EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- For several members of the Los Angeles D-Fenders, Monday’s home game against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers was more than just a D-League contest.
It was the unofficial start to Los Angeles Lakers training camp.
The Lakers are set to open camp Friday on the same Toyota Sports Center court on which the D-Fenders, the Lakers’ D-League affiliate, played their game against the Vipers. As many as seven players on the D-Fenders’ 12-man roster are expected to be invited to camps across the NBA, with several of those players staying in L.A. to try out for the varsity version of the purple and gold.
“We have a staff that works very closely with [the Lakers],” said D-Fenders CEO Joey Buss, son of Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss. “Our offices are very close in vicinity so we keep collaborating with [Lakers general manager] Mitch [Kupchak], Mike Brown and the Lakers' assistant coaching staff. I think you’ll see when official training camp rosters are set, what influence is there.”
The players expected to make the leap from D-League standouts to NBA hopefuls are guards Jamaal Tinsley, Elijah Millsap, Eniel Polynice and Courtney Fortson; forwards Brian Hamilton and Zach Andrews; and center Brandon Costner.
Official training camp rosters will not be released until later in the week after the new collective bargaining agreement is ratified, but two of the more intriguing players who could be vying for a spot next to Kobe Bryant & Co. are Tinsley and Millsap.
Tinsley, the No. 1 overall pick in last month’s D-League draft, averaged 9.8 points, 6.6 assists and 1.59 steals in eight years in the NBA but hasn’t played in the league since 2009-10 with Memphis.
He appeared slimmed down Monday and, despite the frantic pace in the D-Fenders’ 132-126 win, was able to maintain steady control of the game on offense at the point guard position.
After being out of professional basketball last season, he had a humble perspective when asked about the possibility of playing in a pro training camp.
“It’s an honor just to be playing basketball again and having a chance to play with young guys and help them,” Tinsley said. “[Before the D-Fenders] I was just playing in L.A. Fitness.”
Millsap, the younger brother of Utah Jazz forward Paul Millsap, averaged 22.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.0 steals and 2.8 assists through the D-Fenders' first six games.
He showed a versatile floor game against Rio Grande Valley, making plays on offense and defense with regularity.
With a chiseled 6-6, 210-pound frame, Millsap would be the biggest guard at Lakers camp after Bryant.
Millsap said coach Eric Musselman has not introduced plays and sets the Lakers run specifically, but that Musselman’s tutelage should help him in an NBA training camp.
“A lot of the sets are NBA sets. He sets us up in NBA sets,” Millsap said. “He puts us in our positions and we trust him and believe him because he’s coached in the NBA before, so we know that there are going to be sets that we’ll see again if we get the opportunity in the NBA.”
One thing going for Tinsley might be his shared history with new Lakers coach Mike Brown. Brown was an assistant for Indiana from 2003-05 when Tinsley was a player.
“We were real close,” Tinsley said of his relationship with Brown. “He demanded a lot of stuff on the defensive end. He’s a great guy.”
Brown and Kupchak observed Monday’s game from a balcony by the Lakers’ offices while the Lakers' assistant coaching staff of John Kuester, Chuck Person, Quin Snyder, Ettore Messina and Darvin Ham watched from courtside seats.
Musselman said Ham and Person in particular have paid close attention to the development of the D-Fenders’ personnel this season.
Even though a roster depleted by training camp invites will present challenges to Musselman in keeping up the D-Fenders' hot 5-2 start, he welcomes the opportunities for his players.
“Friday, our goal is to have more guys go to training camp than any team in the D-League,” Musselman said. “Friday morning, if we have more players in camp than anybody else, we’ll be happy. We did our job.”
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.