On Larry Nance Jr., Fit, and Winning Long Term

Darius Soriano —  January 9, 2016

When Larry Nance Jr. first became part of the Lakers’ rotation, we looked at what he was doing to earn minutes and why we thought he would stick around for the remainder of the season. Most of that analysis wasn’t based on his calling card of defense, but instead looked at what he was doing offensively as a capable mid-range jumpshooter and roll man in the pick and roll.

A sampling of what we wrote back in early November:

Instead, then, let’s just focus on the fact that he has shown the ability to hit shots from the spots on the floor a power forward in today’s NBA will need to if he wants to be a viable offensive player — especially if he’s not a shot creator.

Against the Nets Nance hit two baseline jumpers, both from around 18 feet. This is the spot on the floor where, when your team is running a pick and roll, the weak side big will almost always camp out (if he’s not a three point shooter) to act as a release valve when his man helps in the paint. And then there is the top of the key and elbow area, which are the key spots on the floor where big men float to in pick and pop actions after setting a screen.

Even more important, though, is that corner three pointer he hit against the Magic.

Since that time Nance has earned a more prominent role as the starting PF, displacing last year’s lottery pick Julius Randle in the process. And while Nance hasn’t shot any threes since becoming a starter, his offense is still a key aspect of why he’s getting burn. Here is Nance’s shot chart from his last 18 games, when he was first inserted into the first five:

Nance Starter

This chart tells a similar story to the one in our post from earlier in the season. Nance his proving to be a viable jumpshooter (especially from the left side of the floor) and a very good finisher at the rim. Nance’s explosiveness and ability to play above the rim produces not only highlight plays, but ones that never make the reel simply because defenses sometimes don’t even rotate to try and contest him.

While his finishing ability (especially outside the paint) is proving to be beyond what many thought he could provide at this stage of his career, what is becoming more and more evident is the polish, confidence, and poise he’s been playing with to take advantage of the opportunity he’s been given. Further, the little things and the nature of his game is what is allowing him to flourish.

Said another way, Nance is combining several key traits which allow him to be the round peg in a round hole the Lakers have been looking for to help provide lineup balance. Consider the following:

  • Though he’s starting, Nance is posting a usage rate of only 13. Of the Lakers’ 9 rotation players, this the lowest mark, trailing even Hibbert (13.2) and Bass (13.3).
  • If using rebound rate as the indicator, Nance (18.3) is the team’s second best defensive rebounder behind Julius Randle (29.8).
  • Nance shows very good defensive awareness and understanding of principles. He plays with good angles and is athletic enough to help, recover, and then contest shots. He also has good hands, moves well, and knows how to use his length.

Nance was a 4 year college player and, after just celebrating his 23rd birthday, is nearly two full years older than Randle. That extra seasoning shows in all the little things he does well, in his better grasp of who he is as a player, and how to translate that understanding into an effective role at this level. This doesn’t make Nance better than Randle* (though he is defensively), but it does make him, at this point in their respective careers, a cleaner fit next to the ball dominant, shot creating wings the Lakers have built around.

What this means for the future isn’t known. The Lakers are in no rush to make a decision on either player and having them both on the team creates lineup flexibility and offers versatility at the PF spot many teams would welcome. Byron Scott recently said he might explore playing both players together, either at SF & PF or at PF and C. I’d much prefer the latter combination (especially with a low usage shooter at SF, but the only guy who fits that bill is Anthony Brown), but that’s an argument for another day.

Ultimately, though, Nance is showing to be the type of player winning teams often have in their ranks. He’s smart, possesses good enough skill, plays within his role, can make mid-range shots, finish inside, and understands how to play good defense. The Lakers aren’t yet a winning team, but getting players like this into their program is necessary for any long play which involves success.

For the 27th pick in the 1st round, this is quite the find. This year’s draft was particularly deep — there are multiple players drafted late in and after the lottery who I really like — but getting a “hit” at that spot is a major coup for a team strapped for young talent like the recent versions of the Lakers.

*Randle’s recent struggles offer reason for concern in the short term, but I still really believe in him as a prospect long term. Where we talk about Nance’s polish, Randle simply isn’t there yet and I think we are reaching the point in the current season where his inability to play last year is showing up.

Forget for a moment his shift in role. Randle is currently playing on instincts and using his physical tools to survive and the league is catching up to him. There are flashes of making great reads and seeing plays develop in advance, but for the most part he is reacting and playing with too much tunnel vision. Straight line drives, bulling for position, and playing with ferocity will always have a place in a league where physicality has great value. But the subtleties of the game, playing with better angles, and finessing a play when necessary also lead to success. 

Randle, as of now, hasn’t had enough court time to learn and/or incorporate much of the latter into his game and it is showing — both in good and bad ways. For all the times he’s attacking the ball for out of area and contested rebounds, he’s also picking up fouls via charges and over-aggression. 

After a summer of rehab and getting his body to where he wants it, this should be somewhat expected. Hopefully, this offseason can be about further skill development and more on-court time refining his game. If it can be, I think major strides can be made. It’s an open secret Randle works incredibly hard and is driven to be the best version of himself he can be. When players possess that trait, I think it’s only a matter of when, not if, they find their game.

So, do not take Nance’s polish as an indictment on Randle. As noted, Nance is nearly two full years older than Randle. In two years if Randle is the same player he is now, I’d be pretty shocked.

Darius Soriano

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