The Lakers have not exactly been at the forefront of using the more customary means of prospect development in recent years, eschewing the draft and the D-League in favor of veterans more able to contribute to teams with championship aspirations in the short-term. A variety of savvy transactions have allowed Mitch Kupchak and the front office to maintain depth despite this handicap, although the team's failure to get success out of home grown players since Andrew Bynum left in the Dwight Howard trade has been one of the less successful parts of Kupchak's tenure. Concerns about the luxury tax and Phil Jackson's preference for more established players have certainly played a role, to be fair, and there have been no egregiously bad moves along the way.
All of this, however, has exposed a dearth of athleticism and dynamism on the team in recent years, something the front office went to great lengths to rectify in the offseason while trying to keep the cap clean for 2014. If the early returns from this season are any indication, they have done a pretty solid job of doing so. The only hole has been the backup four spot, where an awkward combination of Wesley Johnson, a player probably much better suited for the wing; Shawne Williams, the least productive member of the rotation by pretty much any statistical measure; and Chris Kaman, a five man who can only occupy the spot with Pau Gasol for limited stretches, has not produced stellar results to say the least.
That brings us to Ryan Kelly and Elias Harris, the Lakers' rookie pair who are both currently projected as fours. This is not to suggest that the solution to the Lakers' predicament is to insert either of them into the rotation, but that the team needs to keep an open mind as to how to address the issue without sacrificing the notion that this season is primarily about evaluation and possibly finding future assets. It is hard not to cringe a bit when hearing reports about Lamar Odom, an over the hill veteran -- as sad as that is to say from a fan perspective -- who has little to no upside and offers almost no value beyond the short-term, as a result. If say Wes Johnson ended up panning out as a decent backup four option, there would be little complaint that Kelly and Harris were left out in the cold.
At the moment, this isn't the case, so we continue to look at what Kelly and Harris can provide, an easier analysis to make after their first D-League game (box), a contest that also thrust an unexpected variable into this discussion that we will cover later. In any case:
[24 points, nine rebounds, two assists, and a block on a 60.1 TS%]
If we are going to make excuses for Pau's lackluster performance by his standards at least in part due to the short amount of time that has transpired since he was allowed back on the court following his recovery from knee surgery, the same applies to Kelly, who only managed to get onto the court roughly halfway through training camp. Or at the very least, we hope this is the case since Kelly's lateral movement was abysmal during the game and very noticeable even at a D-League level of play. The Vipers, who feature a good deal of fours who can handle the ball and stretch the floor out to the perimeter, tormented Kelly time and time again by either blowing by him fairly effortlessly to the rim or by using the space he gave them in order to protect against the drive to nail shots from behind the arc.
This would be forgivable if Kelly offered something positive on defense near the rim, but his help was often lackluster and slow and there wasn't a lot of success when he battled for rebounds in traffic. One bright spot was his ability to take charges well, so hopefully this becomes more of a factor as he gets acclimated to the speed of the NBA game and the nature of his off ball responsibilities. It is unlikely that Kelly ever becomes particularly good on this end and it behooves him to at least find ways to overcome his physical limitations there.
On offense, Kelly was as advertised: his ballhandling is clearly above average for a big of his size and his length makes it possible for him to face-up and sink midrange shots essentially at will. He would frequently drive from the wing and stop for a jumper near the elbow, where even a timely rotation wasn't going to do much to deter his shot. It should be noted that the D-Fenders lack the ballhandlers to set Kelly up in the bread and butter sets he will be involved in as a pro, especially the pick-and-pop. Most of the time, he had to create his own opportunities, whether it was driving to the rim or on post-ups, areas in which it's going to be hard for him to be effective at the next level.
You can't blame Kelly that much for trying to take advantage of the hand that he was dealt, however. His post-up game is mechanical but that aforementioned face-up ability can potentially be advantage on mismatches and he did a decent job of using shot fakes to draw fouls in the post. The four offensive rebounds are probably a bit fluky, especially after being spoiled by how good Jordan Hill's positioning tends to be when he accrues his, although it's hard to deny his effort. Same applies when he put the ball on the floor with the intention of getting to the rim, as he's quick to recognize available lanes, even if he doesn't necessarily possess the athleticism to make it all the way and convert most of the time.
Still, for what more or less amounts to his first real full game experience since Duke got ejected in the tournament by Louisville, Kelly did pretty well. His merits in Mike D'Antoni's system are fairly evident and is ballhandling in particular can become a nice touch in the offense since it elevates his value beyond simply a tall spot-up shooter. His defensive shortcomings notwithstanding, Kelly's size at the four is an asset in a league getting increasingly smaller at the position and if he can leverage his face-up ability into more of an advantage at this spot, he could end up sticking around for a while in the pros.
[18 points, two rebounds, two assists, and a block on a 68.8 TS%]
We said frequently during the summer that Harris probably could crack into the rotation if he ever gets a consistent jumper since the rest of his game is pretty close to being viable. That remains the case, as Harris got most of his points off cuts and smart positioning near the rim as he sealed his man in the deep post. On a second unit that focuses on getting easy points in transition and near the rim, Harris fits perfectly except for the floor spacing aspect, although he appears to be improving there as well. He had a few nice sequences in this regard, including one driving from the wing and taking a hard dribble before nailing a jumper from seventeen feet and another as he took a dribble handoff from Kelly and made the nineteen footer. Hardly a big sample size to be sure, but his general comfort on the court seems improved since summer league.
Harris primarily played the three due to the frontcourt composition of the D-Fenders and generally did a good job holding his own at the spot. As opposed to Kelly, his lateral quickness is decent and while he wasn't able to make that much of an impact on the boards, his positional defense was solid for the most part. It's definitely not the spot that Harris will likely occupy in the pros, as Dan D'Antoni's playing of Harris at the four and even the five from time to time in summer league attests to, but defensive versatility is always a plus and as a forward tweener, Harris could potentially fill that role.
All in all, Kelly and Harris both did well and while their performances aren't exactly screaming that they should be earning playing time with the parent team, one did get the impression that it would be worthwhile for the Lakers to hold onto them and see how they develop. There was a player, however, who did make a declaration that he's way too good for this level of competition and that would be:
[36 points, 18 rebounds, three assists, four steals, and three blocks on a 76.3 TS%]
Yeah. Any interest for Lakers fans in this game largely revolved almost entirely around Kelly and Harris, but Thomas stole the show by completely dominating the game and demonstrating his considerable growth as a player since he went undrafted in 2011. Ranked the D-League's top overall prospect, it was an easy item to digest as Thomas scored from just about every part of the court, controlled the glass on both ends, and displayed his surprising mobility on defense, especially checking players on the perimeter. Considering that he came into the league as an athletic energy player, it was somewhat startling to see the effortlessness with which Thomas went about his business on both ends, a development likely very apparent to a Lakers front office that has seen Thomas in the 2011 training camp and in two previous stints with the D-Fenders.
It starts with his post game, as once Thomas got the ball on the block, there was very little that the Vipers could do to stop him. Against single coverage, Thomas scored with ease with hooks around the basket and in one emphatic sequence, took two hard dribbles and dunked straight over his defender. Near the end of the game, the Vipers brought double coverage every time Thomas touched the ball and he still managed to draw fouls and stay effective near the basket. Thomas obviously isn't going to have nearly the same success against bona fide NBA players in this area, but his level of refinement and quickness with which he executes his moves was very encouraging.
Of especial interest to the coaching staff would be Thomas' increased range from the perimeter, as he nailed two out of his four threes, a surprising statistic for a player who was thought of having little to no range at all. As the first game of the season, we have very little information about whether such a thing was a bit fluky, but that Thomas possesses range in the first place just solidifies the rest of an already solid resume. Thomas' athleticism just resonates in his game and got quite a few points by running the floor in transition and making himself available for lobs, two areas the parent team is rather enthused about.
Where it was thought that Thomas would earn his stripes in the league, however, was on defense, as Thomas' long 7'2'' wingspan for the four and quick feet were thought to be significant assets. That hasn't changed all that much, as Thomas was effective as a weak side shot blocker, but his main impact was his general level of mobility on defense. Whereas Kelly was clearly uncomfortable checking stretch fours on the perimeter, for instance, Thomas had no such problem and was even stripping ballhandlers from time to time. Those prodigious block and steal numbers were not an accident: Thomas' length and activity was pretty disruptive.
So, doesn't that feel like a much better option than trotting out retread options at the four? If Thomas' newfound perimeter shot isn't an illusory development -- something that D-Fenders coach Bob MacKinnon claims is the case -- there seemingly are very few reasons as to why someone like Shawne Williams should be a better option than him. Thomas would have been a decent option even before the season when the only attractive markers were that he's long, athletic, and can defend and he's demonstrated that his skill set is much greater than that. It's hard to think that Thomas couldn't be more productive than the tepid 8.2 PER that Williams is currently giving the team.
We are focusing on Williams since he'd probably the most likely roster causality if the team decided to pick up Thomas. Among the players with non-guaranteed money in their contracts, the team is probably loathe to give up on Kelly and Harris so soon, so that gives you a choice between Williams and Xavier Henry. Considering that the latter has quite a bit more potential upside and Thomas would directly replace Williams' spot in the depth chart, the choice is fairly clear in this case. Kupchak was at the game, so he's probably cognizant of all of this, but if he doesn't act soon, Thomas may be called up by another team. The team has already made strides towards reversing its lack of use of the draft and the D-League and nabbing Thomas would be another step in the right direction for the club from a player development perspective.
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