Most of the roles for the Los Angeles Lakers appeared fairly set in stone heading into training camp. Barring something insane or an injury, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng, Julius Randle, and Timofey Mozgov look locked in as starters.
On the bench, second overall pick Brandon Ingram would seem to be guaranteed most of the backup minutes on the wing, while sophomore forward Larry Nance, Jr. certainly earned the primary backup four role with his pleasantly surprising play last season. Lou Williams’ special brand of efficient gunning should be more than enough to slot him in as the backup two.
All of that leaves camp to figure out the fringes of the roster, as well as the battles for backup center and point guard minutes. The latter is intriguing because of the two different skill sets in play.
The position also looked like it belonged to trade acquisition Jose Calderon when the Lakers acquired him this offseason from the Chicago Bulls. However, followed that move up by (somewhat surprisingly) also re-signed Marcelo Huertas in free agency to give themselves more depth.
Calderon seemed to be the early favorite to seize the role of backing up Russell due to his ability to play both with and without the ball while spacing the floor, but the early word out of training camp points towards Huertas impressing more so far (via Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News):
“With Marcelo, it’s like we’re having another coach out there,” Walton said. “He’s constantly helping the other guys where he should be. He understands how to play basketball. He was getting guys wide open shots the entire practice. He was competing on defense. Mainly the way he was running the team’s offense in the scrimmage was very impressive.”
“It’s his presence on the pick and rolls, the way he plays with the pace of play and how he’s looking for guys,” Lakers third-year guard Jordan Clarkson said. “He goes in the lane and in the air, pulls the big guy over and finds the next man. All of that stuff goes into my game in terms of making everybody better. Playing alongside him has been great. Chemistry has worked out well. He knows my spots where I like to shoot it.”
It’s important to note that these quotes weren’t in direct reference to the battle for backup minutes between Huertas and Calderon, but the high praise for the returning guard is worth noting just the same.
Huertas may not be nearly the sniper Calderon is (just a 26.2 percent three-point shooter last year as compared to 41.4 percent for Calderon), but if the Lakers are looking for playmaking from their backup, he is better in that department.
In his 53 games last season, Huertas assisted on an absurd 32.7 percent of the Lakers’ baskets while he was on the floor, good for the best rate on the team by far (Russell, who has generated so much ”not a true point guard” social media whining, was second at 21.3 percent). Huertas also avoided coughing up the ball, leading the Lakers in assist to turnover ratio at 2.28 assists for every turnover.
Calderon was a bit better at holding on to the ball last season (3.43 assist to turnover ratio), but did so while running less of the New York Knicks’ offense, assisting on 21.3 percent of the team’s buckets while on the floor while using 12.6 percent of their possessions. Huertas used up 16.5 percent of the Lakers’ possessions while on the floor.
Ultimately who wins the backup role will depend on what Luke Walton wants out of his reserve point guard. If he decides he wants to stagger Russell and Clarkson a bit more by putting the ball in Clarkson’s hands with bench units, then Calderon’s shooting would make him a better fit in those lineups.
On the other hand, if Walton decides he wants his backup point guard to come in and take control of the offense in a higher usage role, to be some sort of catalyst for the offense, the initial buzz out of training camp would seem to point towards Huertas seizing those minutes and (maybe) living up to his nickname.