In the weeks leading up to the draft it appeared to be a done deal that the Los Angeles Lakers would select Duke big man Jahlil Okafor to be their center of the future. Had they gone that route LA would find themselves in need of a guard to backup Jordan Clarkson and, perhaps more importantly, a small forward to mercifully replace Wesley Johnson in the starting lineup.
Mitch Kupchak opted to throw everyone (including a saddened Okafor) a curve ball by selecting passing prodigy D'Angelo Russell, figuring that he and Clarkson could be a deadly combination in the Lakers back court for the next decade. One of the fortuitous ripple effects of the Russell pick is that it allows Kobe Bryant to slide to small forward, with Clarkson taking over his duties as the team's starting shooting guard.
While Bryant is an all-time great, his athleticism is clearly starting to slip and he has struggled to keep up with quick guards on the perimeter. A move to small forward kills two birds with one stone in that it mitigates some of his defensive issues while providing the Lakers with the best option they have had at small forward since Metta World Peace went by Ron Artest. Nick Young will also likely see the majority of his minutes come at the small forward spot (assuming he isn't traded this summer), and the Lakers used the 34th pick in the draft on Anthony Brown, who could develop into 3-and-D player.
In other words the Lakers small forward position is looking much stronger than it was before the draft. Now it would appear that Mitch Kupchak will spend most of his time and cap space chasing free agent bigs, with options like DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kevin Love all being targets.
However, small forward is still a position the Lakers should absolutely consider upgrading this offseason. Kobe is preparing to ride off into the sunset, Young's name is becoming a misnomer (he just turned 30) and he isn't exactly Byron Scott's favorite. Anthony Brown, while promising, is still an unknown commodity. Finding a player who would be a long-term fit would be wise, and with that being the case, let's take a look at the top-5 free agent small forwards the Lakers should target.
5. Kawhi Leonard (Restricted)
Obviously he would be first on this list if he wasn't restricted, but he is and San Antonio isn't letting him go. He's young, athletic, and one of the best defenders in the league, all of which would make him a perfect compliment to the Lakers youthful core of Russell, Clarkson, and Julius Randle. Damn restricted free agency. He's so good he had to be on this list, even though the odds of him landing in Los Angeles are roughly one in a million (calling Lloyd Christmas...)
4. Al-Farouq Aminu (Unrestricted)
Al-Farouq Aminu was drafted by the Clippers to be their small forward of the future in 2010, but only spent one season in Los Angeles before he was shipped to New Orleans as part of the infamous Chris Paul deal. After three seasons in New Orleans he found himself on the outs and needing a new contract, so he went the Nick Young route and signed a two-year deal with the Dallas Mavericks for the minimum with a player option after 1 year, hoping that he could increase his value and cash in on a bigger deal this summer.
While statistically he had a so-so year, he does bring one elite-level NBA skill to the table: defense. Aminu is a long, athletic defender who has the ability to check the other team's best wing player on a nightly basis. His length and quickness give him the tools needed to both bother shots at the rim and be a pest on the perimeter, making him in some ways similar to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
The Mavs were able to get back into the series against the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs when they stuck Aminu on James Harden, resulting in a drop in Houston's eFG% from 55 percent to 50 and increasing their turnover percentage from 11.6 percent to 15.6.
However, in the era of 3-and-D wings, Aminu doesn't offer much on the offensive end. Three -point shooting is all the rage right now, but Aminu hasn't shot above 30 percent from downtown since his rookie year. His lack of a jump shot essentially negates all the positives he brings on the defensive end because he creates so many spacing problems offensively.
This clip sums him up perfectly, as he bricks the three but then gets back in transition and makes a phenomenal block on James Harden.
That said, Aminu may be worth the risk for the Lakers. His inability to hit the three will greatly depress his value and allow Kupchak to sign him on a relatively cheap deal, and at 24 he is still young enough to improve his shot. While he will probably never be considered a good shooter, if he can at least get his percentage up to 33 percent or so (not unreasonable) he would be a tremendous asset to have, especially on a team like the Lakers that lacks quality defenders.
3. Luol Deng (Unrestricted)
Deng was brought to Miami to help plug the hole created when LeBron James ditched his aging pals Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to join yet another super-team in the depleted Eastern Conference. A two-time All Star, Deng brings a solid all-around game to the table. While he may not be elite at any particular skill, he is very good essentially everywhere.
Deng is unlikely to pick up his player option for next season, and with the Heat lucking into Justise Winslow in the draft, Pat Riley is going to be less inclined to fight his departure. Deng has the ability to play stingy defense and shoot efficiently from the field while committing a low number of turnovers. He's also a high character player who is an excellent addition to any locker room, but for a young team like the Lakers, Deng's veteran presence may be especially enticing.
Unfortunately his production has slipped a little over the past few seasons, indicating that Deng's prime may be behind him. He also just turned 30, and after playing in Chicago for nine-plus seasons the fear is that coach Tom Thibodeau may have run him into the ground. Thibs is known for putting a lot of minutes on his starters, especially his wings, which is part of the reason why a coach as good as Thibodeau is searching for a new job.
While his age and mileage may not make him the perfect fit for the Lakers, Deng brings more positives to the table than negatives. On a two or three year deal he could make a lot of sense.
2. DeMarre Carroll (Unrestricted)
Some players are what you would call "late-bloomers," guys who just take longer than others to really find their stride athletically. Mitch Kupchak recently said that he believes that Larry Nance Jr., the Lakers surprising 27th pick, is one such player. DeMarre Carroll is another.
Carroll bounced around the league a bit after being drafted by Memphis as a senior out of Missouri. He was good enough to make a roster, but never able to get consistent minutes or sniff a starting role. He lacked a jumper, but his tenacity on the defensive end was an asset that teams like the Utah Jazz would occasionally use off the bench.
However, Carroll's career finally took off when he signed with the Atlanta Hawks. At 27 years old he started to consistently hit the corner three, and that opened up a whole new world for him. In two seasons with Atlanta he started almost every game he played in and averaged 31.7 minutes, by far a career high.
In the first two rounds of the playoffs he hit a timely hot streak, shooting over 50 percent from the field and 43 percent from three. His well-publicized playoff explosion, combined with his reputation as a 3-and-D star, have made him a hot commodity on the free agent market.
Suddenly, the player that could barely crack a rotation could find himself signing a max contract this summer. There are certainly some concerns with inking Carroll, with the most worrisome being that he will regress outside of Atlanta's system. However, he doesn't have Deng's mileage problem because he barely played for a good chunk of his mid-twenties, and has yet to turn 29, so he should have a lot of basketball left in him.
While DeMarre Carroll may not be the big name the Lakers are looking for he could end up being a steal.
1. Tobias Harris (Restricted)
This one may be a bit controversial, but a solid argument can be made that Tobias Harris will end up being one of the best values this summer.
Harris was seen as a player with a lot of potential when he was with Milwaukee, with buzzwords like "wingspan" and "stretch-four" being tossed about. However, while his potential was evident, it wasn't until a trade sent him to Orlando that he truly began to blossom. Given a bigger role on the team, Harris made the Magic the big winners of the trade that sent J.J. Reddick to the Bucks.
Harris has improved in each of his four NBA seasons, capping it off by averaging an impressive 17.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game (including 36 percent from three) last season. He also acted as Orlando's go-to scorer down the stretch, and hit a few game-winners. Like this one:
And this one:
Oh, and then there is this gem from the 2013-2014 season:
Needless to say, Tobias Harris has the ability to create for himself and hit tough shots. He also has the length and foot-speed to track perimeter players defensively and contest shots at the rim. While his defensive instincts aren't great, his physical tools suggest that he can become a real presence on that end of the court. Harris has the potential to become a two-way star, which is a something the Lakers sorely need.
The best part? He hasn't turned 23 yet. It feels like Harris has been around for a while but the reality is that he still has a lot of growing to do as a basketball player. While guys like Carroll and Deng have likely hit their ceilings, Harris hasn't come anywhere close to his yet, but Tobias is as good if not better than both players right now despite being much younger.
To truly put things in perspective regarding Harris' age, he is only three months older than Anthony Brown, who the Lakers just selected in the draft. Harris' youth also means that he, Russell, Clarkson, and Randle, would all ideally hit their primes together, which has to be appealing for Mitch Kupchak. Teams with that kind of young, athletic talent don't come along often.
There are concerns due to Harris' restricted status with Orlando, but the Magic just selected swingman Mario Hezonja in the draft, adding credibility to the rumblings that they won't match a max offer for Tobias.
Speaking of which, Harris' max contract would be less than that of a player like Deng or Carroll due to the number of years he has been in the league. At roughly $16 million, it's conceivable that the Lakers could sign Harris and still have about $7 million left over to bring back Ed Davis or possibly chase a lower-tier center like Robin Lopez.
Harris may not be a name-player like LaMarcus Aldridge or Marc Gasol but the Lakers need to shift their focus from paying players for what they have done in the past and start paying them for what they will do in the future. Even on a max deal, Tobias Harris could be a tremendous value for the Lakers, and he should be one of their main targets this summer.
Follow Trevor Lane on Twitter @16ringsNBA