The Los Angeles Lakers acquired two rookie point guards in the 2015 offseason, but people who do not follow the team closely would be forgiven for being unaware of the less heralded one. Second overall pick D'Angelo Russell has (justifiably) received most of the spotlight among the Lakers' two first-year lead guards, but Marcelo Huertas has begun to acquire some accolades of his own in recent days.
Huertas is not a typical rookie. In fact, the scraggly haired Brazillian import who played the prior eleven years of his career overseas does not look like your typical NBA player at all, but he has proven to be one in the last few weeks. Huertas has averaged 9.4 points, 6 assists, and 52.8 percent shooting from the field in the team's previous five games since entering the rotation for injured guard Lou Williams. Those aren't huge numbers, but the 32-year-old rookie's impact on the team and their new offensive principles can't be measured by statistics alone.
"He just does a good job of organizing everybody, getting them to relax," Lakers head coach Byron Scott said of Huertas after the Lakers' Tuesday victory over the Orlando Magic. "Getting them in the right spots, the right places. He has a very good feel for who needs a shot, or who's rolling, who's knocking down shots. So it's just an easier flow when he's out there."
Huertas used that flow to score a career-high 13 points in the Lakers' Thursday night loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, getting to the rim with ease as the Cavaliers played him for the pass. Instead of hesitating as he would earlier in the season, Huertas looked unafraid to shoot on this night and was even dropping in herky-jerky floaters with ease (via whipclip)):
Huertas' 11 points in the first half were notable for the previously trigger shy guard, but as always, it was his passing that impressed more. Huertas threw five dimes against the Cavaliers, and most were of the simple variety, rather than the trademark flair that earlier in the year led to turnovers and "Shaqtin a Fool" appearances:
Huertas appears to be "telegraphing" passes less in recent games, and is instead making decisions with the ball much more quickly, making an easy pocket pass rather than aiming for something fancier:
But the flash isn't totally gone from Huertas' game either, it's just quicker now, as demonstrated on this no-look transition feed to Brandon Bass to set up a dunk:
Huertas has been forced onto the floor for the worst defensive team in the league in place of one of its worst defenders in Williams, but considering that context he has been okay on that end.
Huertas tries hard and is fairly fundamentally sound, but in many cases he still lacks the simple lateral quickness or athleticism to actually execute a successful defensive possession. Against Cleveland, however, Huertas was mostly solid, and even put together arguably his best defensive sequence of the season late in the third quarter:
On one possession, Huertas successfully executed a switch onto LeBron James, rotated back to his man when Metta World Peace recovered, navigated another LeBron screen, and then used solid positioning to force Matthew Dellavedova into a contested fallaway. Huertas is never going to lock anyone up individually, but he is not as totally embarrassing of a defender as the social media shared lowlights would indicate.
The NBA's oldest rookie is a walking, dribbling, passing, and (reluctantly) shooting paradox, but his play in the Lakers' recent games has given him a strong case to remain in the rotation even when Williams is healthy.
Despite Williams' better individual numbers, the offense has run better with Huertas at the helm over the Lakers' last five games. The team has scored 104.9 points per 100 possessions with Huertas on the floor over that period, while giving up 108.6. That doesn't sound great, but it's better than Williams' season averages of 99 and 111.5.
Huertas benefits in those metrics by playing less with Kobe Bryant than Williams has, but the Lakers are also 2-3 including a win over the historically good Warriors with Huertas in the rotation. That's not to credit Marcelo for all of that improvement, but the offense has looked better overall in that time, something Scott has noticed.
"He hasn't been in the league but a year," said Scott. "But he has such great basketball knowledge and experience that it helps when he's out there."
Whether or not he'll stay out there is in question, but Huertas' recent play has salvaged what appeared to be a lost rookie season and proved to himself and fans worldwide that he can play in the NBA.
All quotes obtained firsthand. All stats per NBA.com. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.