The Lakers’ Max Christie is making his case for more minutes after reaching a level in summer league

LAS VEGAS — Late in the first half of the Los Angeles Lakers’ 103-96 summer league victory over the Golden State Warriors on Saturday, sophomore wing Max Christie stepped to the free throw line after being fouled on an alley-oop attempt.

Less than a minute earlier, Christie completed what he considered “the best dunk” of his basketball career, blowing past a fumbled Warriors switch and detonating a one-handed dunk over rookie center Jayce Johnson.

The Thomas & Mack Center, which is generally packed with Lakers fans, erupted after what had largely been a lackluster half of basketball.

As Christie stepped to the line, the arena still buzzing from his near-dunk, the chant began.

“MVP!” Lakers fans rained down on Christie. “MVP! MVP!”

“I felt like Austin (Reaves),” Christie said afterward when asked about the chants. “But yeah, it felt really, really good.”

Christie’s ascension has been the story of the summer league for the Lakers. The 20-year-old is averaging 18.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 0.5 steals and 1.8 blocks to go along with shooting splits of 48.9 percent from the field, 60 percent from 3 and 95.6 percent from the free throw line through four. summer league games in Sacramento and Las Vegas. From 2023 No. 2 overall pick Brandon Miller, to red-hot Warriors wing Lester Quiñones, to Miami 18th pick Jaime Jaquez Jr.

The recent surge in attention isn’t going to Christie’s head, though. Despite showing a stronger frame and more skills on the ball this summer, Christie is aware that summer league success doesn’t always translate to regular season success. Nevertheless, he is honest about his offseason ambition: He wants to establish himself as a definite rotation player on next season’s team.

“I just want to be in the rotation and play as much as possible,” Christie shared Athletics. “I just want to play as much basketball as I can. Last year was motivation to get to that place. That’s really all it is. That’s my mission. That’s my goal.”

Christie’s baby face and peach fuzz mustache belie the intensity with which he approaches his craft. He is obsessed with improving; teammates and coaches repeatedly refer to him as a “sponge” because he tries to soak up as much knowledge as he can. He prepares for every theoretical possibility, often to the point where it becomes difficult to strike a balance.

“He meditates. He breathes. … He’s in the cold tub every day up to his chest. No 20-year-old does that,” said second-year teammate Cole Swindler, a two-way contract player who has been with Christie throughout his tenure. in the G League and the Lakers. “So he does whatever it takes to be successful — almost too much sometimes. He wants too much in the gym. I say, ‘Max, you gotta chill, bro. You got it.'”

“I think it’s always good to err on the side of doing more than doing less,” Christie said. “I think it’s easier to do more and then tone it down than to do less and tone it up. So that’s what I’m trying to do. … I want to make sure I do everything I can to be the best player I can be. I don’t take shortcuts.”

Besides getting these on the court, Christie’s primary focus since entering the NBA has been building his body. Christie entered the NBA at around 189 pounds, which contributed to an up-and-down rookie season. He showcased a 3-and-D skill set during his regular-season stints, showing advanced defensive instincts in spurts against top scorers like Washington’s Bradley Beal or motion shooters like Sacramento’s Kevin Huerter.

In those moments, Christie looked like an NBA player. But his production was inconsistent, starting with a rough summer league as a rookie and continuing through a regular season shuttling between Los Angeles and the G League. He shot a remarkable 41.9 percent on 3-pointers in limited action, but struggled inside the arc (40.9 percent on 2-pointers), largely due to his slim frame and inexperience at the NBA level.

A year later, Christie is up to about 205 pounds and has gained five pounds since January and about 16 total since last summer. That muscle and strength has unlocked new wrinkles in his offensive repertoire this summer league, especially as a ballhandler. He’s gotten easier downhill, towering over defenders with floaters and hanging mid-range jumpers, finding shooters and cutters and drawing contact while finishing more often.

“Even though it’s gaining weight, I think it’s just getting stronger,” Christie said. “… Just make sure my muscles are strong enough to keep taking those bumps and keep defending at a high level. At the end of the day, I like where I am. Maybe we can even add another five pounds.”

Christie is aware of the parameters of the role he is expected to play on this team next season. He will rarely be the primary ball handler, or even the secondary ball handler, during the regular season as he has been in summer league.

His path to a rotation spot is to be a 3-and-D wing who can support the team’s superstars (LeBron James, Anthony Davis) and ball handlers (Reaves, D’Angelo Russell and Gabe Vincent) with his perimeter shooting and on-ball defense.

“Obviously now I’m showing my ability to handle the ball, but at the end of the day we have LeBron, DLo and Austin,” Christie said. “Those guys are going to handle the ball the most. I have to find my niche, and I think it’s 3-point shooting and defense like I did last year. I just have to improve on that.”

Still, Lakers assistant coach and summer league head coach JD DuBois said there are several elements of Christie’s outsized summer role that should carry over to the more complementary one he aims to play in the regular season.

“I think first and foremost his defense,” DuBois said. “Just his versatility. Being able to guard multiple positions. And then his ability to attack from closeouts. And I think his rebounding will translate as well. We’re not going to put a cap on him, but we know just that we have to continue to have incremental growth with him on both ends of the floor and just let the season dictate where we want to fit him in.”

In some ways, Christie is following a similar trajectory to Reaves, right down to the “MVP” chants. Reaves played more than Christie during his rookie season, quickly emerging as established rotation player Christie has yet to be in his short NBA career.

But the two players, one undrafted and one taken in the second round, share a number of characteristics. Both are avid golfers, with Christie recently taking up the sport again after stopping when he entered high school. (Christie took his clubs on the road for the first time and has golfed before every game in Sacramento and Las Vegas.) Both started their NBA careers as 3-and-D guards before branching out — Reaves as the primary ballhandler and legitimate No. 3 option, and Christie as a self-made goalscorer. And both are measured personalities who will not let praise make them complacent.

“It feels really good to see those types of comments from the fan base, from Jeanie (Buss) and from all those guys,” Christie said. “And then it feels good. But at the same time, it’s like knowing that I still have more to prove. I can’t be satisfied with that.”

Christie and Reaves have one more thing in common: a pivotal second year, after which they would become restricted free agents. Reaves responded with a breakout 2022-23 season that ended with him signing a four-year, $54 million deal that established him as a Lakers cornerstone. Christie, meanwhile, has the opportunity to earn more minutes with the departures of Troy Brown Jr., Lonnie Walker IV and Malik Beasley.

Internally, the Lakers are confident that Christie can assume a rotation spot next season, where he vacillates between backup shooting guard and small forward.

“Max has been incredibly locked in — mostly in the weight room with his body,” Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka said. “And I think you can see he’s added 10 pounds of muscle where now when he gets by a shoulder of a guy, he’s a problem. And defensively, he goes through screens and I think he’s got a chance to be an elite defenseman. … I think Max is going to be, he’s going to be a force in training camp in terms of fighting for minutes in Darwin’s rotation.”

Christie has rewarded their faith by dominating summer league, to the point where the Lakers have considered sitting him for the rest of the games, as is often the custom for top first- and second-year players. However, Christie is hesitant to rest, hoping to continue building momentum and a larger sample size of his improved game.

Either way, as he prepares for his sophomore campaign, Christie appears to be making a similar leap to recent Laker draft gems like Reaves and Alex Caruso. He is optimistic that he has proven himself as a rotation-caliber piece, while acknowledging that he is only scratching the surface of his potential.

“At the end of the day, it’s not my decision,” Christie said. “But for me, the goal is just to play as well as I can, so when Darvin and Rob and those guys make those kinds of decisions, I’m in that conversation. I just want to play as hard as I can and make the best impression I can.

“I can’t say I think I’m a rotation player after a few games because it’s the summer league. I still have a lot to prove.”

(Top photo: (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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