Lonzo Ball, center, and his brother LaMelo stroll through the Dodgers dugout before the Lakers’ No. 1 draft pick threw the ceremonial first pitch on June 23. (Christian K. Lee / Los Angeles Times)
A year ago this was Brandon Ingram’s stage, his NBA debut in Las Vegas as the Lakers’ No. 2 overall pick.
Ingram has had plenty of opportunity to share his expertise with his young teammate Lonzo Ball in the week leading up to Las Vegas Summer League. Their lockers are right next to each other at the Lakers’ facility.
“We talk pretty much all the time,” Ball said. “He’s a good dude.”
On Friday evening at the Thomas and Mack Center, the Lakers will debut their rookie class, which includes three first-round picks in Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, along with young veterans such as second-year players Ingram and Ivica Zubac. They’ll face the Clippers in their first game, before playing against the Boston Celtics on Saturday and then the Sacramento Kings on Monday.
As they do, the basketball world will key in on Ball — the player the Lakers drafted second overall out of UCLA two weeks ago and whose on-court management has already been apparent to his new teammates. In some ways, his development will be connected to another player’s growth. Ingram, the Lakers’ soft-spoken forward, has already been showing his coaches he’s changed — that he’s starting to become a leader in his own right.
“When he’s been on the court, even in pickup games that we had in the summer before, you can tell he’s starting to emerge as a leader,” said Jud Buechler, the Lakers’ summer league head coach. “He’ll go out there. It’s been great to see. I think he sat back and tried to figure it out last year. You can tell he’s slowly wanting to take over the reins. … It’s his team.”
Each team that participates in Las Vegas Summer League is guaranteed at least five games. After their first three, teams are seeded and separated into different brackets. Last season the Lakers won their first three games, then lost in the second round of the tournament. D’Angelo Russell was one major draw then, in his second year after being the Lakers’ second overall pick in 2015.
Ingram was a rookie. He played in five games, averaging 27.4 minutes per game with 12.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. To him, summer league was a bit of an icebreaker.
“I think getting the chance just to run up and down,” Ingram said. “[The rookies] haven’t played since college ball. Just get some run. I don’t think it’s anything compared to the league, but just get some run.”
In the season that followed, the Lakers’ coaching staff brought along Ingram slowly. He played behind Luol Deng at small forward for the first part of the season, before replacing Deng in the starting lineup in February.
As the season progressed, Ingram became more and more comfortable with his game. He was aggressive when he needed to be, and learned how to use his long arms to his advantage. While he took a short break, as the Lakers suggested, Ingram returned quickly to the gym and began working on various parts of his game.
“Have an attack mentality,” Ingram said, of how this season will be different. “It’s a different year. Getting back to myself, attacking each player on the offensive end and defensive end. I know I’m gonna have a big jump this year.”
All the experience he gained will come in handy in helping the Lakers rookies, including Ball, a player he believes will help him, too.
“He’s very unselfish,” Ingram said.
Ingram said he will play the first three games of summer league for sure, but isn’t sure how much more. Ball, who Buechler said was “banged up” in practice, might also be held out of some games if the Lakers decide that’s necessary.
But for at least a little while, they’ll get a chance this weekend to show what their future might look like.
“Definitely looking forward to it,” Ball said. “I haven’t played basketball in a while it feels like, so definitely a lot of fun getting out there.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli