I’ve been living in Austin, Texas the last several years, a place not known for Purple and Gold sightings. That changed last Saturday night when the South Bay Lakers visited the Austin Spurs—G League action in the fastest-growing city in the country.
First, there’s an interesting difference when it comes to venues. The SB Lakers play home games at the new state-of-the-art UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo. Keeping the team’s G League incubator in-house has obvious benefits. Oh the other hand, tickets start at $80 a pop for what is essentially a glorified practice court.
By comparison, the San Antonio Spurs’ development team practices and plays 80 miles away from home base at the H-E-B Center in Austin’s Cedar Park suburb. This is an arena with a capacity of about 6,800. Games are well-attended, fueled by affordable ticket prices (starting at $6.75), free giveaways and a family-friendly, community-driven business model.
You got your food and your drink, dancers, Da Bull mascot, halftime shows, corny announcements, kid zone hoops in one corner and the overall vibe of a Texas tailgate party.
Regardless of trappings, the Lakers came in and basically wiped a competitive Spurs G League squad off the well-polished floor, thanks to the triple-headed monster of Ivica Zubac, Josh Hart and Alex Caruso.
Final score, 113-96. Zubac looked completely comfortable, engaged and active—19 points, 11 boards and a couple blocks. It’s also hard to overstate how frigging huge yet mobile the dude is in person.
Hart had 17 with six boards, three assists and three steals. But it was Caruso who truly filled the stat sheet—18 points, seven steals, six boards and five assists, diving after loose balls and frequently drawing fouls.
Stephaun Branch and Scott Machado also played well off the bench, 18 and 13 points respectively.
Under second-year head coach Coby Karl, the SB Lakers run a fast and spontaneous offense with plenty of pick and roll, spread shooters and hard drives to the rim. But defense has also been amplified this season with the addition of Metta World Peace as a development coach.
“I see him as like a savant of defense and to be able to be around someone that did it at the highest level,” Karl said of Peace, per Bryant Freese of Lakers Nation. “He was able to guard the best players in the league over 10 years, to have that knowledge and that experience on our staff it’s an honor.”
Caruso and Vander Blue (last year’s D-League Player of the Year) are on two-way contracts—the league’s latest wrinkle in integrating NBA teams and their developmental affiliates. Zubac and Hart were simply on loan from their parental component—getting much-needed playing time due to logjams at their respective positions. They have since been recalled by the Lakers.
The NBA’s farm league began modestly as the National Basketball Development League with an initial charter of eight teams. The system transitioned to the D-League in 2005 and jumped on the corporate branding bandwagon this season as the G League in partnership with Gatorade.
The South Bay Lakers, formerly the Los Angeles D-Fenders, became the first D-League team to be wholly owned by an NBA franchise in 2006. The Austin Spurs (formerly Toros) trace their roots back even further—to the Columbus Riverdragons out of Georgia, circa 2001.
There’s now a total of 26 teams in the G League including four new expansions. The Washington Wizards will join the party for the 2018-19 season. The goal of grooming prospects has increasingly paid off—more than a third of all current NBA players have spent time in the G League. How this correlates to the current Lakers rotation, however, is something of a Rubik’s Cube.
Zubac, for all his promise, is mired deep in a center rotation that includes Brook Lopez, Julius Randle, Andrew Bogut and rookie Thomas Bryant. Hart, Caruso and Blue face similar predicaments, even with their varying skillsets.
Bryant, it should be noted has also ping-ponged back and forth between the two teams, averaging 21.4 points, 7.2 boards and 2.4 blocks in five South Bay appearances.
On a team that can struggle with three-point shooting, Travis Wear is also worth keeping tabs on. Now in his second SB Lakers season, the stretch-4 previously knocked around with the Knicks and Gipuzkoa Basket in Spain, as well as summer league and training camp with the Lakers. He was also recently named to the 2019 USA Basketball World Cup Qualifying Team.
Wear is a willing defender with a quick, high release on his jumper—converting 52 percent of his shots from behind the arc this season.
What’s it all mean in the here and now? It’s still about development and opportunity. The Lakers’ success or lack thereof in coming months will steer the ebb and flow from their minor league affiliate to primetime hoops. If L.A. stays healthy and remains in the playoff hunt, there will be less cross-pollination. If the wheels come off the bus, experiments will rise accordingly.
It’s a practical luxury for NBA teams. And for players, the combination of modestly rising salaries, two-way contracts (two per team) and increased visibility through platforms like Facebook Live allow a reasonable alternative to generally more lucrative overseas contracts.
The Lakers development squad beat the Reno Bighorns in El Segundo Wednesday night, improving their record to 6-1. They’ll visit Austin again in March.