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It seems that even the seriousness of the ongoing CBA negotiations can’t stop a good trade rumor from taking root in everyone’s mind. In case you haven’t heard, there have been reports that the Lakers and Timberwolves have talked about a trade. The terms of said discussion aren’t entirely clear, but the rumors say that they involve Pau Gasol, Kevin Love, the number 2 pick in this upcoming draft, the Mall of America, and some of those lakes left behind when the team moved to L.A. from Minneapolis.

In all seriousness, Eric Pincus reported that while a deal was unlikely, there were actual discussions about an exchange of Gasol for some of the Timerwolves’ assets. There was then speculation of what assets the deal would include and everything from the #2 pick to Kevin Love to several medium sized contracts for role players (and a combination of all) were floated as options. If you’d like a nice summary of the evolution of the reports, Dexter Fishmore covered it well here.

However, today Ken Berger of CBS Sports has stated that any Gasol/Love swap is not going to happen.  So, nothing to see here, right?

Yes and no.

The fact that rumors are swirling around the Lakers right now is nothing new. Los Angeles is a major market and the Lakers are a marquee franchise with attractive trade pieces that can be used to bring in other teams’ players. Be it a juicy rumor or a legitimate discussion about swapping players, the Lakers are one of the few teams that’s viewed as a viable partner across the league in a deal with any team.

Plus, the fact that the Lakers’ season flamed out so dramitcally only adds to the intrigue of them wanting (needing?) to make a deal. And with that intrigue comes more speculation that a major move is on the horizon even though the key players from the front office (namely GM Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss) consistently speak about the Lakers being happy with their core players.

With the team’s poor showing in the playoffs at the crux of the argument that the Lakers need to make a deal, it’s no wonder that Pau Gasol has surfaced as the main candidate to be traded. After all, Pau was the Laker that played so poorly this post-season and thus he should be the player to fetch new pieces to keep the Lakers in contention.

I have a problem with this perspective.

First, though, a disclaimer: I have no issues with the Lakers making a good trade; a trade that improves the roster for both short and long term contention. There are ways to make that happen and without getting into specifics now, I do believe there are viable options out there to be explored. Actively looking at options to improve the team is one of the first priorities for any front office and the Lakers brass would be doing the organization a disservice if they stubbornly stuck to their guns and didn’t explore what deals could be made.

That said, the overwhelming willingness to dump Gasol in a trade is perplexing to me. While he wore down this season, he’s still the one player the Lakers have that rotates comfortably between PF and C. He’s the one big man that shows skill both on the wing and in the post. Early in the year he was the Lakers best player and he again was an All-NBA performer (2nd team) and an all-star. He’s the best option of a PF in the entire league to play on this specific Laker team.

There is a counter to this argument, though, and Reed made it well in an email exchange:

I think that the decision to trade Pau would have nothing to do with on the court problems. There’s no question he fits in perfectly next to Kobe and the rest of our core given his versatility, length, skill, etc. But there’s also no question that something off the court went seriously wrong with him and the team in general last season. Was that 400 games in 4 seasons, or something deeper? We don’t know, but I imagine that Kupchak and Buss do. But we can’t blindly assume that the team was just tired and everything will be better after a long summer. There really might be deeper conflicts in play — I trust Kupchak to figure that out. If, of course, he is still running the show in light of Jim’s emergence.

Zephid adds another point about a potential deal of Gasol:

While I believe this team has found a great chemistry between Pau and Kobe, I do think that removing Pau from the equation will free up the paint for both Kobe and Bynum to operate more effectively.  We saw in the beginning of 09-’10 that Kobe and Bynum both played great in the post when Gasol sat out the first couple weeks.  They had room to maneuver as well as better post touches.  But when Gasol returned, Kobe was forced to return to the perimeter, even though at this point he is at most an average three point shooter, and Bynum touches decreased drastically. While losing Gasol, his ability to create baskets as well as opportunities for others will surely hurt, I think our offense could probably be better with improved spacing, more shots for Bynum, and more efficient shots from Kobe.

Everything said above is valid and worth thinking long and hard about. However, I’m still of the mind that the Lakers hold on to Gasol. Skilled seven foot big men with smarts that have come up big in the biggest moments don’t just grow on trees. If you trade a player like that, you do so for someone that’s clearly better, not for depth or somone who’s not as good but “younger” or “cheaper”. Those variables should be part of the equation, but not the determining factor.

The Lakers are in an interesting position in that they’re clearly still a contender but suffer from how their playoff losses stained their credibility to still win as is. The front office has to walk a fine line in attempting to strike a balance between change for change’s sake and change to actually improve the roster. How this is accomplished is out of our control, but I caution against any “grass is always greener” mindsets that start to creep in. Especially as the rumors ramp up coming into this Thursday’s draft.

We’re inching closer to Thursday’s NBA draft and with that comes much intrigue for the entire league. Sixty players will be drafted to various teams and with that the dreams of 60 young men will be fulfilled while the hopes and expectations of millions of fans crystallize.

Will the new guy (or in some teams’ case, guys) lead our team to the playoffs? To a championship? Will they bust? These are questions that we’ll all be asking as analysts rattle off buzz words like “length”, “upside”, and “winner” while highlight reels of these players’ best plays run in the background. It’s an exciting time, and really, one of my favorite times of the year.

For the Lakers, though, they’re looking at this draft from a different perspective than many other teams. With four second round picks, the Lakers aren’t looking for/don’t expect to see an impact player or a guy that can come in and compete for a starting spot next season. Instead, they’re looking for a player that can simply make the roster. Said another way, the Lakers have quantity (in their number of picks) but aren’t in a position to expect a lot of quality to fall to where they’ll be making their picks. It’s simply the reality of drafting in the 2nd round with the first of four picks not being made until the 41st selection overall. As Mitch Kupchak said himself:

We’re looking at players that we think might be there in the 40s and 50s. Typically with those kinds of players, something may jump out at you, but the whole package doesn’t ever really jump out at you, because if it did, that player would be a lottery pick. You may see somebody who’s got a nice stroke, but he’s a tweener in terms of size; or somebody that’s got great athletic ability but can’t shoot the ball; or great size and can’t catch. When you’re drafting in the 40s, there’s compromises that you have to make and sacrifices. You end up looking at a lot of mid-sized players, 6-7 and less, because the big guys are just hard to come by … [big guys] that can play, anyway.

So, who fits into this category of a prospect that offers a distinct skill set that can help a team, but also has enough flaws in his game that he could be available when the Lakers pick? Some names to chew on:

  • Nolan Smith, PG, Duke – A PG/SG prospect that filled in nicely for (projected #1 overall pick) Kyrie Irving early this past season. Smith proved he could run the point, score well, and is seen as a good defender. However, towards the end of Duke’s season, his production fell off dramatically when Irving reclaimed his starting gig and pushed Smith into a less certain role.
  • Darius Morris, PG, Michigan – Morris insists he’s a pure PG and at 6’5″ possesses excellent size for that position. He showed very good efficiency as a scorer making 53% of his 2 point shots, but struggles as an outside shooter, making only 25% of his 3 point attempts. How he’d transition to playing PG in the NBA – both on offense and defense – is a real unknown, however and thus he’s seen as a 2nd round prospect.
  • Malcom Lee, SG, UCLA – Seen as more of a defensive specialist with an evolving offensive game. His D has some saying he could play right away as someone that guards NBA wings and the fact that he played for a defensive minded Ben Howland at UCLA only enhances his reputation as someone that could transition well to the pros on that end of the floor. On offense, however, his jumper needs lots of work (29% on three pointers) and as a SG in the NBA, there’s only so many minutes for a guy that is a liability on that end of the floor.
  • David Lighty, SG/SF, Ohio St. – One of the better shooters in this draft, Lighty shot 47% overall and 42% on three pointers. He has decent size for a wing and proved a versatile threat for OSU this past season. He also showed that he’d work hard on defense though isn’t thought of as a defender the caliber of Lee.
  • Greg Smith, PF/C, Fresno St. – Draft Express has the Lakers drafting Smith with the #58 pick in their latest mock draft. Also of note, John Hollinger has Smith rated as his 24th best prospect for this draft. Smith has a mostly un-polished offensive game and shows flashes of ability to defend and rebound well. His measurables are pretty good as he’s 6’10″ in shoes but has a 7’3″ wing span and enormous hands. His biggest issues seem to be focus and consistency with his effort.
  • Jordan Williams, PF/C, Maryland – Draft Express has the Lakers drafting Williams with the 46th pick in their latest mock draft and Hollinger has him rated as the 31st best prospect in this draft. Williams comes to the pros after his sophomore season and showed good ability as a scorer (16.9 ppg) and rebounder (11.8 rpg) this past season. He’s seen mostly as a Center but at 6’9″ lacks good size for that position. He does have good hands and seems to have a good feel for positioning both on the glass and in moving in space towards the ball.

Obviously there are other names out there besides these. However, I’ve looked around the interwebs at a lot of prospects and mock drafts, and these are guys that are consistently picked in the range of where the Lakers will make their selections. Maybe you have another name you’d like to see the Lakers draft. If so, let me know in the comments and why. As we get closer to the draft, it serves us all to know as much about these guys as we can. Especially since one or more will likely have his name called by the Lakers this Thursday.

Note that most of the information on the players above is from written profiles around the web, with a heavy reliance on the fine work done at Draft Express as I’ve seen only some of these players play this past season.

With the draft only 14 days away, it’s time to start to discuss what the Lakers may do when they’re on the clock. With 4 second round picks the Lakers have quantity, but the key will be finding some quality in a part of the draft that doesn’t often produce impact players. Last year, the Lakers were able to pick up two quality young players and both ended up making the team. And while neither got much burn (which was to be expected considering the experienced veterans and talent ahead of them on the depth chart), both look like they could become players that contribute in future seasons.

An underrated part of the Lakers draft last year is that both Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter were talented guys that fell on draft night (at least in the Lakers eyes) but also happened to play positions of need. Remember, coming off the championship year of 2010, the Lakers had questions at SF with Luke Walton’s injury, had not yet signed Matt Barnes, and had let Adam Morrison walk in free agency. They’d also let Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga leave in free agency and were short on big men. When thinking long term, the Lakers certainly needed to invest in a wing player and a big man and happened to find both late in the draft. This was the classic case of where need and the best players on their board intersected.

However, this year they may not be as lucky and it will be interesting to see what the Lakers strategy will be when it’s time to select a player.

For what it’s worth, Mitch Kupchak has already given us a bit of a hint as to what his strategy may be. In the interview we linked to earlier this week, Kupchak explained, “At that point in the second round, if somebody drops that you didn’t think would drop you probably just take him regardless of position.”

In a way, the Lakers are “lucky” in that there’s a solid argument to be made that they have a need at every position. With the uncertainty of Shannon Brown returning, the collective age and talent level at point guard, and the lack of big man depth, the Lakers could select a player at any position and rationalize that they’re filling a need.

However, when you drill down, I’d argue that the big man need is more at C than at PF and that the need on the wing is at SG rather than at SF. These points are arguable but if you take Ebanks and Caracter into account, this is mostly true. If the Lakers come on the clock and it’s a choice between a talented player at PF and one slightly less talented at C whom to they take? What if it’s the same choice between a SF and a SG? Or, what if it’s between a PG and a C? Which need wins out more?

My preference would be to go after the following positions in this order: PG, SG, C, PF, SF if talent is equal. However, if there’s a SF that’s much more talented than any other prospect when the Lakers’ first pick comes up, things get a bit trickier. Do they bite the bullet, draft that player, and expect to carry 5 SF’s next year (Artest, Barnes, Walton, Ebanks, and rookie X)?

Those are the questions that the Lakers brain trust will have to answer when it’s their turn to pick. And we haven’t even gotten into other variables like age, upside, U.S. vs. foreign player, nor whether or not there are other concerns regarding character, work ethic, etc.

In two weeks we’ll have more answers but right now all we can do is speculate. What do you thing the priorities are? What positions would you target? Do you draft for need or for best player? Let me know in the comments and we’ll compare notes as we all anticipate who the Lakers will select in 14 days.

Regular readers here at FB&G know Xavier, our friend the professional coach in Barcelona. In the wake of the draft, he was kind enough to throw a few words together for us on 2009 Lakers draftee Chinemelu Elonu. Elonu currently plays professionally in Spain, so Xavier is familiar with Elonu’s game and progress.  A special thanks to Xavier for taking the time to give us some insight on the Lakers’ oversees prospect. —Darius

Chinemelu Elonu is the Nigerian 6-10 Power Forward the Lakers drafted in the 2nd round (59th overall) in the 2009 NBA Draft.

Elonu, 23 years old, played for Texas A&M for 3 seasons, and only his junior season was remarkable, posting 9.8 points on 66.5% FG, 7.3 rebounds (2.9 off) and 1.6 blocks in less than 24 minutes.

After that, he moved to Spain to play for CAI Zaragoza in Spanish 2nd division league. Zaragoza is a pretty competitive team for a 2nd division team and they proved that by promoting to ACB (1st league in Spain) for the 2010/11 season. In 09/10, Elonu averaged 6.3 points on 60.2% FG, 5.8 rebounds (2 off) and 1.5 blocks in 19 minutes.

The guy I compare him to, Ibaka (24th overall in ’08), had a similar path in pro basketball. He also played a season in LEB Oro (Spanish 2nd division) for Hospitalet (this is a team you may know as their U-18 team holds an international tournament every year where one of the invitations is always for Oak Hill Academy) playing at an outstanding level (12 pts 8 reb and 3 blocks). Then he played for ACB team Ricoh Manresa posting solid numbers and showing his athletic ability and potential. That earned him his trip to the 1st round of the draft and lately playing against the Lakers in the playoff in his rookie season.

At 6-10 and 235lbs is quite an athlete. Dunks the ball with power and takes pride for being a good offensive rebounder and shot blocker. That’s why you can compare him to OKC’s Serge Ibaka. But don’t get too excited with that, he’s a poorman’s Ibaka (not just poor but almost homeless). Elonu is athletic but not as much as Serge, can dunk the ball but that’s the only move he has and he has to prove yet he can play at least at an ACB level, which he hasn’t. More over, he’s 23 (Ibaka is 20 right now, 21 in September) and has nowhere near the potential of other 23 years old international players.

Elonu would need (not just he would benefit of it, he NEEDS it) of a year or two competing at ACB level of competition – which is, by the way much higher than D-League or even Italian Lega, where Jennings couldn’t get on the floor because he was not a team player – before even trying the NBA. He doesn’t have Ibaka’s potential and is 2 years older than his fellow African. At 23, you’d better be a beast or very smart to make the NBA, and he’s neither of those things. But hey! Mbenga is still eating tacos and now-actor Stanislav Medvedenko (appearing along with Carmen Electra in this movie) made it and they both got championship rings, right?

Bottom line, Elonu is a great guy, worker, banger who goes hard on the glass but limited offensively and potential wise. A couple more years in Europe could make him earn a spot on an NBA roster but at the moment, I can’t see him making the team as 4th or 5th big man over Caracter or Powell.

-Xavier

ON DEVIN EBANKS

From Mike Trudell, Basket Blog: With the 43rd pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, the Lakers selected Devin Ebanks, a 6-9, 215-pound sophomore out of West Virgina. “I’m so happy right now, you don’t understand,” said Ebanks to L.A. media members over the phone. “The world champions … I get to play with the best player in the world, Kobe Bryant … I don’t really have too many words to say, I’m just happy.” Ebanks was named to the All-Big East Third Team as a sophomore after making the Big East All-Rookie and All-Tournament teams as a freshman.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: It took three hours or so to get there, but when the Lakers finally had an opportunity to participate in the 2010 NBA Draft, they managed to snag a reasonably interesting prospect. With the 43rd pick, they selected 6’9″ forward Devin Ebanks, who played two seasons at West Virginia. He’s not a polished offensive player, but Ebanks is considered a very effective perimeter defender and averaged over eight rebounds a game as a sophomore with the Mountaineers. Rebounding is considered one of the better-translating skills from the college level to the pros, so his numbers are a positive sign. He’s very raw offensively and can’t shoot- Ebanks hit only eight of the 70 three-pointers launched in his collegiate career- and is also a skinny fella, making the comparisons to Trevor Ariza pretty natural.

From Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angleles: Ever since Oklahoma City was eliminated from the first round of the playoffs by Los Angeles’ Pau Gasol on a last-second Game 6 putback, it’s been hard for Kevin Durant to watch anything basketball-related. Why? Because he would inevitably hear something about those Lakers. “It was tough,” Durant said Thursday at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, where the 2009-10 scoring champ was on hand as a special NBA draft correspondent for NBA TV. “I would go places, and I had to watch it because that was the only thing on TV. It was tough to watch it. I was very upset; it fueled me to keep working.”

From Jainis Carr, Orange County Register: Devin Ebanks wasn’t expecting much from the NBA draft. He simply wanted to be picked — first round, second round — it didn’t matter. So the West Virginia forward was ecstatic when the Lakers made him the 43rd pick overall Thursday. “I just wanted to be picked,” Ebanks said on a conference call. “But I’m really happy. I don’t have too many words (to describe this).” Ebanks is a versatile forward and solid defender, but he also can be an effective shooter from mid-range. He averaged 12.0 points last season and led the Mountaineers in rebounding with an average of 8.1 a game. He helped West Virginia to its first Final Four appearance since 1951 and the most victories in school history (31).

From Jains Carr, Orange County Register (with video): Imagine the dunk contests the Lakers could stage if Shannon Brown and newly drafted Devin Ebanks if both are around Staples Center next season. Brown, who could opt out, has established himself as the team’s premiere dunker with his high-flying act. Ebanks, if he makes the team, could challenge him for supremacy.

From Mark Medina, Los Angeles Times: The Lakers selected West Virginia sophomore forward Devin Ebanks in the second round of the NBA draft with the 43rd pick overall, adding a frontcourt player who prides himself on rebounding and locking down opponents’ top scorers. He helped the Mountaineers to their first Final Four since 1951 and the most wins in school history as he led the team in rebounding at 8.1 a game.

From Adam Ganales, NBA Draft: Long and lean small forward possessing a ‘smooth’ game … His wingspan is incredible and he seemingly gets his paws on every ball … Prolific rebounder (8.5 RPG). Particularly innate offensive rebounder (3 per game) … Grabs boards outside of his area. Quick off his feet and anticipates caroms extremely well. Breaks for the ball before anyone else on the court … High percentage shooter, rarely takes a bad shot (47%) … Very soft touch around the basket. Crafty with a variety of release points … Knows how to get shots off in the paint …

ON DERRICK CARACTER

From Mike Trudell, Basket Blog: After selecting forward Devin Ebanks with the 43rd pick of the second round, the Lakers picked UTEP big man Derrick Caracter at No. 58. Caracter was named to the All-Conference USA Second Team after averaging 14 points and eight rebounds as a junior, and ranked 16th in the country in field goal percentage (56.7 percent). Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said that the team wasn’t expecting Caracter to be available as late as No. 58.

From Mark Medina, Los Angeles Times: The Lakers selected Texas El Paso junior forward Derrick Caracter with their second selection in the second round, the 58th pick overarll, despite General Manager Mitch Kupchak’s earlier contention that the team’s backcourt served as the team’s biggest need. Caracter, who spent his first two seasons at Louisville, averaged 14.1 points and 8.1 rebounds as he earned second-team All-Conference USA honors and shot a second-best 56.7% from the field during league play. He’s known to have good footwork, post moves and agility.

From Aran Smith, NBA Draft: NBA body and strength, very skilled for his size, has a nice game facing the basket with range to the college 3-point line, good rebounder in and out of area … Shows soft hands and can make catches in traffic … Has good athleticism for a man his size and will surprise you with his bounce … Can establish great position down low do to his brute strength and shows a mean streak at times and scores at will when motivated … Skill level and feel for the game are actually at a high level. A solid passer and understands how to use pump fakes and his strength to score on longer opponents …