It remains a credit to the Lakers' front office that despite the demands of cold, hard logic and necessity, they have never outwardly succumbed to the desire to tank this season away. As Blake is oft to note nowadays, this Laker team gets up to play every single game and has gotten surprising victories against teams that simply were not prepared for the reality of a 25 win team coming at them with 110% effort. Through all of the criticism he has endured this season, deserved and undeserved, Mike D'Antoni has engendered a sufficient camaraderie and espirit de corps such that a bunch of role players on expiring contracts feels compelled to buy into an inherently unselfish system and subsume the demands of a contract year for the simple joy of playing good basketball. Observe the difference between the Lakers and say the Knicks, who have a healthy superstar, a tangible shot at the playoffs in an incredibly weak conference, and couldn't be bothered to show up when the Lakers thoroughly annihilated them last Tuesday. Whatever your position is on D'Antoni or the Lakers this season, such effort and desire is eminently admirable.
Of course, in the long-term, we might be regretting these wins as the Lakers' position in the lottery has slipped to sixth, where the team only has a small 6.3% chance of getting the first overall pick and 21.5% possibility of being in the top three. The luster of this draft has slipped since the summer in a perhaps inevitable reaction against the enormous hype that had built up, but there is broad consensus that the top four prospects are Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Duke's Jabari Parker, and Dante Exum from Australia. Any one of them would be an enormous boost to the Lakers' rebuilding efforts and join an incredibly elite fraternity of players picked by the Lakers in that range, including Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Magic Johnson.
It still holds that the most ideal scenario for the Lakers is to end up in that range and there's still a lot of time to improve their draft position as well as end up in the top three with a few bounces of the ping pong balls. A one-in-five chance isn't great, but it's not so awful as to kill all hope of the possibility either. Regardless, the perception has arisen in some quarters that being forced out of the top three should lead to the team trading the pick, whether it's for a superstar or multiple picks later in the draft, as if missing on the aforementioned names immediately makes the process not a worthwhile enterprise to entertain. And this is unfortunate because it ignores how fantastic the players right after them on the board are, the prospect that either of those possibilities are highly far-fetched in the first place notwithstanding.
In some order on most boards, the next four prospects are Kentucky's Julius Randle, Arizona's Aaron Gordon, Indiana's Noah Vonleh, and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart. It's a common aphorism to not put too much stock in the tournament games just because the stakes are higher, but the last men standing of these top eight prospects were the fifth and sixth guys on my board in Randle and Gordon and it wouldn't be remiss to assign a huge portion to their respective team's success to them. This doesn't mean that the rest of the top eight are worthy of scorn, as Wiggins was missing Embiid, Smart had a pretty impressive line in a losing effort, and Parker...well, Parker just laid an egg. Vonleh's stock is also mostly frozen until the combine or private workouts give teams a closer look at him. In any case, the fact that Randle and Gordon are peaking at the right time and on a bigger stage only helps them.
This might seem a curious analysis considering what yours truly wrote about Vonleh and Randle a few months ago, but time -- and a lot of very, very aggravating college game watching, given that Kentucky's offense led by the Harrison brothers has been just painful to watch -- does a lot to change opinions. The first aspect is that like current Laker rookie Ryan Kelly, Randle has very advanced ballhandling for a player of his size, which opens up an entire world of possibilities. In the Michigan game last weekend, for instance, Randle ran a 4-1 pick-and-roll at the top of the key with Andrew Harrison screening his man and in true Lamar Odom fashion, took the ball all the way to the rim with ease. Whenever Randle can operate with space, a rare occurrence given how inconsistent Kentucky's guards have been all year, he is incredibly dangerous with the ball in his hands and far too quick and strong to contain most of the time. Add the jumper that most scouts say he can develop and pair it with the flashes of the court vision he demonstrates, most notably in the game against Wichita State, and he's going to be a terror on offense.
A lot of the concerns raised in my piece, however, were about Randle on the defensive end, as a lack of wingspan would make it difficult for him to make an impact on defense. Although this is still moderately true, the biggest caveat that has been thrown into the mix is that Randle has really good short area quickness. He frequently has to switch onto guards due to the inadequacies of Kentucky's perimeter play and does a pretty good job in corralling and staying with them because he can move his feet well. Perhaps he'll never have the plus impact that Vonleh or Embiid can have, but the issues raised against Randle at this point feel overblown, especially considering how good of a defensive rebounder he currently is. In the end, he brings more than enough positives to the table to compensate for his perceived deficiencies on that end.
For the other guy in the mix who was just eliminated from the tournament in a nail-biter against Wisconsin though, defense is where Aaron Gordon will undoubtedly make his mark in the NBA. A freak athlete in every respect, Gordon defies the Blake Griffin comparisons by channeling an awful lot of those hops and quickness into a terrifying defensive presence. Watch him utterly blow up pick-and-rolls left and right, fly in from the weak side to contest shots, or check multiple positions and you have the makings of a potentially spectacular defender. Indeed, a lot of what makes Gordon such an appealing prospect isn't stuff captured by the traditional box score statistics. Look at him handle the ball well on offense, make good passes while on the move, or have an instinctual understanding of spacing -- all the better to time his dunks on people's heads -- and you have the makings of a very interesting NBA player.
Gordon naturally has his limitations, especially on offense, as his shooting and ability to create shots leave a lot to be desired. He'll work just fine within the scope of a well-structured offense because he'll understand his role and execute it well, but at least to start, it will be hard for him to shoulder too much of a burden on that end. By the same token, he's also only 18 years old and for him to display as many positive traits as he does at this point is pretty solid. Should his shooting from range ever catch up, he'll be a tremendous asset because of his two-way value and of course, the whole "be on SportsCenter every night and win multiple dunk contests" thing. The bust factor is understandably more prevalent with Gordon that most of the guys in the top eight because of how much farther behind he is on offense, but the upside is still considerable enough to mollify a lot of those concerns.
As for the last guy in this group, yours truly is not a fan of Marcus Smart, although one can appreciate the arguments in support of him succeeding in the NBA. He has a huge frame for a point guard and strength considerable enough to easily see him abusing opponents on drives and in the post time and time again, along with just enough court vision to maintain good offensive flow. On defense, he boasts prodigious steal and block rates for a guard and even if his on ball defense wanes from time to time, he can potentially be an impact player on this end, a rare statement for a point guard. And then there's all of the anecdotal tales of Smart's competitiveness and leadership, still largely unstained by his incident against Texas Tech, so he undoubtedly has the desire to improve and reach the top of his craft.
Even if he has that desire, however, has he really maximized a lot of his potential? Aside from wanting to help Oklahoma State proceed farther in the tournament, a task that didn't pan out to say the least, Smart returned to school to improve his dismal outside shot and more or less failed. The importance of spacing is perhaps more easily obtainable for Laker fans due to Mike D'Antoni preaching it to a fault and it emphasizes the importance of the context Smart lands in. Give him pick-and-pop bigs who can stretch the floor and open up his driving lanes and opportunities for post-ups? That can work. Unfortunately, the Lakers kind of want to feature a certain superstar guard named Kobe Bryant who posts-ups quite a bit and requires those lanes for his own purposes. This isn't to say that Smart and Kobe can't work together, but it's not a natural fit and would take some tinkering to help things out.
Smart is a sufficiently good prospect that if it comes to it, the Lakers drafting him if he's the best guy on their board is the right call. After all, as we have consistently pointed out, this draft has implications for the Lakers well beyond next season and especially after Kobe's eventual retirement. Should the Lakers see Smart developing into a player that justifies his draft position, then that should be that. This also applies if Mitch Kupchak, Jim Buss, or his scouts see more into anyone after these eight that especially intrigues them. It remains very unlikely that the Lakers drop any further in the lottery, but in that highly unlikely scenario, they could be looking at the likes of Michigan State's Gary Harris, Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein, Creighton's Doug McDermott, or international options such as France's Clint Capela or Croatia's Jusuf Nurkic.
Now, this is where things get dicier with regards to the Lakers holding onto their own draft position. After the top eight, the level of the prospects takes a significant drop and then arguably plateaus down into the late teens. The marginal gain of having a higher pick is easier to outweigh by having multiple picks in that range, so the Lakers could be possibly bargaining with teams such as Phoenix for multiple mid-round picks if their draft boards are different enough for another team to warrant moving up. For instance, is someone like Cauley-Stein, a late lottery pick, worth the opportunity to get both say Nik Stauskas and Montrezl Harrell, both mid first round picks? (Cue Drew swooning at the possibility of satisfying his man crush by getting Stauskas) That's just a hypothetical and would be tough to pull off, but it does open up a new set of possibilities.
Again, this is only in response to an absolute worst case scenario. The ping pong balls would have to go especially poorly for this to be even a consideration for the Lakers. Ultimately, the bottom line is that by staying wherever they end up, the team is going to walk away with a pretty damn good player who very well might be wearing the purple gold for the better part of this decade as a key foundation piece of whatever core the team builds going forward. That's not something that the Lakers should be looking to sacrifice for a player they could get in free agency anyways -- and remember in the case of Love that the notion that the Lakers' offer is the best one is flatly wrong and Minnesota would only be interested if it's in the top three, a place the Lakers would be mad to move out of for anyone but a top five guy -- and moving down absolutely shouldn't be consideration unless they're getting a godfather offer with incredible assets attached to it. This certainly isn't the best case scenario for the team to end up in the sixth spot in the draft unless fortune favors them in the lottery, but we can damn well come out of this whole process very satisfied with the young building block whom we ended up with.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.