Summer breeze: Lakers win Vegas championship despite Lonzo Ball not playing

on Jul18

All of his teammates joined in with the fans chanting the first syllable of his last name, and then Magic Johnson cupped his hands around his mouth and added his voice too.

But Kyle Kuzma said he didn’t notice.

“I was too locked into the trophy,” he said, laughing.

Lonzo Ball was the most valuable player in the Las Vegas Summer League, but he couldn’t play Monday night as the Lakers faced the Portland Trail Blazers in the championship game.

Instead, the star of the game was Kuzma, who offered a glimpse of what he can become for the Lakers. The Lakers sought shooters in last month’s draft, and in Kuzma they got one. He made 11 of 16 shots, six of 10 from beyond the three-point arc, and scored 30 points. He also grabbed 10 rebounds and added a steal, helping the Lakers to a 110-98 win. The performance earned Kuzma the title of MVP in the championship game.

“Easy 30 ball; nothing new for him,” Ball said. “He already had one, got another one, so he just did what Kyle does out there, plays hard. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, every night he goes out and just gives it his all and it always works for him.”

Said Kuzma: “I didn’t know I was that aggressive. I wasn’t like that in college. Definitely not that aggressive. I’m locked in and focused. I can be pretty much anything I want.”

Ball sat out after suffering tightness in his right calf muscle Sunday night.

He wore a sleeve over the leg Monday, the Lakers cautious not to overwork him. Ball had played four games in five nights, as had his teammates, and the Lakers saw no need to take risks with the No. 2 pick in the draft.

“One of the most impressive things is he missed two games and only played half of one game and still got the MVP,” said Jud Buechler, coach of the Lakers’ summer league team. “He really creates the environment where when one of your top players is sharing the ball like that, it’s just contagious with everybody else.”

Sitting out didn’t stop Ball from locking into what was happening on the court. In the last few weeks, he and Kuzma have developed a friendship, and Ball delighted in Kuzma’s exploits.

He wasn’t the only one.

Kuzma, who spent three seasons at Utah before making himself available for the draft, was told that he’d be a late second-round pick at best and might not get drafted at all. Kuzma felt confident that wouldn’t be the case.

“I just used it for motivation,” Kuzma said of the negativity. “I’ve just always played with a big chip on my shoulder and that keeps fueling me. I just put it in my mental notes and got to work.”

He knew the Lakers liked him. They liked what they saw on the court at the combine in Chicago. They liked what they heard from him when they met with him.

“I remember when we worked Kyle Kuzma out I called his agent and I said there’s just a spirit around him,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said. “Just a bounce to his step.

“I think he is a positionless basketball player that plays with great energy and great confidence. You can see that here in this summer league. He’s just a tremendous talent. We’re so proud our scouting department did a great job evaluating him and that Magic and I selected him with the 27th pick. He’s an incredible player to get at that pick and is doing just wonderfully in Vegas.”

For Kuzma and the rest of the Lakers’ summer league players, the positive vibes associated with winning the championship were tempered by the fact that they’ll soon be diving into actual NBA work.

“I want to get stronger,” Kuzma said. “I need to get stronger. Playing with grown men starting with training camp.”

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli

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