Kit Shepard | July 21st, 2018
The cynical, stereotypical view of the NBA Summer League is that it offers no real indication of how teams will perform when the season starts for real in October. That can often be the case as, with the rosters being dominated by players scrapping for merely a place in the G-League, all squads are missing the vast majority of their key personnel.
Despite this, there was an air of unfamiliarity when the Cleveland Cavaliers met the Los Angeles Lakers in the semi-finals of the Las Vegas Summer League on Monday night. Of course, both sides consisted of many players who will likely not make the NBA, but there was a buzz of anticipation in the air not usually present in arenas at this time of year, as LeBron James‘ teams of past and present did battle.
And fans hoping for an entertaining contest were not disappointed, as the Lakers edged out the Cavaliers 112-109 after double overtime. As is always the case with Summer League, the game’s outcome is of little significance in the bigger picture. Nevertheless, due to individual successes and the brilliant atmosphere, both teams can take plenty of positives from the encounter.
Sexton Gives Cavs Hope
There is an understandable sense of pessimism surrounding professional basketball in Cleveland currently. LeBron’s decision to leave his native Northeast Ohio for LA has been tough to take for Cavs fans, even if they saw it coming. Any franchise would struggle to recover quickly from losing one of the game’s greatest ever players (again), let alone an organization like the Cavaliers, which historically struggles to attract free agents when the King is not around.
However, the Summer League match-up with LeBron’s new team showed that there is at least light at the end of the tunnel for Cleveland, and the torch is being shone by Collin Sexton. Drafted eighth by the Cavs this year out of Alabama, the point guard has stringed together several impressive performances in Summer League, highlighted by a 27-point showing against the Lakers.
Nicknamed ‘Young Bull’, the 19-year-old’s potential as a dynamic scorer was on full display. Sexton attacked the rim with typical speed and aggression and showed a soft touch to finish inside. He was also more than capable of knocking down mid-range jumpers if defenders gave him room. When the game became tight down the stretch, Sexton’s intensity and tenacity on both ends were driving the Cavs, indicating that he also has the mentality to succeed at NBA level.
Like most rookies, Sexton is far from the finished product. The 9 for 22 showing from the field on Monday was unspectacular, his five turnovers led all players, and he missed a free throw to put Cleveland ahead with three seconds remaining in the first overtime. Yet his value to the Cavs cannot be identified through the box score alone. With the franchise still reeling from LeBron’s departure, Cleveland is desperate for a new, young player who not only has the potential to be the team’s centerpiece but also possesses the intangibles that fans can rally behind. Collin Sexton fits the bill.
Lakers’ Young Promise Opens Up New Options
Meanwhile, the Lakers victory over Cleveland was led by the duo of Josh Hart and Svi Mykhailiuk, demonstrating that the future in Los Angeles is very bright. Going into his second NBA season, Hart was expected to thrive in Summer League and he duly delivered, scoring a game-high 37 points. Mykhailiuk was far more surprising, as the 2018 draft’s 47th pick looks to be a major steal after notching 31 points on 12 for 20 shooting, including 6 for 11 on three-pointers.
There is no doubt that LeBron will be surrounded by plenty of young talent in LA. The Lakers’ roster already boasts Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, number two picks in the 2016 and 2017 drafts respectively, as well as Kyle Kuzma, who made the all-rookie first team last season. Now, Hart and Mykhailiuk only increase their depth.
San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, who has publicly revealed that he intends to play in Los Angeles when his current contract with the San Antonio Spurs ends next summer, has just been traded to the Toronto Raptors, so the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is off the table for now. Nevertheless, this allows the Lakers to keep their young core intact which, if Monday night was anything to go by, is not a bad thing.
Above all, both the Cavs and the Lakers young squads gained something unusual in Summer League; the experience of playing at NBA intensity. Critics of the competition label it as glorified practice for young players, but the atmosphere for this encounter suggested otherwise. As the semi-final reached its exciting climax, the tension in Thomas & Mack Center was not far off from the final minutes of a playoff game, with both benches on their feet and the crowd fully engaged. Hart even believed there was a “national championship feel”.
For young players, a major challenge is coping with the increased scrutiny that the NBA brings. On Monday night every player, regardless of whether he was in a Lakers or Cavs uniform, experienced a brief taste of playing under the bright spotlight and the tension that comes with it. When the likes of Sexton and Mykhailiuk are involved in their first close NBA game, the pressure will not feel so alien. The Summer League can seem a little pointless at times, but the scenes in this contest revealed the total opposite.
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images