Beast or Burden: New Faces

Stephen Dunn - Getty Images

With three preseason games under our belts, we are starting to see the new look Lakers take shape, particularly insofar as the roles each player will fill and who will even be on the roster come October 30th.

After a summer unequaled in Lakers history aside from the fabled one of 1996 that brought Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal into the fold, expectations couldn't be higher for the debut of the Lakers' new acquisitions in purple and gold, and while Dwight Howard continues to ride the bench, Steve Nash has provided us with a more than sufficient glance into the newfangled Lakers identity. For the first time in nearly two decades, the Lakers have a passing maestro at the helm of the offense: every time Nash rounds the corner on a pick-and-roll or takes the ball up in transition, there is a sense of palpable excitement about what he can do next, whether it is hitting his roll man with a pass in between his defender's legs, a shooter in the corner off a no look pass, or a cutter along the baseline using an angle you did not believe possible. And mind you, this is without his most effective partner on offense in Dwight Howard, who should also have an equal effect on other end as the Lakers' defensive anchor.

Aside from the big names, we have been treated to a veritable panoply of subsidiary actors who have made an impression on us for good or ill, and transformed the discussion for who should stay on the final roster from a straightforward issue into one much more difficult and complex. Injuries create opportunities, as the absence of Dwight Howard and Jordan Hill has opened the gates for the likes of Robert Sacre. Other players on the roster have also made their efforts to move up in the rotation. The most surprising candidate, however, so far in the preseason has to go to a more familiar face who has backed up the oldest of training camp cliches of being in the "best shape of his life."

Beast

  • Metta World Peace -- That person would be MWP, who has surpassed expectations in a huge way given his recorded struggles while recovering from poor conditioning and a nerve issue in his back last season. No praise in training camp is more vapid and empty than the above one about being in good shape, yet MWP seems determined to be considered the exception to the norm. He appears amazingly quick and fluid on offense, blowing past defenders on the perimeter with ease and using his still awesome strength to abuse smaller ones on the block. As such, the Princeton offense has jived very well with his new physique, as the notion of him cutting through the defense is suddenly something the opposition must respect, lest he seal his man in deep post position or find himself with only a smaller player between him and the basket. Even his shooting has taken an uptick in effectiveness, as he has rained threes down off the catch, the dribble, and even in transition (!). Once thought as a distant fifth wheel of the offense while the Lakers' four stars work their craft, the notion that MWP could be more than that has to be an incredibly endearing thought to Lakers fans everywhere.
  • Robert Sacre -- Meet training camp surprise number two, who took advantage of the aforementioned opening in the frontcourt due to injury and has made quite the case for staying on the roster as the fifth big. Sacre certainly has a number of foibles to contend with, namely his complete lack of lift around the basket and his defensive discipline, especially in straight-up post defense, but he brings a rather wide number of positives to the table one would not expect out of the last pick of the draft. Fully cognizant that he is playing with a number of other stars and one of the greatest pick-and-roll point guards ever, Sacre has been an inviting target around the rim, showing his hands, claiming post position, and displaying a soft touch around the rim with a set of hook shots. Moreover, he is willing to throw around his 7'0'', 260 pound frame on both ends, earning himself quite a few trips to the free throw line, where his accuracy is a great boon. Indeed, one wishes he would show his nice midrange jumper more often as a release valve in the offense since he invariably is going to be the option opposing teams shade away from in order to cover the Lakers' more notable players. At this juncture, it is almost unfathomable that Sacre does not make the roster, as he has more than earned it.
  • Devin Ebanks -- If you asked us what the Lakers' biggest position of weakness was during the summer, we would have replied "small forward" without hesitation. MWP had come off a horrendous season save a single month of competence and Ebanks, despite the front office painting him in glowing terms year after year due to his potential, was not exactly a sure fire backup. Well, that logic has been turned on its head rather quickly, as not only has MWP performed very well as illustrated above, Ebanks has likely been the third best wing in the entire rotation. We already knew about his defensive activity, but like MWP, the Princeton has provided some nice synergy with his game, as not only are his cuts to the rim now carry more impact, being able to run off screens and pop out for a midrange jumper has benefited Ebanks' overall game. He could stand to finish around the rim a little better, but his activity has been rewarded with a steady diet of free throws. At this rate, he might push even Jodie Meeks down in the wing rotation, especially if he can start nailing shots from behind the arc.
  • Steve Nash -- We discussed Nash's offensive wizardry already, but an honest shock has been his surprising competence on defense. Now, he will not resemble a stopper by any means at the position anytime soon, but Nash is consistently at the right spot on pick-and-roll defense, gets his hands in the passing lanes, and contests shots reasonably well. This doesn't mean that he gets blown by on the perimeter any less than other point guards, but all of this stands in stark contrast to the previous Lakers fixtures at the point in Ramon Sessions and Derek Fisher. He is also doing all this without the benefit of a behemoth shot blocker at his back who can erase his mistakes. Again, it would be going too far to call Nash above average at this end or anything else in that line of thought, but we can at least assert that the common image of him as a complete defensive sieve is at least somewhat undeserved.
  • Kobe Bryant -- On that subject, where did the Kobe who was blocking shots, arresting the ball frequently from ballhandlers, and playing some nice off ball denial last night come from? Dwight Howard hasn't played a second in a Lakers uniform and already the Lakers' perimeter defenders are acting aggressively with the expectation that someone behind them will help with their mistakes. For his part, Kobe has also done some solid work within the Princeton offense, getting oodles of free throws through smart cuts, drives, and fakes. Even his catch and shoot game is showing life as he and Nash are beginning to develop some synergy in that department. Granted, this is still Kobe and we get the obligatory crazy shot or long-winded isolation every now and then, but it does look like he's making a game effort to act within the confines of the offense.
  • Honorable mention goes to Chris Douglas-Roberts, who has yours truly looking somewhat foolish. My piece discussing his signing predicted that he wasn't going to beat out Jodie Meeks or Devin Ebanks for a rotation spot that would be necessary to cement his place on the roster. After three games, he has made more than half of his shots, gotten to the line, and displayed a polished game that speaks to the possibility that he could provide some real utility to the Lakers on offense. Now, we haven't even gotten to the first cuts yet of camp, so making claims at this point is awfully premature, but his play is steadily forcing the Lakers into making a difficult decision concerning who they keep on the roster and it ultimately may result in them not keeping Darius Johnson-Odom or jettisoning a player with a guaranteed deal such as Earl Clark.

Burden

  • Jodie Meeks -- CDR has been able to make inroads because Meeks has frankly been rather mediocre, if not outright bad thus far in preseason. When given the opportunity to start in place of Kobe, Meeks failed miserably, missing all but one of his seven shots. While he has shown a dribble game that defies his classification as a pure spot-up shooter, Meeks was brought in by the Lakers for his outside shooting, which has been the Lakers' bete noire on offense for years now. Granted, we have to note the caveats: this early in preseason and with such a preliminary form of the offense, it could be hard for a player like Meeks who has to catch the ball in rhythm at his spots. Even Nash isn't running the offense to perfection, as good as it looks currently, and Meeks will find himself in lineups that better utilize his talents, especially when Howard returns. Nevertheless, the lack of production will continue to add to the worries about the backup two guard spot until he demonstrates otherwise.
  • Antawn Jamison -- Jamison did himself a lot of favors by playing significantly better against Utah than he did in his first two preseason contests, and it makes sense that he will continue to look better as the Lakers implement more and more of Eddie Jordan's Princeton offense. When it comes down to it, Jamison is fundamentally a player that thrives on flow and motion, so as long as he is cutting towards the basket and catching the ball with space on the perimeter, he can use his game with maximum efficacy. Ask him merely to be a spot-up guy or a straight-up isolation player and he will struggle accordingly, especially at this point in his career. The Utah game also displayed a number of nice defensive plays from Jamison, who is not exactly renowned for his fortitude at that end. If he can play even serviceable defense, the Lakers will reap a healthy reward from their investment.
  • Darius Morris -- Morris more or less had his big shot to make a claim to the Lakers' backup point guard spot last night and while it would be overreaching to say that he blew it, he didn't set the world on fire either. A few solid sequences -- his slick pass to Jamison in the corner for a three after penetrating into the paint comes to mind -- were juxtaposed against a lot of familiar problems: too much dribbling, a lack of an in-between game, and a lot of lapses in court awareness. Morris often penetrates into the defense seemingly without a plan, and once he finds himself in an increasingly dire situation, it is too late for him to make a read for a pass or shot attempt. As with everyone else, it is still early in camp and Morris will have other opportunities, but at least with this one, he didn't accomplish a whole lot.
  • Chris Duhon -- Thankfully for Morris, Duhon has been borderline invisible whenever he is playing. Given the huge glut in the backcourt as well as the number of young players the Lakers would be interested in keeping, it is unsurprising that ESPN's Marc Stein would write that Duhon is available to basically anyone willing to take him off the Lakers' hands. He doesn't have Blake's court vision or Morris' upside and there's little doubt that the Lakers would prefer to keep someone like Darius Johnson-Odom over a superfluous veteran point guard. On the flip side, Duhon hasn't really gotten an opportunity to show his stuff, only playing in two of the three preseason games and not more than ten minutes at that. Still, one would expect given his past history that he ends up being the loser of the point guard competition, and as a result, the Lakers have a vested interest in dumping him on another team if at all possible.
  • Pau Gasol -- Pau has struggled thus far this preseason, which is slightly disconcerting because he was the one the offseason changes were supposed to benefit greatly. With Nash running the show and the Princeton giving him great freedom to dictate the flow of the offense as he did in the triangle, a bounce back season of sorts was thought to be in the works. To be fair, as with the Jamison entry above, the Lakers have not implemented the Princeton in full and for Pau to operate at maximum efficacy, he needs to have confidence in where cutters are moving, shooters are being positioned, and when he is receiving the ball. On a more positive note, his post game has acquitted itself quite well in the three preseason games; his average has mostly been pulled down by uncharacteristically low shooting from the outside. Finally, as with basically every other person on the floor, Pau will benefit significantly from the attention Howard will demand on offense, and the ease of his shooting and passing -- the delicious 4-5 pick-and-rolls and high-low sequences in particular from last year will be a joy to watch -- will drastically increase. As good as Sacre has been lately, he is obviously no substitute for Howard's enormous influence on both sides of the ball.
  • Dishonorable mention goes to basically the entirety of the non-guaranteed group of camp bodies who are expected to be first on the chopping block when cuts are announced. Greg Somogyi has size but doesn't use it very well -- or in the cringe-inducing terminology of Stu Lantz, he stands too "erect" -- and his offensive game is so limited as to make him a total liability on the floor. Same thing essentially applies to Ronnie Aguilar, who has the same weaknesses without Somogyi's massive 7'3'' frame. Reeves Nelson, however, as apt as we are to dismiss him for his failings at UCLA, has demonstrated a nice nose for the ball around the basket very reminiscent of Matt Barnes. While the other parts of his game certainly aren't very polished, the aforementioned attribute is an important skill to have, and one hopes that he could find his way to the Lakers' D-League affiliate and continue to grow his game there.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.

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