In the span of an offseason, small forward has gone from the thinnest slot on the Lakers' depth chart to the deepest. Ron Artest was and is the unquestioned starter, but last year there was no quality backup. Luke Walton missed a good chunk of the season to injury and was largely unproductive when on the court. Josh Powell and Adam Morrison were, at best, options suitable to garbage time only. All minutes of relevance that weren't soaked up by Artest fell to either Kobe Bryant or Lamar Odom playing out of position.
Phil Jackson will have a better selection of deployable assets this season. Matt Barnes is on board to shore up the second unit. He'll give 17 to 20 minutes a night and spot-start on those half-dozen or so occasions when Artest is on the shelf. Although no one knows how much, or even whether, Luke's back will allow him to play this year, he's still around. And then there's rookie (or as I like to call him, "entry-level Laker") Devin Ebanks.
The 20-year-old Ebanks has been on a good run since leaving West Virginia after his second year of college ball. He sparkled on the Lakers' summer-league team, earning himself a contract with the organization. For over two weeks now he's been working out at the Lakers' practice facility to get a jump on training camp. Perhaps most important, he's already become one of the NBA's most prolific and entertaining Twitterers.
All in all, the Devin Ebanks era in Lakerdom is off to a promising start.
Role on the Team: There will be zero pressure on Ebanks this year. Artest and Barnes have the small-forward position anchored, and if Luke is at all available, Phil will try to get him on the court to see what he's got left. It's not completely true that Phil never plays rookies - both Jordan Farmar and Luke got a fair amount of playing time as rooks - but in this case, there just aren't any minutes available. If everyone's healthy, there won't even be room for Devin on the 12-man active roster, and even if they're not, the organization might prefer that he get work in the D League instead of chilling on the bench, waiting for Taco Time.
Our longest looks at Ebanks will probably come in the preseason. Unless Ron's grossly out of shape, Phil won't want his starter playing "mad minutes," so there should be opportunities for Devin to come in the game when Barnes is resting. Once it's wheels-up on the regular season, Mitch Kupchak and Phil will need to assess the injury situayshe and decide whether it makes sense to send Devin off to the D League, or keep him around as the 11th or 12th man. Either way, the kid's not likely to see much action in the bigs this year.
Best-Case Scenario for His Season: Ebanks continues working hard to pick up the Laker playbook. In preseason action he lives up to his rep as a stopper, defending opposing wings with great vengeance and furious anger. In the regular season, he makes the most of his time in the D League, polishing his (iffy, to be charitable) jump shot and instincts on both ends of the floor. When given time with the top club, he studies at the feet of Artest and Barnes, learning how to guard threes in the NBA. In occasional taco-unit action he becomes a fan favorite at Staples Center via his long-armed D and athletic finishes at the rim.
Worst-Case Scenario for His Season: Ebanks is called up for active duty following a cascade of injuries and suspensions to Artest, Barnes and Walton. Playing real minutes against grown-ass men, the kid looks overwhelmed and like he should've spent another year in Morgantown. All the Trevor Ariza comparisons lead him to think he should try shooting threes like Trevor did in the 2009 playoffs, when in fact he can barely manage a midrange two. Suffering a crisis of confidence, Ebanks forgets all about the league's Twitter regs and sends out a tweet during halftime of a game. David Stern takes notice and fines him $7,500. Sensing a bustola on their hands, the Lakers send Ebanks and Sasha Vujacic to Philly in a midseason trade for Jason Kapono.
What We Expect: Under-the-radar development. It's improbable that Ebanks will be on the court for any crucial moments this season, and if he is, it means something has gone quite wrong. More likely, he spends a good part of the season logging D League time, where he can continue scaling the hoops learning curve. As promising as he looks, the kid does have plenty he needs to work on.
At this point, it would be a great surprise if Ebanks turned out to be less than a strong defender. He's got all the necessary tools, and he'll now get to practice with some of the best perimeter defenders in the league. What will determine whether he carves out a future for himself on the Lakers and in the NBA is his development, or failure to develop, other skills. If defense is your entire game, you have to be awesome at it. Like, first team All-Defense/Dennis Rodman circa 1988-90 awesome. Otherwise, it's just too hard for a team to carry a one-dimensional player.
Eventually Ebanks will have to develop a passable jumper, but that won't happen overnight. What I'll be most curious to see this year is his work on the glass. That's an area in which he should be able to contribute immediately by exploiting his height, wingspan and energy. He won't knock down many 19-footers this season, but he'll find some points if he battles on the offensive boards.
It feels like a good bet that Ebanks will put together a nice little career. About his character and work ethic you hear nothing but positive remarks. (That often doesn't mean much, but at least it's better than hearing the opposite.) He has the measureables, and if his defense lives up to the hype, he's already got one solid skill that could get him on the court. Best of all, he's landed in an ideal situation. Phil, Kobe and Ron will push him, test him and make him get better fast. At the same time, the Lakers don't need him to produce right away.
That's a luxury both he and they should appreciate.
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