Rather than wins, the Los Angeles Lakers’ focus this season will be on making sure their young players are progressing. This has been stated all summer by a coaching staff and front office that has done everything they can to make sure they aren’t putting undue pressure on their developing roster with their comments to the media.
Another part of their approach has been to acquire capable veterans to not only mentor their young players, but be able to play in their stead at times. Timofey Mozgov and Jose Calderon both enter the team at positions where Los Angeles has young players to develop, but the most significant so-called “security blanket” addition has to be Luol Deng.
The former Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls forward signed with the Lakers on a four-year deal worth a reported $72 million dollars, and despite playing his best minutes at power forward last season, appears poised to begin the year as the Lakers’ starting small forward ahead of second overall pick Brandon Ingram.
Lakers’ head coach Luke Walton told the media last month that he was undecided on whether or not Ingram or Deng would start on the wing, but he confirmed to Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News what most assumed: Ingram will begin the season as a reserve:
Despite praising rookie forward Brandon Ingram for his playmaking and versatility, Walton said “we’re not going to throw him into the starting lineup right away” out of concern how he handles a grueling 82-game schedule.
“You develop the young core by rewarding them when they play well,” Walton said. “If there’s 10 games left in the season and out of the playoffs and there’s some vets that played long minutes all season, maybe you play all your young guys to finish out the season. But when you’re going through the season, you’re not doing anyone any favors just by playing young guys so they can play if they’re not out there playing the right way.”
As Medina notes, former Lakers head coach Byron Scott made similar comments at times last season, but there are a few major differences in the context of the roster that must be noted.
For one, Deng will be one of the Lakers best players this year, making it a different scenario than when a veteran sixth-man like Lou Williams was starting over the Lakers’ last first round pick, D’Angelo Russell.
Russell also appeared more NBA ready than Ingram, who as Walton notes, still appears to need quite a bit of seasoning. Coming off of the bench will allow Ingram to avoid the burden of having to defend opponents’ best wings right off of the bat, while also giving him more opportunities offensively (against less talented players) while not having to share the ball with all three of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle.
Ingram will likely move into the Lakers’ starting lineup at some point, but it makes sense for him to come off of the bench behind Deng for now.