The Los Angeles Lakers were all about the Lonzo Ball story in training camp but have surprisingly been bereft of Lonzo news ever since he was was sidelined with an ankle injury. In his place, Kyle Kuzma has become a rookie sensation and further complicated what was already a convoluted frontcourt situation as Luke Walton juggles lineups and players thus far in preseason.
In this roundtable, the Silver Screen & Roll staff review their thoughts so far on Lonzo — because no, you can’t escape him, ever — as well as Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, and other figures of note that have emerged over the team’s October preseason campaign in anticipation of their season opener next week.
What do you make of Lonzo Ball's adjustment so far to NBA play?
Christian Rivas: As someone who wasn’t expecting Lonzo Ball to contribute right away, even after his impressive Las Vegas Summer League showing, I’m not too worried about what I’ve seen from him thus far.
All of the concerns scouts had leading up to the draft over his ability to create his own shot in the halfcourt have been mostly validated through the first two preseason games, but considering scoring isn’t his primary skillset anyway, that’s not a huge issue... yet.
That’s not to say he should throw up 15 shots a game, but getting past the 10-point mark at least once would do a lot not only for the team, but for his confidence as well.
Drew Garrison: So far, Lonzo looks like a vulnerable rookie point guard who's going to make a lot of mistakes early in the season. That's exactly what should be expected, though his rise in play during summer league certainly elevated hopes he could deliver immediately. There's no reason to be alarmed or anything like that, but it's alright to admit he may not be ready to make his imprint on the court just yet.
Ben Rosales: Lonzo was somewhat able in summer league to overcome his issues in presenting a credible offensive threat to opposing defenses after rounding the corner in the pick-and-roll, but it’s been a much more uphill battle against real NBA defenses — or as close as we get to them in preseason at any rate. This has been further compounded by much tighter passing lanes for him in the half-court as well as teams actually putting significant effort into getting back defensively.
But these are the struggles we more or less expected from a rookie point guard who unfortunately hasn’t been able to find his rhythm yet due to injury. And to his credit, Lonzo has flashed an interesting floater game that might be the way he pressures defenses just enough to crack open those passing lanes, and he never had an opportunity to play with who should be the Lakers’ best offensive player in Brook Lopez.
So altogether, there isn’t really reason for concern yet, and we’ll need to be well into next season before we make any judgments on how his game is going to translate in the pros proper. All this noted, it would be nice if Lonzo’s outside shot would appear after being absent for most of summer league, as it would enable him to fill an off-ball role that would be beneficial next to the panoply of interesting playmakers (or at least secondary creators) that have reared their heads up in preseason.
Is Kyle Kuzma for real? To what degree should the Lakers push aside rotation regulars to open up playing time for him?
Christian: Is Kyle Kuzma for real? Let’s put it this way:
After Kuzma exploded for 23 points in the Lakers’ loss to the Denver Nuggets on Monday, I ran to my laptop to try and order a Kyle Kuzma player shirsey (yes, I wear shirseys), only to find that such a shirt doesn’t exist yet.
Want a Jeremy Lin player shirt to go with your dreads? They have it. Want a Dwight Howard and Steve Nash iPhone 5 case? Who wouldn’t, for the reasonable price of $11.99 plus shipping and handling! Want a single article of clothing with the name of the NBA’s leading scorer, Kyle Kuzma? Forget about it.
Hopefully the NBA store and stores like it will catch on, like the rest of the league seemingly has, that Kuzma is the realest of deals.
As far as playing time goes, Kuzma has earned every minute of it. If Walton holds true to his often infamous philosophy of rewarding guys that play well, even if it hurts the long-term development of the team, Kuzma should be getting no less than 15 minutes per game this season. I’m not quite ready to say he’s leapfrogged Julius Randle in the rotation, but if I was Larry Nance Jr., I would be worried. Like, really worried.
Drew: There's no reason to believe Kuzma is anything but the real deal at this point. He should be flying up the depth chart, probably inching his way toward being a combo-forward sixth man type early in his Lakers career. There's no reason to put guys like Corey Brewer and Luol Deng ahead of Kuz', and it's going to be interesting to see if he can sustain the level of play we've seen from him thus far.
Ben: Kuzma’s ability to stay remarkably effective despite his outside shot being cold is heck of a positive sign for his prospects in the pros. He simply succeeds through excellent instincts and decision making, diagnosing situations adeptly and with frightening alacrity; his feel in how to slip screens, utilize spin moves in the post, and even create problems for opponents in isolation has been eye-opening and impressive to observe.
He does have to bulk up a bit to compensate for a slight frame but he’s battled defensively, offering a really fascinating pairing with Julius Randle in that respect due to his ability to switch onto smalls as well as battle in the post. Some of the Lakers’ best moments in preseason have come when he’s shared the court with Randle and a more switch-heavy group of guards such as Alex Caruso and Josh Hart join them.
As for how this impacts Kuzma’s playing time, there are precious few arguments to summon to deter Luke away from throwing caution to the wind and trying to minimize other players’ minutes in Kuzma’s favor. Corey Brewer and Luol Deng, even with the notion of raising the latter’s trade value in mind, really shouldn’t play in front of Kuzma, who’s shown some ability to stick at the three, and killing the majority of the traditional backup five minutes with Andrew Bogut and Ivica Zubac creates more time for the smallball Kuzma and Randle grouping.
Should we be concerned about Brandon Ingram's current development curve? What area does he need to improve on the most between now and the regular season?
Christian: When the Lakers drafted Brandon Ingram with the second overall pick, they should have known that he wasn’t going to be ready right away. Key word “should have.” And maybe the front office that drafted him did, but it took new president of basketball operations, Magic Johnson no time to deem Ingram untouchable, despite Ingram having a far inferior rookie season than a certain point guard that has ice in his veins. Now with the lofty expectations set by the front office, Ingram is expected to take a big leap this season. So far, it’s not looking too great for him.
In the Lakers’ preseason opener against the Timberwolves on Sept. 30, Ingram got off to a hot start, going on an 8-0 solo run early in the first quarter. However, after finishing the first quarter with 10 points, Ingram wouldn’t score again that night and it wasn’t for lack of trying.
My biggest problem with Ingram thus far is that when he doesn’t have the ball, he doesn’t influence the game. The playmaking fans saw from him last season is all but gone and the few extra pounds he added this offseason isn’t going to help him grab rebounds. That’s a problem.
With guys like Kyle Kuzma and yes, Luol Deng, playing well, Ingram has everything to lose, including his spot in the first unit. In order to keep that spot, he’s going to have to find ways to effect the games when his shot's not falling, which unfortunately is going to be most of the time this season.
Drew: Concerned wouldn't be the word I use to describe what we've seen from Ingram thus far, perhaps leaning more toward "skeptical." There's all the reason in the world to still be high on the barely-20-year-old's potential, but whether that comes to fruition in a meaningful way this season seems to be in the air. It's not great that Kuzma looks like the most interesting and ready young forward on the team when Ingram's supposed to have taken a step forward in his development.
I don't think we've seen Brandon play enough since the offseason to have specific areas of improvement to point out, especially since the answer here should be "just about everything offensively" based on what he's shown. The Lakers want him to be one of their featured scorers, and so far it's been anything but that in preseason.
Ben: Ingram continues to be pushed off his spots too much, but it’s a bit much to ask a 20-year-old to make that big of a physical jump in only one offseason. And this isn’t really something in Ingram’s control either: he’ll grow into his frame whenever his biology dictates that he will, as impatient as fans are to see him reach a higher level of physical maturity.
But he can’t continue this spree of bad decision making, caused in significant part because he truly believes that he’s a solid isolation scorer who should be able to face his guy up and beat him through craft, first step, and strength. Ingram, however, possesses none of those things, although the latter might generate the middle item in time, and he’s made this worse by refusing to offer much as a playmaker in these situations.
Ingram’s continued difficulty with his outside shot has also imperiled all of the above since his lack of gravity is hamstringing the rest of his game. Without the shot, defenses go under screens and don’t respect his drive game. Without his drive game, Ingram hits a brick wall every time he tries to venture to the rim and won’t be presented with passing lanes for others. Without those passing lanes, he can’t be a playmaker in this offense and create opportunities for others.
The shot will come and go but he also has to turn up the effort defensively in making his length a factor as well as trying to be more of an off ball threat; he’s had moments of particular effectiveness when he gets the ball on the catch, quickly makes the necessary reads, and goes up for his shot. Adding more layers of complexity here is something his game and body just aren’t ready to support yet.
Aside from the above three names, who on the team has stood out to you thus far?
Christian: Minutes at the small forward position weren’t going to be too hard to come by this season, considering their depth at that position was thinner than Brandon Ingram, but even with that in mind, I would have never guessed the type of preseason Corey Brewer is having. Having him on the floor offensively is still the equivalent of playing with four players, but defensively, I like the intensity and effort he’s shown.
I also like what I saw from Josh Hart Wednesday, despite it being a very small sample size. I think he’s going to find his spot in the Lakers’ rotation sooner than later, especially if the Lakers are going full force with this whole “Jordan Clarkson: Sixth Man of the Year” thing. He doesn’t do any one thing particularly well, but he’s sound on both ends of the floor and could emerge as one of there Lakers’ better defensive players.
Truthfully, I just don’t know how much longer I can watch Tyler Ennis play, so a Josh Hart breakout season is exactly what I’m hoping for.
Drew: Tyler Ennis. I don't think he's a big component of the Lakers' future — proven by how slow the Lakers played signing him — but he's had some sharp moments in preseason. LA needs strong play from him as their lone backup point guard, and he's going to need to be solid for the Lakers to not start floundering any time Lonzo's off the court.
Ennis has three years of adjusting to the NBA under his belt now, and if he's going to stick around as a backup guard in the league, he'll have to establish himself as reliable on the Lakers.
Ben: Randle has been a significant bright spot in preseason so far, as even though the results with his outside shot have been mixed and he’s been a little too year-one-bull-in-the-china-shop rather than using last year’s playmaking, he’s shown a lot of life defensively and overall providing an impact with his energy. His dedication to defending the rim has increased notably and between he and Kuzma, they’ve managed to produce some of the few genuinely disruptive defensive sequences in recent memory thanks to their quickness and sharp rotations.
Arriving on the back of his summer league performance, Caruso has also emerged thanks to his decision-making arriving from summer league paired with a ton of energy on defense. While he’s not a guy who’s going to pressure you at the point of attack with reckless abandon — as the guy who was supposed to do that in Briante Weber has failed to make an impact — his rotations, closeouts, rebounding for a guard, and switches onto bigger players have added a good deal of defensive teeth to the prior mentioned Kuzma and Randle pairing. Add a more dependable outside shot to the mix and Caruso could really provide the Lakers with something interesting here.
Lastly, Hart has managed to do some work to distinguish himself after injury cut short his time in summer league. Like Caruso, he’s capable defensively in smaller lineups and has managed to show some shooting touch in offering offensive value. Time will be hard to come by for him until Jordan Clarkson is inevitably shown the door to clear cap space for next summer but he’s certainly made his case for it.