2017-07-09 18:28:02
N.B.A. Summer League Opens With Buzz (Lonzo Ball) and a Sprained Ankle (Markelle Fultz)

18:28, July 09 211 0

LAS VEGAS — Organizers of the N.B.A.’s summer league here have traditionally closed the upper deck of Thomas & Mack Center by draping black curtains to cover rows of empty seats. While attendance and interest have grown in recent years, the off-season showcase is still a niche event, aimed at die-hards who want a first look at young prospects.

But with Lonzo Ball, the second overall pick in the recent N.B.A. draft, and the Los Angeles Lakers headlining on Saturday, the league had to stop selling tickets on Friday because of overwhelming demand, the first time the event has sold out in advance. The league sold 17,500 tickets to Saturday’s games.

The pomp and circumstance of Ball’s first weekend at the summer league was unavoidable. The braggadocious patriarch of the Ball family, LaVar, sat in an elevated courtside box along the baseline with his family in hats and T-shirts promoting Big Baller Brand — an apparel company founded by LaVar Ball — during games on Friday and Saturday night. The youngest Ball brother, LaMelo, participated in two shooting contests during timeouts. Magic Johnson, the Lakers’ president for basketball operations, and General Manager Rob Pelinka, hired in March after the team’s string of losing seasons, sat courtside.

“Look how many Lakers fans out here — he changed the culture,” LaVar said of his son Lonzo. “That’s what it’s about. It ain’t about him being a superstar. Instead of going to the movies, everybody is coming to watch the Lakers and Big Baller Brand.”

Ball’s performance on Friday did not exactly match the hype: 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 points and 2-of-15 shooting as the Lakers lost to the Los Angeles Clippers, 96-93. On Saturday, though, he finished with a triple-double — 11 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists — in the Lakers’ 86-81 loss to the Boston Celtics.

Fans oohed and aahed at Ball’s behind-the-back passes, as well as his ability to read the court and find his teammates in transition. When he completed a no-look pass, Johnson and Pelinka fist-bumped. Sometimes his vision was too good: His teammates fumbled bullet passes on multiple occasions.

“I definitely felt better — better game — but like I said, we didn’t get the win, and that’s all we care about,” Ball said after Saturday’s game. “So until we win, we aren’t going to be happy.”

Several past and current N.B.A. players came to watch on Saturday. The Sacramento Kings rookie guard De’Aaron Fox sauntered in during halftime, drawing a swarm of autograph-seeking children. Fox had shined in his own summer league debut on Friday, recording 18 points, 4 assists and 5 steals in 27 minutes in an 89-85 loss to the Phoenix Suns.

“I was really comfortable out there,” Fox said. “Nothing really came as a surprise for me — the way they played, the way they defended, anything. I feel like I was really ready. People gave me good advice coming in, and I came out prepared.”

While the Kings did not draw the crowd that Ball and the Lakers did, some Sacramento fans donned purple capes and crowns when Fox took the court.

Markelle Fultz, who was selected first in the draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, played only briefly this weekend. He exited the 76ers’ game against the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night midway through the third quarter after spraining his left ankle while attempting to block a shot.

“We will treat him accordingly and be as cautious as we can,” said Lloyd Pierce, the 76ers’ summer league coach.

Sixers fans have come to expect injuries to their young talent. Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons missed their rookie seasons with the 76ers in recent years because of injury. Jahlil Okafor, whom the Sixers selected third in the 2015 draft, missed half of his first season with a knee injury.

Fultz, who finished with 8 points and 2 rebounds, had to be helped off the court by a teammate and trainer and could not put any weight on his left leg. Pierce gave no timetable for Fultz’s return, but it could end his run in Vegas.

Even without Fultz, Philadelphia pulled off a last-second 95-93 victory, leading a small group of fans to chant, “Trust the process,” a mantra developed during the organization’s extended rebuilding. Their enthusiasm, like the Lakers’ fans excitement over Ball, was a reminder that summer league is about savoring a taste of the future along with the hiccups that come with it.