Despite losing their stars, the D-Fenders keep on humming along

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

This season for the Lakers has witnessed much more utilization of their D-League affiliate than any other in recent memory, a welcome development by a front office now concentrating more on the bottom end of the roster. As an encouraging sign in this partnership, the D-Fenders' success despite not playing with some of their best players in Manny Harris and Terrence Williams bodes well for the future.

It has been a while since we last covered the D-League here because of the the simple fact that it's a lot less interesting to do so when the Lakers don't have an assignment player present or there isn't someone who would be a good call-up candidate. At least for yours truly, most of the interest in basketball that isn't the NBA is couched squarely in terms of which players in those leagues eventually find their way into the NBA, which has made something like college basketball infinitely more bearable this season due to the Lakers' draft position. As a result, the Lakers being more or less required to play everyone on the team due to injuries and changing rotations has significantly reduced any need to focus on the D-League: the roster is full and since everyone worth keeping around is playing, there's no need to get them minutes by assigning them.

The fact that the D-League isn't a true minor league system, meaning that the Lakers hold no exclusive rights to any of the players who are on their affiliate, further makes it difficult to be too invested in the stock of players who probably don't have a future in the NBA itself, let alone for the Lakers. On the flip side, the Lakers did choose a good chunk of these players, figured out which ones to retain, and obtained the rest through tryouts, trades, waiver claims, and otherwise. One way or another, the front office views these players as worthy of the attention and time they are devoting to them, so that in turn at least should make them show up as blips on the radar of the Lakers faithful.

This is aided by what has been borne out through this season as a real fidelity to Mike D'Antoni's system, implemented by the D-Fenders coach Bob MacKinnon, who has used a high octane, three-point heavy attack in his past stops in the D-League. Only a few minutes of watching the D-Fenders play are all that are really necessary to notice the similarities, as if anything, the D-Fenders are a closer approximation of D'Antoni's ideal offense than the Lakers themselves. The D-Fenders' starting center in Brandon Costner is a stocky big likely more suited for the four, but his ability to spread the floor allows the team to run a five out system to maximize available spacing. Pretty much everyone on the roster save for center Travis Hyman is a threat from behind the arc and it shows when the team plays.

As we have seen this season with the Lakers, however, having spacing is one thing, but what is necessary for an offense like this to be effective is dynamic playmakers at the point of attack and the D-Fenders have these in spades. If anything, they have too many of them. Ever since Malcolm Thomas was called up very early in the season -- and done shockingly little in the league, highly contrary to the expectations of yours truly -- thus removing the D-Fenders' primary post option, the team has lived and died by their point guards and wings that could break down defenses off the dribble and in the pick-and-roll, whether it has been Manny Harris, Terrence Williams, Josh Magette, or Josiah Turner.

It is a testament to the team's depth that they could be without two of those names in Harris, who averaged an outrageous 31.6/7.9/3.8 on a 59.0 TS% before signing with a team in Turkey, or Williams, an inefficient scorer with a 51.7 TS% but still a solid playmaker because of his athleticism, and put up 125 and 130 points against one of the D-League's better teams in the Canton Charge en route to convincing victories. Yes, the D-Fenders depend a good deal on the three ball, but they mix in athletic players who can get to the rim and work well out of the pick-and-roll, allowing them to keep teams on their toes. And of course, as is typical for an uptempo team, they consistently pounce on live ball turnovers, aggressively attacking opposing ballhandlers to get easy buckets in transition.

Now, this is all fine and dandy, but as noted beforehand, it's no assurance that these players find their way to the Lakers in the near future. While this is true, there's a few factors present that offer interesting wrinkles to hold the attention of Lakers fans. First and foremost is that it's much easier to find players that fit D'Antoni's system than the triangle under Phil Jackson -- not to mention what must have been an incredibly aggravating search to find a coach who knew the system well enough to implement it in the D-League year after year -- so the D-Fenders have had a much wider pool of players to evaluate and can simply field better teams than in the past. Next is that the Lakers will be scrounging this offseason as they did last year for players on the cheap who can help fill out the team's rotation, making the following prime candidates for either summer league or training camp invites:

Josiah Turner

We covered Turner in the last D-League piece that was run on this site, noting that he was an interesting player to keep track of due to his potential and talent. Kicked off Arizona for disciplinary problems and deciding to try to go pro instead of signing on with Larry Brown at SMU -- which in hindsight sounds like a really poor decision given how well Brown has done with the program there -- Turner went undrafted and landed with the D-Fenders attempting to rebuild his stock from scratch. At least in that regard, the past few months have been productive for him, as despite being stuck behind Josh Magette in the rotation, he's consistently shown flashes of the talent that got him considered one of the best high school point guards in the nation back in 2011.

This was on full display against the Tulsa 66ers last week, as Turner put up a career high game with 31 points, four rebounds, and seven assists on a scintillating 86.9 TS%. Turner's approach is fairly straightforward: round the corner on the pick-and-roll and get to the rim time and time again as well as using his speed to do the same in transition, on cuts, and in isolation. 72.08% of his shots have come at the rim, where he converts at a so-so 57.8%, but his proclivity for getting to the line has allowed him to post a respectable 57.0 TS% so far this season. Big for a point guard at 6'4'' with a 6'5'' wingspan, such an approach fits Turner's athletic profile and it's apparent that it will be his bread and butter for the rest of his professional career.

Whether Turner can reach the next level will depend on how the rest of his game develops. While his court vision is decent, Turner is cast much more in the mold of a modern attacking point guard than a traditional setup man, another thing that sets him apart from Magette. And although he can get away with not displaying a lot of range on a roster that has almost no shortage of spacing, Turner will almost certainly have to make it a bigger aspect of his game at the next level. On a more optimistic note, the defense we lauded Turner for earlier in the year is still a constant in his game and he uses his big frame and arms well to get steals in the halfcourt.

If you're wondering why we're paying particular attention to Turner here, it's partly a consequence of his age (21) and potential, but also since he most closely resembles the type of reclamation projects that the Lakers have been very successful with this season. Turner clearly has skills: it's just a matter of being put into an environment in which they can be maximized as he cleans up his personal baggage. In the end, one could think of much worse candidates to find their way to the Lakers' summer league roster this summer and it certainly would be intriguing to see him in such an environment.

C.J. Williams

Likely the least heralded Williams on the team behind Terrence and Shawne, both of whom have NBA pedigrees to fall back upon, Williams is no less impressive once one examines how well he fills in on the wing as a spot-up shooter, cutter, defender, and quite literally whatever role MacKinnon slots him into. No, really, observe the shot chart that has propelled him to a 62.1 TS% in 39 D-League games:

Cjwilliamsshotchart_medium

After finishing his college time at NC State in 2012, Williams was last playing in Cyprus before trying out for the D-Fenders and he has likely emerged as one of the more surprising success stories on the roster. As mentioned above, he doesn't have any NBA time under his belt, nor was his time at NC State burning with signs of future success. A player who can occupy either wing spot at 6'6'', Williams is respectably athletic, but his success has mostly been built upon how he approaches the game, something that wasn't apparent until he actually got into games to display his stuff.

The shot chart tells a lot of the story, as Williams' game could best be described as "smooth." He does a good job getting open for spot-up opportunities from behind the arc, but also is adept at taking one hard dribble inside the arc for a midrange opportunity to avoid a close out. This also follows for his cutting and ability to finish at the rim in general, as his solid 62.87% mark at the rim demonstrates. He's not quite as adept in isolation and largely depends on working off others to get his points, but he does that with sufficient aplomb to be effective nevertheless. Wings like that that can operate in such a role despite their limitations have value and it would certainly be interesting to see if the team could give him another look in summer league.

James Southerland

As might be apparent at this juncture, most of the players of interest here are the younger ones who are right out of college, which makes sense given that if you haven't hightailed it out of the D-League early in your professional career, you very well might never crack into the NBA. Older players on the team such as Andre Ingram and Brandon Costner, while valuable commodities on the team because they provide a stabilizing presence on the floor or offer frontcourt spacing respectively, probably don't have any NBA aspirations at this point in their careers. Thankfully, this does not apply to Southerland, who actually was one of the players we covered as a possible draft selection for the Lakers back in the summer.

The player that has emerged in the D-League, however, bears very little similarity to the Southerland we described in the draft primer. He does spot-up for threes and the occasional midrange shot as well as use his wingspan to be effective on defense, but he does so at the four instead of the three. Given that Southerland is 6'8'' in shoes with a 7'1'' wingspan, that's not overly surprising, although we can ascribe some of this to the smallball ethos that suffuses the team and Southerland's honestly one of the more qualified candidates to man the four regardless.

This is a result of him displaying a face-up and post game that wasn't very visible during his time at Syracuse and indeed, Southerland is one of the few players on the roster who actually indulges in both areas. His length allows him to get off midrange shots when facing up and he is sufficiently quick as well as adept in his positioning to fight for inside post position. While we would hold off on describing Southerland as a consistent weapon in this area, his rock solid 66.7% mark at the rim bodes well for the future.

Among the players on the roster, these three are the ones yours truly feels have the best chance to pay dividends down the road, if not for the Lakers, then for some other NBA team. We can throw Manny Harris into that bunch as well, as Harris is only 24 and the Lakers very well could consider bringing him next year as a wing option if their current ones decide to go elsewhere. Such a description doesn't really apply, unfortunately, to Terrence Williams, as while his 21.3/4.9/6.1 stat line is gaudy, the accompanying 51.8 TS% isn't. A guy with his athleticism, ability to score from everywhere, and overall talent should be able to easily dominate competition of this level and this isn't really the case. So although putting up a 50/9/4/3 game is pretty impressive, his usual averages don't pass muster. Compare this against Harris' averages above and for good measure, Harris also topping Williams' then-franchise high in points with a monstrous 56/15/4 performance on a 63.2 TS%, and the difference becomes clear.

We perhaps could add Shawne Williams as well, seeing that he has also been performing well for the D-Fenders as of late and D'Antoni clearly has some attachment for the forward whose career he helped resurrect. This noted, Williams' so-so play for the Lakers despite being given all the opportunity in the world casts a bit of doubt on the possibility. Ryan Kelly fills the stretch four role better in addition to providing bona fide power forward size at the position, although Williams' ability to check wings in addition to frontcourt players does offer some value. He may end up back next training camp for the familiarity factor alone. Although it might be more prudent to look for someone with more upside like Southerland, the team does ultimately need depth to work with.

That leaves us with lead point guard Josh Magette, center Travis Hyman, and little used reserve wing Gideon Gamble. To get the latter out of the way quickly, Gamble is a long wing with respectable shooting ability -- sensing a theme with all of these wings yet? -- and given a highly underwhelming college career, his future prospects aren't likely to extend to the NBA. This also very well might be the case for Hyman, as despite some optimism for his development prior to the season, he's more or less failed to progress significantly, a death knell for the prospects of a still raw 26 year old. He has bad hands, doesn't rebound well, has a weak base in post defense, and isn't really a factor on offense outside of dunking. One always holds out hope for seven footers with the mobility that Hyman brings to the table, but he simply hasn't put things together.

As for Magette, he definitely brings a lot of positives to the table, many of them mentioned in comparison to Turner above. A heady player with a D-League leading assist-to-turnover ratio, he's not overly athletic but does a great job organizing the offense and keeping the ball flowing. His competitiveness and leadership style are captured exceptionally well in this piece by Lakers.com's Trevor Wong and it's evident that the team responds well to him as a floor general. Unfortunately, he just isn't enough of a scoring threat to compensate for his lack of good physical tools; a 52.5% mark at the rim just isn't going to cut it and Magette's pretty awful inside the arc in general. He assuredly tries to overcome his slight frame -- observe him box out much bigger players for a rebound, dive for a loose ball, and so forth; it's not an accident that his previous coaches rave about him -- but there's a certain ceiling he just can't conquer without acquiring a higher skill level.

On the whole, however, the Lakers have done an exceptionally good job managing the D-Fenders this season, whether it has been via bringing on players with NBA history, prospects whose upside might be realized under their system, or D-League veterans that can allow all the pieces to fit together. Despite losing a number of their star players throughout the year, the team has continued to perform well as they sit on top of the D-League's West Division with the third best record in the league, a testament to the team's solid coaching and player acquisition. Moreover, that we are even mentioning more than one player on the D-Fenders as someone the Lakers should possibly keep an eye on in the future further emphasizes this, as well as how much of a turnaround the Lakers have undergone towards handling different areas of talent acquisition. Much of it has been driven by necessity due to a flood of injuries and inconsistent play, but it is nevertheless an endearing sign for the future as the Lakers continue with their rebuilding process.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.

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