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Summer League Is Built For Lonzo Ball

The NBA Summer League is something looser, goofier, and decidedly different from the actual NBA. In Vegas, Lonzo Ball fit in perfectly.
Foto: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

"It's kind of awesome," Nate Robinson said in 2008, when asked about his jersey being hung not-quite-in-the-rafters of the Cox Pavillion in Las Vegas. At the time, Robinson was the event's defending MVP and playing in his fourth straight Summer League. In a small ceremony at halftime of the game between the Summer League entries from Robinson's Knicks and the Minnesota Timberwolves, three Summer League interns ceremoniously tacked the jersey to a soundproof baffle behind one of the baskets. "First time ever," Robinson said. "So I'm glad I could be the first one. It's kind of cool."


"I know it started to fall down before people left the gym," Scott Schroeder told me. He was one of the Summer League interns that hung the Robinson jersey, and is now a coach. "I do remember we were told we just have to make it work until the games were over that day…and we failed." Just a few hours after the game, a man in cargo shorts and a black polo shirt took the jersey down. It was the same intern who had been charged with hanging it up in the first place.

Lonzo Ball was named as the Summer League's MVP on Monday night, an award that should probably just be called The Nate Robinson Trophy at this point, but that's not a parallel I'm trying to make. Lonzo is not Nate, and lord knows the summer of 2017 is not the summer of 2008. While the only constant here is the Summer League itself, even the Summer League isn't quite the Summer League. The Summer League in 2017 is much bigger than it was and a good deal easier to watch than it was. It has a corporate sponsorship and the games air on ESPN. The days when interns like Schroeder were tasked with DJing games—"the same 30 songs that we knew were clean and licensed legally," Schroeder said, "for 11 days straight"—are well in the rearview now. Diehards that have asked themselves hard questions about personal priorities while watching Von Wafer and Pops Mensah-Bonsu do their thing on juddering online feeds can recognize this as progress of a sort.


But if the old aesthetic jank of Summer League is gone, and not coming back, there is still a real and unmistakable sense in which the Summer League is still effectively and essentially what it was, and what it always will be. It was, in 2008, a league built for Nate Robinson. It looked, this summer, like a league built with Lonzo Ball in mind. It is neither of those things, exactly. But it is still strange and special. There is no way in which it is objectively different from basketball as it is usually played in the NBA, but even a few minutes of viewing makes clear that Summer League basketball is, around the edges and moment by moment, something located slightly to the left of familiar basketball reality.

In Robinson's era as in ours, Summer League basketball is a thirsty, bounding funhouse reflection of the games that actually count in the standings through the winter and spring. In 2008, that meant a game that was uniquely aligned with Nate Robinson's heedless ball-stopping cannonball routine. In 2017, the fluidity of the contemporary NBA achieved a sloshing, swinging apotheosis in the Lakers' pass-happy Summer League champions. If that ad hoc game wasn't specifically built for Lonzo Ball's avant-garde ball-distribution, it sure looked like it.

The fun of watching Ball, and of the Lakers' fun and frantic Summer League champions in general, lay in large part in the disjunction between the things that he was doing in these games—dropping pinpoint baseball passes to teammates 40 feet away, coolly fist-bumping a pass to a teammate on the break—and the things that the NBA's form and function permit. There are questions about how well any of this will work once the real games start up. Those answers are hard to know right now, but it is safe to say that the narcoleptic defensive lapses that define the Summer League experiences will not be as frequent in the league. Ball's teammates will never be this wide open again, will never get as far beyond enemy lines on their runouts. Ball himself may not be able to get up all or many or any of the shots that he got off in Vegas when he's playing against an organized and motivated NBA defense. As with so many other unanswered questions that emerge in Las Vegas, these are best seen as problems for another day.

"It means a lot," Ball said on ESPN Monday night when asked about winning the Summer League MVP. We're far enough along in the Lonzo Ball to know that he would say exactly this; it's the most inoffensive answer, and that is Ball's public default at this moment. We are also far enough along in our experience of the NBA Summer League to know what his brilliance and his newest trophy do and don't mean. Just because the games don't count, or because they are so different from the ones that do, does not mean that there isn't some beauty or meaning to find in what Lonzo Ball did in and to the Summer League; Nate Robinson's Summer League legend is not any less real or worth treasuring because of how ramshackle it is.

There is no knowing, now, what Ball's performance in Vegas signals or promises down the line, because there is still no perfect translation between the King's English of the NBA and Summer League's slangier dialect. But if it's all we can say for sure right now, we can still say it: it's difficult to remember the Summer League ever seeming more like itself than it did this summer, when Lonzo Ball was playing in it. It won't be his last achievement or contribution to the game, but it's a promising place to start.