NBA teams can call up any G League player on a 10-day deal, the Lakers prefer to stick to their own SBL players, since they’re already integrated into the system, which is big for Walton.
“The goal for any two-way contract is to have it turn into a 15th roster spot over the course of the life of the contract,” said Buss. “Caruso had a big impact last year, and this year I expect him to improve and get better because he’s still only 24.
The Lakers and South Bay Lakers both operate under one roof at the UCLA Health Training Center, of course. But Buss doesn’t just want the success to come independently. He’s looking for the full cohesion and integration.
“Joey does a very good job of understanding how valuable a G League team can be,” Mazzella concluded. “He has made it a point to make the SBL the top team in the G League, not just in terms of wins and losses, but ‘How can we help the parent team?’ Recently we’ve had a lot of success seeing guys from the G League team become contributing parts for the Lakers as well.”
Just as was intended.