True to form, James’ first tally in the stat book as a Laker was an assist off a no-look, wraparound bounce pass that found Brandon Ingram for a dunk.
Less than a minute later, following a Rajon Rondo offensive rebound and pitch out, James stroked a 26-foot 3-pointer with 9:12 remaining in the first quarter, securing his first bucket with his new team.
“It was great to get back on the floor and start a new journey for myself,” James said after the Lakers’ 124-107 loss was over.
Before tipoff, there was framed artwork stationed outside the Lakers’ locker room at the Valley View Casino Center drawn up like a concert poster commemorating “LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers Debut,” with James’ image front and center, flanked by an artist’s rendering of Lonzo Ball, Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart around him.
While James was the featured player on the poster, it was Ingram, not the four-time MVP and three-time champion, who filled up the stat sheet in the first half, as the third-year forward put up 13 points, 4 rebounds and 2 steals to James’ 9 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds. Ingram would finish with 16 points on 7-for-14 shooting.
“I find rhythm with anybody who’s very energetic offensively, and that’s a guy who moves without the ball,” James said of Ingram.
JaVale McGee led L.A. in scoring with 17 points on 8-for-10 shooting, opening the night with a dunk off a lob from Rondo for the first of the point guard’s 11 assists. James’ night was finished after 15 first-half minutes, which he said were a little bit more than he expected to play, but he came out feeling good regardless. Kuzma (15 points on 4-for-13 shooting) started in his place in the third quarter.
Not that James didn’t make his impact felt outside of the dazzling plays that brought the sellout crowd of 13,565 to its feet.
Case in point: When James checked out of the game with 3:02 remaining in the first quarter, the Lakers led by one. When he came back in with 7:21 remaining in the second quarter, L.A. trailed by 13.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the Cleveland Cavaliers struggled mightily whenever James was off the court in the last four seasons.
LeBron James drives past half court and then knocks down a step-back 3-pointer.
Whatever similarities can be drawn to his past experiences, James couldn’t deny the significance of the night as a new milestone in his career.
“It always feels different for me anytime you change uniforms,” he said. “It felt different when I changed from a St. Vincent-St. Mary jersey to a Cavs jersey, from a Cavs jersey to a Heat jersey, back to a Cavs jersey and now being a Laker. So, it definitely feels different, and it’ll take a little bit of time getting used to.”
Laker Nation isn’t waiting to embrace the team, however. The excitement for this Lakers group that is clearly a work in progress was palpable from the start on Sunday. Close to 300 fans attended the team’s morning shootaround in Temecula, about an hour from San Diego. And there was such a crowd of cameras in the Lakers locker room before the game that the Nuggets’ defenders weren’t the only bodies James found himself navigating.
“Excuse me, get away from my locker, please,” James said as he made his way through the crowd.
Not long after, he took the court for the first time to play a game as a Laker and had to contend with Denver, another team, like L.A., hoping to make a run this season in what figures to be a crowded Western Conference playoff race.
“Everything,” James said at the end of the night. “Everything. Got to get better at everything.”
L.A. continues the preseason Tuesday at Staples Center with another game against the Nuggets.
Lakers coach Luke Walton has not figured out how much James will play in the rest of the exhibition schedule, but he has figured out one thing already, for sure, about James: “You know, you are coaching the Lakers and you look out and see LeBron in your team’s colors,” Walton said, “it is a pretty good feeling.”