What mattered most in Bronny James' NBA summer league debut

Bronny James made his Los Angeles Lakers summer league debut Saturday, scoring four points on 2-for-9 shooting in a 108-94 loss to the Sacramento Kings in the opening game of the California Classic.

The No. 55 pick by the Lakers in last month’s draft, James scored his first points on a drive midway through the second quarter and added a few other highlight plays in his 21 minutes on the court, including a steal that facilitated a fast-break bucket and 17-foot jumper after a step back. James added two assists and two rebounds.

What stood out most from James’ debut and what can we expect during his next summer league appearance? Our NBA insiders are breaking down his performance and what it means moving forward this offseason.

Bronny James’ summer league debut was _____.

Kendra Andrews: Quiet, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s only so much to take away from the first California Classic game. James and fellow rookie Dalton Knecht both struggled from the field — Knecht scored 12 points on 3-for-12 shooting — so that’s something to monitor as summer league continues. It wasn’t surprising that James didn’t have a stellar debut, and it will be more important to see small improvements as his summer league continues.

Baxter Holmes: Uneventful, and that’s more than fine. He’ll need to acclimate to playing with and against fringe NBA players, and that’s what summer league is for. His numbers won’t mean much, and that’s not unusual, either. In 2012, Memphis Grizzlies guard Josh Selby, a second-round pick in 2011, was named co-MVP of summer league after averaging 24.2 points in five games. He played just 38 games in his NBA career. In 2009, Warriors forward Anthony Randolph, the 13th overall pick in 2008, averaged 26.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. In six NBA seasons, he averaged 7.1 points before playing in Russia and Spain. The lesson, as NBA executives have long recited, is not to overreact to any summer league performances, be they good, bad or anywhere in the middle. Future stars have floundered, future busts have thrived.

Dave McMenamin: To be expected. His production wasn’t too far off what he did as a freshman at USC. The most significant part of his day, to me, was the Lakers’ commitment to starting him and giving him a good amount of playing time even as he struggled with his shot. Growing pains can be tough to watch play out with thousands of fans in the stands, but it’s a necessary part of the process if James is going to become the player that he and the Lakers hope. He is far from a finished product, but the game proved that L.A. is indeed invested in his development.

What’s one thing we learned about James’ game?

McMenamin: He can turn defense into offense. His best play of the day was springing into a passing lane to nab a steal and immediately pushing it down the other end to get the Lakers a fast-break score with the hockey assist to forward Blake Hinson, who dumped it off to guard Kyle Mangas at the hoop. James nearly got a steal in the Kings’ backcourt later in the game using the same quick burst to intercept a pass but stepped on the sideline out of bounds before securing the possession. The Lakers hope James’ game can translate to pestering perimeter defense, and any offense generated from that would be a bonus.

Holmes: On defense, I noticed a few instances of opposing players trying to break down James off the dribble, then step back for a jumper or try to drive to the rim. Because of who he is — and who his father is — there will no doubt be instances of players trying to score on him if only to prove some kind of point. He’ll face this several more times in summer league and most likely throughout his career.

Andrews: That he probably won’t be a ball handler this season, especially when bringing the ball up the court. Perhaps it’s a trust thing, or maybe just not the role they see him playing, but James rarely handled the rock in transition, off an inbounds pass or just to set up a play. At 6-foot-2, he fits more of a point guard size; however it appears the Lakers don’t see him as a main facilitator just yet.

What’s one thing to watch in James’ next summer league game?

Holmes: I’d watch his overall decisiveness. He’s still learning his teammates, as they are him, and there were moments when you could see him trying to figure out exactly when to defer or to be aggressive. It’s hard to imagine the weight of expectations upon him and how that compounds everything. Once he plays a few games, I expect him to look more comfortable. But one thing he will very much need to balance — and this played out Saturday — is crowd reactions and calls for him to shoot every time he touches the ball, as fans screamed for him to fire away or drive to the basket, whether or not he was open. James will have to adjust to the overall noise of expectations around him, and the crowd’s reaction Saturday was an early sign of that.

Andrews: I’d pay attention to any offensive improvements he makes, especially his shooting, but also what kind of defense he can put together. Being able to do the little things is what will help James earn playing time next season, and his point-of-attack defense has been highlighted. In his first game, he had a hard time guarding Adonis Arms, who finished with 32 points and even shook James to his feet on the first play of the game.

McMenamin: This was James’ first basketball game since mid-March — there was an understandable layer of rust to shake off. Now that the first-game jitters are out of the way, look for James to be able to showcase a little bit more game by game as this new stage starts to feel less foreign. It’s obvious by the way James approaches the sport, going back to his high school days, that he won’t suddenly be looking to drop 30 in one of these games. Maybe next game he doesn’t get caught in between a pull-up and a floater, like he did on one attempt Saturday; or maybe he takes another hard dribble after getting his defender on his hip — as the Lakers summer league coach, Dane Johnson, mentioned postgame — and he ends up with another easy look at the rim. In other words: baby steps.

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