It remains somewhat incomprehensible that Malcolm Thomas was passed up by the Lakers even when Mitch Kupchak deigned to watch the team's opener in person and got a firsthand account of the indelible reality that he is a bona fide NBA player. Honestly, it seemed as if Thomas consciously decided to start off the first game of this past weekend with a firm statement that neither his newfound shooting stroke nor his production were at all a fluke, as he hit six out of nine threes, including three out of four in the first quarter on pick-and-pop and spot-up situations that are staples in Mike D'Antoni's offense. A few days removed from that decision, or lack thereof as the Spurs filched Thomas away from the D-Fenders on Sunday, one still wonders to make sense of this, bringing back ugly reminders of how the team passed on Gerald Green in 2012 after he tore up the D-League on the Lakers' affiliate and eventually found his way to the Nets.
Could we perhaps construe this as an implicit statement of faith in Ryan Kelly's potential? After all, Kelly is the one that is still on the roster despite having just a one year deal, whereas Elias Harris, thought at one point to have fairly secure job security for the season as he developed, is searching for a job somewhere else. Yours truly made the case during the summer that Kelly's drafting was a sign that the front office supported Mike D'Antoni's vision for the team, something that has been vindicated to say the least to start the season. And Kelly fits firmly into the mold of player that D'Antoni can work with: a smart, offensive big with significant range and a surprisingly good handle.
Reconciling this with the reality that Malcolm Thomas clearly looks better at the moment is difficult, but at least one can accept this as a possible rationale for why the Lakers didn't want Thomas, as they believe that have a guy who can fill that same slot in the rotation better -- in their mind -- than Thomas can in Kelly. This could very well be proven as a rather foolish decision in a few months if Thomas breaks out in San Antonio and Kelly continues to languish in the D-League, but one also has to consider that they are in very different stages of development now. Altogether, it is easier to be at peace with how this turned out, as visceral as the reality that the Lakers were having a potentially solid rotation piece filched out from under them notwithstanding.
For his part, Kelly did a good job in helping us try to forget about Thomas in the D-Fenders' first game without him on Sunday, as the team tallied their first win of the season. Thirty points on a 62.1 TS%, seven rebounds, two assists, and five steals is a line that you would expect from a genuine NBA prospect playing against this level of competition. While the fact that the Bakersfield Jam are seemingly a much worse team than the D-Fenders' previous competition in the Vipers and the Warriors, both of which had solid players on assignment from their parent clubs, you can't fault Kelly for performing well in Thomas' absence and adapting without much of a hitch to being the first option.
This isn't a role that Kelly is going to fill at the next level, but the important thing is that to get his points, he searched out the spots on the floor at which he is effective. It is true that players in the D-League, especially players on assignment, should use their time as a testing ground for different parts of their game, but they also need to further cement their staples. For Kelly, this means scoring on the pick-and-pop, getting the ball in spot-up situations, and using his unusually advanced ballhandling for a big to get easy jumpers from the free throw line extended. All of these things were on display against the Jam, as Kelly was continually hunting for open spots on the court to find open shots, a useful mindset to have in D'Antoni's system.
The ballhandling in particular deserves some notice, as Kelly has sequences in which he looks pretty similar to Pau Gasol, another big with a very well-developed handle. In the first quarter, Kelly ran a pick-and-roll starting on the wing with center Travis Hyman, nailed him with a pass as he rolled to the rim and the defenders committed to the ballhandler, and watched as he got an easy finish at the rim. As we saw last season, 4-5 pick-and-rolls can definitely work in this offense with Horns as a basis, and between Kelly's ballhandling and shooting, he might be a better option in this play than Pau himself. This is in part due to Kelly's greater willingness and comfort to go up for midrange jumpers whenever he happens to be open, something that Pau, famed post maven, still hasn't adapted that well to.
And in that regard, Kelly is never going to remind anyone of Pau, as his post game after three D-League games remains rather mechanical and slow-developing. His footwork isn't sudden or well-coordinated, which seems odd when one thinks of the level of his ballhandling, but some guys just don't have a natural post game. His best sequences were when he was using his jumper to either fadeaway in the post or face-up. To his credit, Kelly still kept the rest of the floor in perspective with his back to the basket; he had a couple of Pau-esque passes from the block to passing cutters that were well-timed for someone who has only had a handful of games and practices with these players.
On the other end of the floor, Kelly has steadily improved, although his overall performance still leaves something to be desired. He's not making an impact on the boards, mustering a rather pitiful 9.6 rebound rate in three games. To be fair, he is being frequently dragged away from the rim by bigs who stretch the floor, but even when he's down there, he's not really nabbing as many boards as he should. Other than this, his rotations are coming along and against Bakersfield, Kelly's talent for taking charges was something that began to show through more and more. We have to remember that when it comes down to it, Kelly is a rookie who needs time to adapt to the speed of the game and his responsibilities; Duke ended up missing Kelly in his senior year not for his offense but for his defense.
After all of this, one is left with a rather favorable impression of Kelly as a player. He's clearly a guy that needs other dynamic players to work off, but as a complementary option, he brings a lot to the table. His ballhandling and good court sense allows him to set the table for his solid outside shot and while his lack of athleticism puts a clear ceiling on the heights he can reach as a player, he definitely has a future in this system. The defensive issues will be the ones to watch in the future as he develops, as he may ultimately need the right frontcourt counterpart to offset his lackluster rebounding, although he does have a lot of time at the moment to improve.
Lastly, now that Thomas is gone, it probably behooves us to look over the rest of the D-Fenders roster and see whether there is anyone else worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses. The D-Fenders website has a nice set of player profiles for a quick examination and over the course of three games, there are a few names that stood out from the rest for their play:
Pac-12 aficionados might recognize Turner as a big recruit for Arizona back in 2011, as he was the second ranked point guard prospect in the nation coming out of high school. Obviously, things didn't go all that well for him, as he flamed out at Arizona and ended playing up in Canada before going undrafted this past summer. A tall point guard at 6'3'', Turner pairs good size for the position with decent athleticism, as he is capable of rounding picks and using his jets to get to the rim. Where this best manifests, however, is on the defensive end, as Turner has a fair amount of potential here; he played Seth Curry very well in the D-Fenders' matchup on Saturday and his size is a significant advantage against opposing point guards.
Now, we shouldn't get overly crazy here or anything. Turner's production has been modest thus far, and when it comes down to it, potential is just that at this point: potential. The presence of Thomas, Kelly, and Harris has limited the opportunities for him to really feature himself in the offense, although with two of those names absent, he definitely will be afforded those chances in the future. At the very least, we can say that the initial returns have been acceptable and he's a good guy to keep track of.
Eagle-eyed Laker viewers will recognize this name from summer league, when Hyman had a brief spell of relevance as a prodigious shot blocker. The problem is figuring out how Hyman can harness that athleticism and great size for a center into more tangible basketball skill, as it was clear in the summer that he was a very raw product that would need a couple years of patient development. Against the Jam on Sunday, there were some clear signs of progress. Hyman has no range beyond the rim, but he does finish well in that area, sporting some rudimentary hook shots and he moves to the rim rather quickly as a roll man. The aforementioned Kelly/Harris pick-and-roll worked not only because of Kelly's ballhandling and passing, but since Hyman displayed soft hands and a good hook shot off the glass to finish.
Of course, he's still very raw on both ends, especially defense, as simple shot fakes were often sufficient to get him out of position near the rim. Getting five quick fouls in only 17 minutes of action wasn't an accident. On the flip side, getting seven rebounds in that time wasn't either and especially in contrast to Kelly, Hyman had a decent nose for the ball on the defensive side. Overall, there's clearly of work to be done here, but the improvement that Hyman has made since the summer is encouraging. Athletic seven footers don't grow on trees and it's a worthwhile exercise to see what kind of player he ends up growing into.
As for the rest of the team, there's not a whole lot of optimism for anyone else possibly panning out in the future. Josh Magette, the D-Fenders' draft pick this year, might be the exception because of his shooting and ballhandling; his youth works in his favor and he was respectable running the point for the Lakers on Sunday. His so-so athleticism and lack of size for the position are possible red flags, however, and while production on this level usually should be taken with a fair amount of skepticism, Magette doesn't strike one as a future NBA prospect. Those guys tend to distinguish themselves more, although there certainly is time for Magette to show production to the contrary.
Magette is likely going to be the lone exception if one arises in the future, however. Former NBA players Kareem Rush and Jamario Moon have made it fairly clear why they are currently out of the league, and the remainder are a combination of perennial D-League players who have never really gotten to the next level and the occasional oddball prospect. There's a reason even marginal NBA prospects dominate their games here and it's largely a result of the average player who is on a D-League team. There's usually not a lot to wean from the available pool of players after teams from Europe and China offering far more money come calling.
As a result, one might get the impression that the D-League isn't a worthwhile endeavor, but that's far from the case. That talent pool is simply drained, not nonexistent: there's a number of useful players that could probably fit into a rotation somewhere and if anything, the level of competition allows them to distinguish themselves. And of course, as far as the Lakers are concerned, it allows them to get Kelly reps when he isn't part of the established rotation. Between Kelly playing and still a couple of interesting prospects present on the team even considering Thomas' departure, D-Fenders' games are worth your time and hopefully the franchise manages to leverage their affiliate into some more tangible returns in the near future.
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