With an officially unofficial trade of D’Angelo Russell hanging in the wind, the Lakers entered Thursday’s NBA draft with three draft picks — their own at #2, the Nets (via Boston) at #27, and the Rockets’ at #28. By the end of the night, they’d end up with four picks, swapping #28 for the Jazz’s selections at #30 and #42. (They’d also finalize the Russell deal, which, for the life of me I still don’t understand the delay in announcement. Oh well.)
With those four picks the Lakers made some smart selections, focusing on players who not only possess good character and work ethic, but who project to be able to fill specific roster needs via emerging (or already established) skills. A brief recap:
- At #2, the team took Lonzo Ball, a prospect I think defies the noise that surrounds him and his game.
- At #27, the team took Kyle Kuzma, a rangy forward with a nice floor game who has some defensive potential.
- At #30, the team took Josh Hart, a do it all shooting guard who offers a great mix of intangibles and college production over his 4 year career in the NCAA’s.
- At #42, the team took Thomas Bryant, a big man who offers an intriguing combination of physical tools/power and stretch-y ability offensively that is worth gambling on.
First off, coming off last season one of my chief questions about this team was the amount of youth on the team and whether they’d even be able to keep both of the two draft picks they were scheduled to make. Now, it turns out, they made four selections! Here is a list of all the players the Lakers currently have on their team who are 25 or younger and/or have 3 years or fewer of NBA experience, including the picks from Thursday:
- Julius Randle
- Jordan Clarkson
- Tarik Black
- Larry Nance, Jr.
- Brandon Ingram
- Ivica Zubac
- David Nwaba
- Lonzo Ball
- Kyle Kuzma
- Josh Hart
- Thomas Bryant
That’s 11 players! And while Black/Clarkson/Nance are all on the older end of that range with Black/Clarkson/Randle all about to enter their 4th season next year, the fact remains this is a young team. I just don’t see how the Lakers enter next season with all of these guys on the roster, especially when you consider the current imbalance between PF’s and C’s vs. guards/wings and Rob Pelinka openly stating the team will look to add more players in free agency. So, we will have to wait and see how this plays out.
Zooming back into the players drafted, though, tells us a few things about what skills they valued. When thinking back to the idea of a venn diagram of team needs, the four players selected all sort of fit in there somewhere in either actualized or projected skills based on their college games. Let’s try to categorize the drafted players (for reference, here’s how I classified the players on the roster a month ago):
- Shooting/Passing/Defense: Josh Hart
- Shooting/Passing: Lonzo Ball
- Shooting/Defense: none
- Passing/Defense: none
- Shooting (only): none
- Passing (only): Kyle Kuzma
- Defense (only): none
- Not listed: Thomas Bryant
First off, don’t get upset about Bryant being in the “not listed” category. In theory, he could be in the shooting section or even the shooting/defense section. But there’s a reason he went where he did in the draft considering his physical tools and, though in limited attempts, seems to have a viable shooting stroke. Fact is, he’s not there yet in any one area and isn’t necessarily a great enough athlete or possess enough natural feel for the game to compensate. The hope, of course, is that he gets there one day. I think he’s worth the gamble, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Getting back to the players taken, it’s clear to me that the Lakers prioritized shooting and defense. Ball and Hart both shot over 40% from three on over 5 attempts a game. This is exactly what you want from modern NBA guards/wings coming into the league. As bigs, Kuzma and Bryant may not appear in the shooting section above, but Kuzma has emerging skill in that area (32.1% on 3 attempts per game, over 40% over his final 10 games of the year – per DraftExpress) while Bryant’s smaller sample will need to show it can transfer (38.3% on only 2 attempts a game). Considering the shooting talent the Lakers have lost heading into the draft, these guys being able to hit NBA 3’s will be a big determinant of how successful this draft ultimately is.
The prioritization of defesne wasn’t as high as shooting, but it’s clearly still there. Hart was his conference’s defensive player of the year. Kuzma has a reputation as a capable defender, but who’s effort and attentiveness could wane. Still, though, the hope is that a more engaged player equals better results. With Bryant, he can be a bit stiff in moving laterally, but his sheer length can make him a presence in the paint. And, with Ball, I think his defensive abilities have been sold short. No, he’s not a stopper at the point of attack against quick guards, but he’s more athletic than given credit for, is effective against bigger guards/wings, and shows great instincts off the ball as a help/team defender.
The flip side of this, of course, is regardless of what the Lakers prioritized or what they think these guys can contribute now or become in the future, it doesn’t mean those things are true or will happen. Drafting well is hard. Being right on every guy is impossible. The four guys the Lakers drafted have weaknesses. Three of them were taken at a part of the draft where, in reality, if the guy simply sticks in the league for a period beyond his 1st contract you did well for yourself. The expectations will be different for Ball as a #2 pick, but take a look at some of the doozies taken in that slot over the years.
Even if the Russell trade still looms large and negatively impacts my general feel for this roster right now, I must say I have a general excitement about the draft — especially Lonzo. I’m not huge on the term “culture changer” and think that can be oversold at times, but Ball is the type of guy who can help usher in a new identity for a team. I do believe his style of play is infectious and that his want to keep the the ball moving and everyone involved helps galvanize a roster and impacts other parts of the games besides just offense. Playing that style makes the whole game fun.
When you add the other picks to Ball, I see a nice combination of upside plays (Bryant, Kuzma to a lesser extent) and stability/known quantity (Hart) that can really help in the short and, hopefully, long term. A lot needs to go right for that to be the case, but that was always going to be true. With the draft, few things can ever be assumed. Unless these kids put the work in while the organization surrounds them with the resources and puts them in the best positions to be successful, it can all go downhill and quickly. The Lakers, from the top down, seem to understand this well. We’ll see how it all works out, but I’m one who think it can.