For the purpose of this post, I am not going to explore the idea that the Lakers trade this pick as part of some deal for a more NBA-ready veteran or in some master scheme to clear more cap space in their pursuit of a certain free agent (or two). Instead I will focus on the Lakers making a selection in this draft with the idea they will keep the pick. Which, you know, could totally still happen.
I won’t pretend to know what the Lakers will do with their pick. In fact, I doubt their front office does either. Sure, there are scenarios and contingencies but in reality there will be more than one good choice on the board when the Lakers select from their 7th slot. When the clock starts for their pick they will have to trust their evaluations, throw in some gut feel, and dive into the prospect pool in hopes of nabbing a difference maker.
To this point in the process, I really haven’t found a favorite to root for the team to pick. The Lakers have not selected this high since before I was in elementary school. The idea is so novel to me that it seems strange to fall in love with just a single prospect when there is potential for so many of them to help the team in one way or another. As I’ve said many times before, I could make a case for any of the top eight players on most draft boards to come in an be a rotation player on next year’s team.
At this point in the process, however, it can be difficult to see the forest through the trees. You can only watch so much tape on a prospect before your start to either overly nitpick or praise. Watch too much of Julius Randle or Marcus Smart and you might become too concerned with a lack of length or a style that is too dependent on bullying players who are in the same class physically. Or you go back and watch Dante Exum look amazing against a team of top american prospects and forget that it was only one game. This is the nature of evaluating and a reason why I am happy the draft is finally here. There is no more film to pour over in order to evaluate how good a player might or might not be. There is only making the pick and starting the process of prospect development that will be a much bigger factor in the player reaching his ceiling than any of those games we have watched over and over again on our TV and computer screens.
With that being said, here are my final thoughts on a handful of prospects who the Lakers may have the opportunity to draft. Who knows, one of them might actually end up being a Laker later on today.
*Joel Embiid, C: First off, I don’t think he falls this far. When it comes right down to it, someone will gamble on him in picks 3 to 5 via their own pick or trading up to get him. Guys with his size + burgeoning skill are rare and someone will take him even with the specter of Oden/Yao/etc out there. So, in saying that, if he were to somehow make his way to #7, I’d want the Lakers to draft him. Yes there are injury concerns and those certainly worry me. If he ends up not recovering or having a limited career because of recurring issues either with his foot or his back, I’d probably look back and wonder why the team was so silly to take the risk. But, today, I’m all for the gamble. Players with his measurables who flash his ability don’t come around too often and at the 7th pick in the draft I think the risk is worth taking.
*Dante Exum, G: Another player who I don’t think will last to this point but am hopeful who will. I am just too intrigued by his measurables and the little tape I have seen of him to let go of the idea that I’d want him to be a Laker that I have to include him here. I think he can be a true difference maker in the league as he develops physically and learns how to use his physical gifts. I know there are real questions about whether he’ll develop well and if he can truly be measured against other top players due to his background and lack of exposure against top competition. But in 5 years I could see him being one of the best 2-3 players from this class in the same way that Wade was from his draft. If that sounds like too much praise or a reach, it may very well be. But when I watch him on tape I see a smooth athlete who understands angles, how to use a change of pace, and who sees the floor well. I also see a guy who has pretty good mechanics on his jumper and looks like he can finish in traffic against bigger players. Add in his pedigree as someone who grew up around the game and I can imagine a development arc similar to Tony Parker — another foreign born prospect with an american father who came into the league young.
*Julius Randle, PF: I don’t know if Randle will last, but he’s someone who continues to end up being the Lakers’ pick in mock drafts. He has his detractors, but the more and more I have watched of him the more and more I believe he will be a very good player in this league for a long time. He has good size, skill, and by all accounts is a hard worker who has a drive to be a great player. Also, I find comfort in bigs who compete and have the motor he does to continue to get after it even when things go against him. Things may be hard for him in certain match ups, but I don’t see him as a guy who will quit. Instead I see a player who will take up the challenge and find a way to be effective. Other players have more upside, but this guy just seem to know how to play the game while finding ways to maximize his strengths. I’d be more than happy if he ended up a Laker.
*Aaron Gordon, PF and Noah Vonleh, PF (tie): I honestly can’t decide between these two. Vonleh has the measurables and I think he will probably develop into a fine offensive player who can rebound. But whispers about how intuitive he is as a player concern me as players like that end up plateauing in their development because they never figure it out. Will he be one of those guys? I’ve no clue, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider it. That said, while he didn’t flash the defensive ability I would like, he has great two-way potential due to his size and a big like him who can stretch the floor and hit the glass is pretty rare. Will he ever be as good as, say, LaMarcus Aldridge? I’ve no clue, but his ceiling is probably that (or a bit higher) and that is very intriguing.
Gordon to me, in a way, is the opposite. He comes off as a very smart player who will take to coaching well and develop positively as he learns to channel his athleticism. And that athleticism is considerable. I don’t know if he’ll be a SF or a PF long term and his jumper is very concerning. But as a P&R dive man and a weak side slasher who can finish above the rim and hit the offensive glass I see him having a niche he can slide into early in his career offensively while being an excellent defender. I’d add, that his positional versatility is something that works in his favor for me. The league is moving more and more towards Forwards who can start the game as a 3 but soak up minutes as a 4 and Gordon seems like he’ll be able to do that throughout his career. With his defensive potential what it is, I think you have to take notice and rank him accordingly. I guess in the end I’d go Gordon over Vonleh which is something I didn’t think I’d say at this point in the process. I know he has his detractors and the idea of him floating around the wing while his man helps off him is a concern, but he is skilled and smart enough that I think he will be able to compensate.
*Marcus Smart, PG: Before I take too much heat for not mentioning Smart until now, let me just say that I’d be happy if Smart were there and was the pick. I think he’d contribute more, in year one, than a couple of guys I have higher on this list simply because he does have pro-size and seems to have a plan in how he attacks on both ends. Knowing how you want to do things is important for a young player and with his competitiveness I think he will be a fine pro early on. That said, I think in 5 years every player (save Vonleh, maybe) listed above him here will be the better player and I might even say that a guy like Zach LaVine will be as well (and maybe even Elfrid Payton). This is nothing against Smart and like I said if he is the pick I will slot him into the rotation as either a starter or the 1st guard off the bench and a guy who can play 20-25 minutes a night and even close games as a defensive wing in certain match-ups. That has real value. And if he ever finds his range as a shooter I think his ceiling raises exponentially. But as I’ve watched him more, and when taking stock across the league in positions that have talent and what helps win games, I just think the bigs offer more as a foundational player long term.