LOS ANGELES -- With roster cuts looming any day now amid a competitive training camp and preseason, it would be easy to understand if the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room was a dour place to visit, full of players not knowing if they would have a job tomorrow or come into work to see their friend's locker empty.
But the chemistry and good vibes surrounding this year's Lakers outfit were evident after a fun, back and forth game against the Portland Trail Blazers that ended with Ryan Kelly's game winning dunk. Early in the game it was Roy Hibbert rounding up the roster. The Lakers largest offseason addition, both figuratively and literally, has truly taken to his role as one of the team's leaders.
"He just stays on [the younger players]," Lakers head coach Byron Scott said of Hibbert. "He keeps talking to them, he's very positive with all of our big guys, very energetic in practice. Just a good leader, a good role model. He comes to work every day, and that's what you want to see in your veteran guys."
Whether it was in the first quarter when he pulled together the rest of the starting lineup to give defensive instructions during an official review or later on the bench when he was in the ear of Larry Nance, Jr to offer tips, Hibbert has fully embraced his role as one of the team's veteran mentors.
Hibbert has also been instrumental in the team's off-court team building efforts. From organizing trips to go paintballing, to something as simple as palling around with rookie swingman Anthony Brown in the locker room before the game, Hibbert seems to relish trying to build the type of familial atmosphere the Lakers have been sorely lacking in recent years and was certainly absent as the Indiana Pacers all but kicked him on his way out the door. But it's not just Hibbert leading the team and helping grow the Lakers' next generation.
"It seems like all of our different guys, Brandon Bass is talking to our bigs, Lou is talking to our guards, Metta is talking to our small forwards and power forwards, so everybody has kind of jumped in and got a hand in," said Scott. "It's not just one guy trying to take over that role, it's a little bit of everybody and most of them seem to be our veterans."
The Lakers have a unique mixture of young players the team is hoping to develop and veterans to aid in that process. Caught somewhere in the middle of those two worlds is 32-year-old first-year point guard Marcelo Huertas, simultaneously a rookie and a vet, coming off the bench to facilitate and stabilize. While it may be Huertas' first crack at the NBA, the Brazilian import is far from green.
"He's one of those guys that's a veteran, even though he's a rookie here, he's a veteran. He understands big games," said Scott, pointing out something that is obvious to anyone watching Huertas' last two games. The diminutive guard is the best type of control freak, gesturing to, instructing, and encouraging his young teammates nearly non-stop during his time on the floor. Huertas also has demonstrated far more care for the ball than a typical rookie point guard, having only turned the ball over 7.2 percent of the time while assisting on 50.2 percent of the team's baskets while on the floor. For comparison, the next closest in assist percentage is Huertas' fellow rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell, who has assisted on 30.7 percent of the team's points while turning over the ball 11.3 percent of the time.
"He's a clever little dude," Russell said of Huertas, "He's been playing for a while, he likes to pass just as much as I like to pass, and just watching him play you see guys really respect how much fun it is being on the court with him." If their shared love of the assist can bond the two rookies, that will only help with Russell's development as his rookie year continues.
Huertas' pass-first mentality can also mitigate the potentially thorny issue of how many guys the Lakers have that like to shoot. "Shooters love to play with guys who pass," said Scott. "He's obviously strictly a throwback type of point guard where he's thinking about setting up his teammates and getting them the ball before he ever thinks about scoring."
And even more than just someone to distribute the ball, Huertas offers an intangible leadership quality to the bench. "He's the leader of that second unit it seems like so far," said Scott. "He's taken full command of the offense and everything else."
The Lakers may not win very many games this year, but with veterans like Hibbert and Huertas leading the way, their young players have a strong nucleus in place to teach them the habits they never knew they needed. You may not get a banner for respectability, but it's the first step toward hanging one.