LAS VEGAS -- Los Angeles Lakers fans have shelved their loudest cheers for much of the past three loss-packed seasons, save for a handful of throw-back Kobe Bryant performances (such as his 60-point finale) and the team's near-miracle upset of the mighty Golden State Warriors at Staples Center last season.
But much of their long-dormant jubilation erupted whenever the Lakers took the floor during NBA summer league play here in Las Vegas in recent days, with the purple-and-gold faithful packing the Thomas & Mack Center and hollering like the good old days.
And those fans had reason to be excited, as they witnessed many bright glimpses of promise from key members of the team's core -- young, talented players who, in time, could help lift the team from rebuilding status, while providing plenty of nightly highlights along the way.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak heard those cheers -- whether the crowd was chanting "Lar-ry!" after a Larry Nance Jr. dunk or "Zu!" after one of rookie center Ivica Zubac's many blocks -- and felt encouraged as he looks forward.
"I sense some excitement among the fans, which hopefully will carry over," Kupchak said before the Lakers closed out summer league play with a 92-88 loss to the Utah Jazz on Friday. "Some of our best players are not here -- Julius [Randle], Jordan [Clarkson] and, of course, the veterans, some of which we had last year and some of which we signed -- Luol [Deng] and [Timofey] Mozgov. So overall, I like where we are. I like our mixture from young players, which are really what the future is all about. We're very hopeful that two or three of them can develop into real, real productive NBA players. [But] I think, as you know, it's hard to get a player to change overnight. It takes time."
The Lakers finished 3-2 in summer league, and though D'Angelo Russell didn't play Friday, the Lakers' second-year point guard said Thursday that he liked what he has seen.
"I think we learned a lot," Russell said. "A lot of guys went forward, a lot of guys stayed the same, and a lot of guys went backwards. But as a team, I feel like we showed that we're on our way. As a team, we didn't go backwards. That's all that matters right now."
Russell was unquestionably the Lakers' biggest summer league star, as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft more than rebounded from a rough debut on this stage a year ago to become one of the most dominant players here this year.
The former Ohio State standout averaged 21.8 points on 48 percent shooting from the field to go along with 6.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists in four games. He also hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to help the Lakers top the Philadelphia 76ers 70-69.
"Just a young player growing," Kupchak said. "His talent [is] not to be disputed. Everybody felt that a year ago, and I think if you took a poll, everybody would think the same thing today. But it's just the growth process that he's going through. Provided he works on his craft, he'll be better next year at this time."
As Lakers rookie head coach Luke Walton said, "My favorite part about D'Angelo so far has been his work ethic and his trying to get better at leading a team from a point guard position. He's obviously been scoring. He's a great scorer, but at the point guard position, there's so much more to the game. He's coming over to the gym and watching other teams play.
"As far as our system, we want him to give the ball up and cut and come back and get it on the other side. He's been working on it. Anything that the coaches have told him to do, he's trying to get it done, and he goes to the gym and he works on it."
Lakers rookie forward Brandon Ingram, the No. 2 overall pick, showed poise in his summer league debut by not forcing the issue and being selective with his shots, but in several instances over his next four games, teams were far more physical with the slight 6-foot-9, 190-pound former Duke freshman standout.
"He's going to be challenged every game," Kupchak said. "A lot of it's because he's the No. 2 pick in the draft, and he has some bigger and stronger players and they're going to try to be physical -- and that's going to happen, because he's not going to get stronger overnight.
"And that's going to be a process that may take a couple years. But it is something that he's going to work on right away. So that's something that he'll just have to get used to. To me, he doesn't back down. He competes. And that's really the biggest plus of all."
All in all, Ingram averaged 12.2 points on 41 percent shooting, 4.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists in five games. He also shot 25 percent from 3-point range. And he capped off summer league by scoring a game-high 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting against the Jazz, while also posting five rebounds and four assists.
"It was OK," Ingram said of his overall summer league play. "I think as a player, you're never satisfied. I think I could've shot the ball a lot better, and on the defensive end, I could've been a lot better. But overall, the camaraderie, just being with the team, just building chemistry all the time during this whole process, I think it's been pretty good."
"He's young," Russell said of the 18-year-old Ingram. "Get some experience under his belt and he's going to come back and dominate this thing."
As Walton said, "Brandon's great. He's a very intelligent basketball player, which I love, for someone his age. You can see when he plays, he'll go to attack, and if it's not there, he doesn't have to look for other players. He knows where they're at. He'll obviously continue to learn the NBA game. He'll learn how to play against the guys that are being physical with him and trying to bump him off spots. I think the more he does, the better he'll be at it, naturally. He can play multiple positions. He can shoot. He can drive. Very high potential for Brandon."
Both Ingram and Russell, along with Randle, will now join the USA Select Team, which will practice against Team USA in Las Vegas next week to help it prepare for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics later this summer.
Kupchak said he saw two players make a dramatic improvement, specifically Russell and Nance -- who averaged 9.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.8 steals, 1.8 blocks and 1.5 assists in four games before spraining his right wrist. (Nance is day-to-day with that injury, the Lakers said Friday.)
"He had a great summer league," Kupchak said of Nance.
As Walton added, "Larry Nance has been phenomenal."
And the Lakers' biggest surprise of all was Zubac, the rookie center whom the team selected with the No. 32 overall pick. The 7-foot-1 Croatian averaged 10.6 points on 65 percent shooting, 7.2 rebounds and a team-high 2.6 blocks in five games.
Zubac finished summer league with 16 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks against the Jazz, concluding a week in which he became a crowd favorite.
"I didn't know [I was] going to play like this," Zubac said of his play throughout summer league. "I know I'm going to let everybody see what I have and prove myself [and] why they picked me. But I didn't know [I was] going to play like this."
Lakers second-year swingman Anthony Brown took it a step further.
"That boy Zubac, he definitely impressed me," Brown said. "I'm still trying to figure out how he went second round. Man, [in] two, three years, I can't see why he can't be like Marc Gasol. I mean, seriously, he's talented."
As Ingram added, "I didn't know much about him coming into this. I saw him workout about one or two times, but coming into this, I loved what I saw. Very impressed. He really has a chance to be a great player."
Given that many rookies struggle in summer league, Lakers assistant coach Theo Robertson was asked why that wasn't really the case in any game with the 19-year-old Zubac.
"He knows how to play," Robertson said. "It's hard to teach that size. He establishes good position. He has soft hands. He can do a variety of things, whether it's pop out to the 3-point corner, hit those types of jump shots. I feel like he can be a percentage free throw shooter, and he has good touch around the rim. He's starting to feel more power and understand the level of physicality that it takes to be successful in this league. Very, very excited about him, and I thought this was a great week of growth for him."
The 36-year-old Walton, the NBA's youngest head coach, has been on the job for only a few weeks and hasn't had much time to begin to implement the culture and system in which he believes.
Overall, Walton said, "I think summer league has gone great, but I'm looking at more than just the games, like practice, how hard they've worked and how they've embraced competing, whether it's a summer league game or practice and the drills. [I'm looking at] their acceptance of wanting to win. Even if it's a defensive drill or anything, they want more. They keep asking for more. They keep coming in the gym every day and working. Overall, I'm thrilled with all of them."
"It's obviously early and it's a small sample size," he added, "but I've been thrilled with the way they've responded to what we've asked."
This is to say, Walton is heartened heading into training camp in the fall.
"Absolutely," he said. "There's a lot we've got to work on to get better at. But as of now, I'm very pleased with the way the guys are playing, acting, representing themselves. Everything. They've been great."