First impressions of the Lakers’ young core in the summer league

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Miami Heat crushed the Los Angeles Lakers 107-90 in Los Angeles’ summer league opener at the California Classic.

Here are a few impressions from the team’s debut.

Christie seems ready to make a leap

Max Christie looked like a sophomore playing with rookies, which is an encouraging sign of his long-term development. His final stat line was remarkable: 17 points (6-for-11 shooting), six rebounds, four assists and a steal in 32 minutes.

“It’s always good to see a player in their second summer league, just their disposition on both ends of the floor,” Lakers summer league head coach JD DuBois said. “I continue to challenge him to defend and rebound. And then the offense will continue to hit its stride as well.”

Christie’s ball-handling development in particular was on display. He was more shifty, with a tighter handle and more confidence in his moves. He had several trips to the paint in which he shook his defender with a hesitant dribble and/or crossover.

Here’s an example: Christie zooms off a dribble handoff from rookie Colin Castleton and tricks his defender by feinting to retreat before projecting toward the rim. Then he gets up, hangs in the air and lifts the ball in.

“That’s something I definitely worked on this summer — just being able to make plays for myself and others,” Christie said. “Just being comfortable with the ball in my hands. I think tonight was a good day for that. I thought I did a good job of controlling my pace, controlling the tempo, finding guys and then creating for myself as well. “

Christie lost his balance a few times while handling the ball, a clear sign that he needs to continue to get stronger and build a more robust center of gravity. He acknowledged that he passed up on a few open 3s he should have taken, an area the Lakers’ coaching staff has tried during his rookie season.

But there was a big difference in the way he carried himself. He looks bigger, which he is. He has bulked up to around 205 pounds after entering the NBA in the mid-190s. But he is also more mature and confident.

“I think he’s matured a lot in his body,” sophomore Cole Swider said. “He’s also matured a lot in his game. He’s making a lot quicker decisions. He’s able to make that mid-range jumper. He’s able to shoot the 3. He’s able to beat guys off the dribble and use his body and finish over the guys. And so defensively he’s always been super solid. So he’s continued that and gotten better. But I think overall just his mind, his spirit. His preparation is great. He works really hard. So it’s been really great to see him progress over the last year.”

The Lakers are banking on Christie’s emerging as a reliable option at the backup spots two and three in the rotation. He seems to be on his way to that task.

“I felt really comfortable out there,” Christie said. “I felt more confident. … It felt good to be out there. I had fun even though it was a loss. But I had fun out there. I felt really confident. just looking to keep it going.”

Hood-Schifino develops at its own pace

Jalen Hood-Schifino was nothing if not aggressive in his NBA debut, finishing with 15 points on 6-for-19 shooting. He showed his playmaking skills and finished with four assists, including a couple of notable finds.

After a two-point, 1-for-8 outing in the first half, Hood-Schifino was far more effective and efficient in the second half, scoring 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting.

“Definitely was more aggressive,” Hood-Schifino said of his second-half performance. “It was very downhill. I was about to finish it.”

On a positive note, the Hood-Schifino is capable and shifts well. He has the ability to stop and start, keep his defender on his heels and open up the opportunity to burn them. On this possession, Hood-Schifino uses his shiftiness to accelerate downhill full court and get to the rim for a reverse layup:

And on this possession, Hood-Schifino uses a ghost screen to create a break and separation to knife his way to the basket and finish with a ridiculous bucket:

Rookie point guards can struggle to adjust to the speed and spacing — two areas Hood-Schifino picked up on afterward — in NBA summer league basketball and early in their careers, so this isn’t exactly a surprise. Hood-Schifino needs to strengthen his shot selection, which will happen with more experience.

“I thought Jalen started and he forced a little bit,” Swider said. “Then he got into the fight.”

The more troubling observation from Monday’s game was that Hood-Schifino often struggled as a point-of-attack defender. He got blown out several times — in part because he has a bad habit of being too upright in his defensive stance — with Miami ballhandlers who often seemed to have better bursts than him.

Hood-Schifino appears to be far from a rotation player. That could change sometime between now and the season — or even between now and the end of the summer — but he shot under 30 percent and had nearly as many turnovers (three) as assists (four) in his debut. Still, it’s okay. The Lakers didn’t sign him for that. They are high on his long-term upside. All he provides in the short term is gravy.

Hood-Schifino is officially the player to watch for the rest of the summer league.

“Overall, I’m just looking for him to get reps,” DuBois said. “You can’t replace reps. You can’t replace possessions as a professional. … It’s a good starting point. That’s our base and then we just keep building from there.”

Castleton’s demise stands out

Colin Castleton, who officially signed a two-way contract with the Lakers on Monday before the game (along with D’Moi Hodge), is the type of high-IQ prospect the Lakers have prized for the past decade. He is more than just a big body – he is an incredibly skilled offensive player.

He had two assists, but he could easily have had several more if his teammates had either made shots or not been fouled on certain possessions. Castleton was especially adept at executing dribble-handoff moves with his teammates and also showed the ability to find cutters.

Look at the speed with which Castleton initiates this transfer with Hodge. This is not a normal center game. These are advanced traits and instincts that only the best big man passers have:

Castleton was somewhat of a focal point for the offense, which was a little surprising since that’s not how the Lakers typically run their offense during the regular season. (Castleton was a good passer in college, so the ability has been there for a while.)

Castleton also showed that he has soft hands and can catch and finish in traffic as he does it all in one motion from this full-court advance pass from Christie:

Castleton picked up six fouls, in part because he was so active defensively, trying to block and contest every shot in his vicinity. He also had an offensive foul from illegal screens, which DuBois said afterward was more of a timing issue between Castleton and the team’s perimeter players.

He technically would have fouled under normal NBA rules, and that could have affected his aggression defensively as the game progressed. But the Heat looked pretty comfortable loading up on him and finishing over him. Again, the obvious caveat applies: It was only one game.

Such competition in transition led to him being posted by Heat rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr. – game play:

That’s the risk of going after blocked shots. But that’s also the type of risk the best defensive big men take.

Overall, Castleton was solid. It’s clear why the Lakers valued him so much — and that was because he wasn’t protecting the rim like he’s capable of. Depending on how he develops over the next few months and which center the Lakers sign with their 14th roster spot, Castleton has a shot at rotation minutes at some point this season.

Lewis’ pump-and-drive game

Maxwell Lewis didn’t get much playing time in his debut (16:14), which was one of the rotation surprises – especially considering how much the Lakers spent to acquire his rights.

Lewis’s playing is aesthetically pleasing; he is smooth and fluid. He didn’t do much, but he still looked like he belonged. Although he’s considered a shooter, it’s his pump-and-drive skills that have been most impressive.

Watch Lewis pump and blow off his defender, swim past another defender and put the ball in through contact and a good tackle:

Maybe Lewis could have simply taken the 3-point shot. The decision seemed premeditated. If you watch it again, you see the sliver of space he has up front and that he never moves into a fake shooting motion. That said, he still executes the motion well, and there’s no predicting how a defense — especially in summer league — will rotate from a breakdown. By the time Lewis goes up for the shot, all five Heat defenders are near the paint. This was a cunning bucket.

But Lewis doesn’t just use shot fakes to score. Here he fakes, swings through and drives the baseline. As the help switches over, he throws a dump pass to Castleton, who drops in a quick hook shot:

The next level for motion shooters is being able to attack a defense that overplays the threat of their shot and either score in the paint or create a look for a teammate. Lewis showed that skill set sooner than expected, indicating he may be ahead of schedule in terms of contributing early.

The Lakers play the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday, July 5.

(Photo by Max Christie: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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