The Lakers aren’t good, nor have they been good since injuries preemptively ended Kobe Bryant’s prime. While being 11th in the West and seven games back of the eight seed isn’t exactly showing promise, the Lakers youth movement is growing up. Luke Walton’s ball movement offense isn’t prone to producing great individual nights, all the talent Magic Johnson has assembled is finally coming into its own. Brandon Ingram looks like a future 25-a-game scorer, though the twenty year old still has a lot of work to do in the weight room. With his incredible length, surprising burst, and a butter jump shot, Ingram has all the tools to be a perennial all-star. With Lonzo Ball out, Ingram moved to point guard and proved to be an excellent passer, as capable of initiating offense for the team as creating it for himself.
Speaking of Ball, despite all the buzz created by his dad and the hullabaloo around his unconventional shot, the rookie is quietly living up to expectations. Rookie point guards don’t just struggle in the NBA, they suffer. Night after night of being tortured by stars at the league’s deepest position is enough to shake anyone’s confidence, let alone a nineteen year old. Countless lottery picks have shattered under the pressure of being forced to run the show against insurmountable odds. Ball, though he’s had his fair share of struggles, has shown flashes of the all-star potential that caused him to be drafted second overall. He has the pure speed and athleticism to match up with any guard in the league, and his vision and passing is uncanny. He even rebounds terrifically for his position. Despite being put under the microscope the second he checked into his first game, Ball has played exceptionally well for a rookie guard. The biggest knock on Lonzo since day one has been his funky jumper. However, it would be smart to remember that nearly every rookie struggles adjusting their shot to the NBA level. Close-outs are much faster and by longer players than in college. What was an open shot less than a year ago for most rookies is now heavily contested. Plus, the three point line is flat out farther away. For example, the aforementioned Ingram shot just 29% from three as a rookie, which is actually two percent worse than Ball shoots right now. Nobody is asking Brandon Ingram to retool his jumper, because just one year later, he’s shooting 38% from beyond the arc. Instead of demanding Ball conform to a more traditional jump shot, let’s let him get comfortable playing NBA basketball first.
While Ball and Ingram get most of the spotlight as the future of the franchise, the Lakers also have a few other promising young pieces. Kyle Kuzma has proven to be the steal of the draft. Long, athletic, three-point shooting forwards have become the trend of the league, and Kuzma is all of those things. He’ll be a valuable starter at either forward spot for a long time in this league. Josh Hart, overlooked for his lack of NBA measurables, has proven to be a nice guard option off the bench, capable of knocking down open shots and driving to the rim when a lane presents itself.
Then, there’s Julius Randle, a complete enigma in the modern NBA. On one hand, he’s an undersized big that can’t protect the rim or stretch the floor. On the other hand, he’s a walking bucket with great vision, handle, strength, and athleticism. He’s shooting a whopping 56% from the field this season. To put that in perspective, LeBron’s career high shooting percentage is 54%. Randle is unstoppable going to the basket, and he uses his strength to push weaker bigs around on the boards, as shown by his three straight double-doubles the past three games. He’s too quick for fours and fives and too strong for threes. However, he’s utterly useless off the ball on offense, making it hard to use him properly. You almost have to force feed him the rock just to make it worth having him on the court, which is an issue in the movement heavy Walton offense. I see his ideal role as a sixth-man, able to completely take over against weaker reserve lineups and still able to get you a bucket when he’s mixed in with the starters. The Lakers definitely need more shooters around him though, which is a problem on a team with so much youth. He’s been involved in several trade talks, but his obvious talent for putting the ball in the basket makes him worth keeping around.
The Lakers young stars are incredibly fun to watch, and this team has a very bright future, even if they don’t land Paul George (or LeBron) in free agency. The only thing keeping LAL from being the best league pass team is the veterans. I have basically no use for Brook Lopez or Isaiah Thomas on this team. IT is dominating the ball every chance he gets, still chasing the max deal that no one is ever going to give him. Every pick and roll or iso he calls for is a wasted opportunity to give Ball and Ingram much needed experience. I really enjoyed watching Thomas play in Boston, and it’s hard to believe he could go from scoring 28 a game to essentially an expiring contract in just one year, but honestly I think it would be best for the Lakers if he showed up to the rest of the games in a suit. Don’t even get me started on Brook Lopez. The only things more painful than watching Brook Lopez play basketball are giving birth and breaking your femur. Honestly, given the choice, I might do either one of those things rather than watch Brook freaking Lopez use the entire shot clock on a two dribble drive to the basket. Brook Lopez runs like the middle school band kids. How do you even make it to the NBA if you’re flat footed? The most irritating part about this is that somehow, someway, Brook Lopez has the best plus/minus on the Lakers. I already can’t wait until next season when he’s ruining the watchability of someone else’s favorite team. Seriously how do you run like you’re one fall away from spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair when you’re only 29?!?
The Lakers have finally turned it around from the dark, dark days of the Byron Scott era. Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson have done an excellent job of managing the salary cap and already have one great draft under their belt. While the Lakers don’t have their 2018 pick, LA is a booming free agent destination, and they have the cap room to add multiple all-stars either this or next offseason. In a perfect world, Los Angeles would sit on their cap space for a year, allowing Ingram and Ball to develop and getting a decent pick in the Zion Williamson lottery that is the 2019 draft. While the “win now” mentality permeates the franchise, I’m hoping wiser minds will see the value in being patient (and getting a shot at Zion. Have you seen that kid dunk?!?). Until then, I finally have a fun team to watch again, and here’s to the Clippers being irrelevant for another forty years!