Timofey Mozgov is everything Roy Hibbert was supposed to be and more. He looks like the new guru of verticality manning the center for the Los Angeles Lakers, staying anchored to the ground while throwing his arms in the air to alter shots and impede driving lanes. Mozgov — a season removed from riding the pine because he simply couldn’t move the way he needed to — looks fluid on both ends of the floor.
Will he be worth the $64 million over four years price tag? That remains to be seen, but his play has taken some of the edge of what was an immediate sting on the dawn of free agency. The Lakers’ biggest need going into summer was at center and the front office immediately addressed it with a player who was once part of the ransom demanded from the Denver Nuggets in return for Carmelo Anthony. So far, so good. He’s looked every bit the part of a starting-caliber center with the purple and gold.
Preseason is a great opportunity to sit back and observe without overthinking the statistics involved. Lineups are wonky, the sample size is tiny and there’s still a long way to go before teams are running at full capacity. Watching Mozgov, it’s clear he’s going to make an impact on the Lakers’ interior defense.
It starts with the simple things, like being able to guard his man straight up in the post. Kosta Koufos does a great job of taking Mozgov off the dribble in the following play, but Timofey is able to recover and used his size to erase the advantage he gave up:
Sure, it’s against a non-elite big man, but it’s hard to imagine that play ending in any way besides Roy on the floor last season. That Timofey looks capable of defending in an isolation situation allows the Lakers’ defense to stay at home instead of needing to help him down low, but that’s not where he’s going to make the biggest difference.
It’s all about help over the top for a Lakers’ backcourt rotation lacking a lockdown defender. D’Angelo Russell is many things, but a good defender he is not. Damian Lillard lit the Lakers up for 30 points in what felt like light work, but Mozgov showed how important he can be in slowing the burn down inside.
Take this possession in transition, where Russell maneuvers around a screen and never gets back in front of his man. Mozgov tracks Lillard before he drives, shuffles his feet while opening his stance and delivers a stifling block:
That’s an impressive defensive play, especially for a player who couldn’t find playing time with the Cleveland Cavaliers because he couldn’t move. That kind of help defense is going to be huge in pick-and-roll coverage, which we happened to get an ample taste of against Portland and Lillard:
The way he shuffles and moves in both sequences is nearly identical and a great sign for the Lakers. Having a big man who can clean up the guards’ messes consistently will be a huge boon for a team that gave up 109.3 points per 100 possessions last season, per NBA.com. It won’t just be Russell dragging behind his man, either. We’ve seen the same kind of thing out of Lou Williams, who’s going to be playing plenty of minutes if preseason is an indication of how Luke Walton will use him:
If you want to enjoy a small sample size tidbit, the Lakers are allowing just 94.6 points per 100 possessions through four preseason games, good for a top-8 defensive rating. The raw number may not be (read: no way it is, who wants to put money on it) sustainable once they face full NBA teams in the regular season, but it confirms the eye-test of a team significantly more engaged on defense thus far.
That defensive engagement should lead to a more efficient offense — something Coach Walton was clear about following the Lakers’ victory over the Denver Nuggets in Ontario. Mozgov put that in action with back-to-back great defensive sequences against Portland that led to easy points for him after hustling up court:
Mozgov defense thoughts incoming shortly. pic.twitter.com/poI9moFYF8— Drew Garrison (@DrewGarrisonSBN) October 13, 2016
Whether Mozgov can consistently move his gigantic 7’1 frame with that kind of fluidity on a nightly basis is the big question for the Lakers. If he can, he could be the driving force that helps their defense climb from the bottom of the league back to a respectable level.