The Los Angeles Lakers are among the many teams still configuring the right combinations to winning games as a new NBA season unfolds. The Lakers, who are 2-3 after their first five games, have shown bright spots along with the expected growing pains of a young team. Coming into this season, they were one of the most buzzed about teams around the league mostly due to their recent draft-day selections.
Lonzo Ball, the highly renowned UCLA point-guard, has been appointed the title of being the new face of the Lakers, and has shown early flashes of the star power the team envisioned in him. Utah’s Kyle Kuzma continues to open eyes around the league with his impressive play as a rookie. After a stellar Summer League performance, he was voted the fifth-biggest steal of the draft by his peers.
Lost in the conversation, though, is Josh Hart, who is quickly becoming a fan and coach favorite on the team. The Villanova senior guard was selected 30th in the 2017 NBA Draft, and seemingly was brought in to help one of the worst defensively-ranked teams in the league. Hart, the co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year, entered the draft with the reputation of being a stifling defender at his position and a leader on the court. In his short time with the team, he has shown the individual defensive ability the team sought out, and has helped spark some of the key defensive stands we’ve seen from the Lakers this season.
It was in the losing portion of the Lakers’ game against the New Orleans Pelicans, where head coach Luke Walton trotted out a small ball lineup, that the defensive potential of the team seemed to be unlocked. That group, consisting of Jordan Clarkson, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Julius Randle, led a furious comeback against the Pelicans by playing with relentless effort on defense. They finished that night with a +/- of 23 (still the best marking for any five-man lineup in the NBA thus far) and were able to do this centrally because of their ability to switch on every screen.
Defensive versatility is something the Lakers haven’t had in recent memory, and the pillars of this are Randle and Hart. They’ve both shown the ability to meet the point of attack of the opposition at the top of the key, and when cross-matched, displayed the potential to hold their own. The duo has helped lead a surprisingly effective defense off the bench in the handful of games they have played.
In the game against the Washington Wizards, Hart exemplified this further when finding himself mismatched in the post against Forward Mike Scott. Scott, who is taller and has more in his back pocket compared to Hart, was unable to budge the latter and was forced to take contested turnarounds.
Hart’s defensive acumen centers on his solid base, which gives him a firm stance that gives him a better chance against bigger opponents. Couple this with his lateral quickness and crafty hands, and he can stick to the opposition's speedy guards as well. Maybe Hart’s most impressive defensive attribute is how seriously he takes it:
“I take defense personally, when somebody scores on me I don’t care if it’s a good move or what. That infuriates me. I don’t like getting scored on, I take that personally,” Hart told media gathered during the Lakers’ preseason game in Ontario back in October.
Hart’s scrappy defensive effort and energy is not only making him a popular player for Lakers’ fans, but also in the eyes of his coaching staff. Coach Luke has been impressed with Hart’s initial play and has already publicly stated he’s “earned more minutes.” The latter notion of earning more reps is especially important for Hart, who missed nearly all of Las Vegas Summer League and preseason with injuries.
The No. 30 pick has been impressively mature and efficient on the court, even while finding his footing with the Lakers and NBA in general. His defense has been a great addition, and he’s even chipping in on offense. Hart has shown a great knack for finishing around the basket, and though he’s yet to test his perimeter game from mid-range to the three-point line out much, is still shooting 70 percent from the field overall.
He also has the ability to give Lakers fans the occasional wow moment, like he did here against the Toronto Raptors:
With a league filled with young players striving to become stars, having a 22 year old who understands the importance of defense and effort matters. Hart, who may never be as big of a name as Ball, or Kuzma, seems to understand his role on this team, and what his niche in the NBA might be. Every team could use a player like that, and the Lakers have seemingly found theirs.
All stats provided by NBA.com