Preseason is officially underway and with two games under their belt, the Los Angeles Lakers have yet to win a single game, losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday and falling to the Denver Nuggets on Monday.
Despite dropping two games in a row, there have been a number of bright spots, including Tyler Ennis, who head coach Luke Walton praised following the Lakers’ loss to Denver on Monday, and Corey Brewer, who is playing like he’s 10 years younger on the defensive end.
No one has been more impressive than the Lakers’ No. 27 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, Kyle Kuzma, though. Kuzma has averaged 21.0 points per game on 62.1 percent shooting from the field (38.5 percent from 3) through two games. In Monday’s loss to the Nuggets, Kuzma put up a team-high 24 points, including four of the Lakers’ seven made 3-pointers.
Not only has Kuzma been the Lakers’ best rookie, but he’s been the Lakers’ best player, period. While that’s likely to change when Brook Lopez makes his long awaited debut, the fact that we’re talking about the No. 27 pick as a building block for the future is insane — but it’s far from first time.
After missing the postseason in 2014, the Lakers had a draft pick in the top-10 for the first time since 2004, when the team selected Andrew Bynum out of St. Joseph High School. With that pick, the Lakers selected Julius Randle, who fell to them at No. 7 after concerns about his foot arose prior to the draft. Early mock drafts had Randle going as high as No. 2.
The Lakers made a second selection that night, despite trading their own second-round pick in the four-team blockbuster trade that sent Dwight Howard to Los Angeles. In a sneaky good move, the Lakers delivered cash considerations to the Washington Wizards for the No. 46 pick, which they used to select Missouri’s Jordan Clarkson.
While Clarkson’s name doesn’t quite hold the same weight these days, his rookie season was one of the most memorable in recent history. As the No. 46 pick in the draft, Clarkson became the first player in franchise history to be named Western Conference Rookie of the Month. Through 16 games in March, Clarkson averaged a team-high 15.8 points on 45.2 percent shooting, while adding 5.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds.
His strong finish earned him a spot on the 2014-15 All-Rookie First Team, ahead of 16 of the 17 guards taken ahead of him, including top-10 picks Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, Nik Stauskas and Elfrid Payton. With the selection, Clarkson became just the 11th Laker to be named to an All-Rookie First Team, joining names like Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Eddie Jones, Byron Scott, Vlade Divac and Elgin Baylor.
Now two years later, Clarkson is in the second year of a four-year, $50 million contract he signed in the summer of 2016. Whether or not he’s the player fans thought he would be at this stage of his career, his contributions at the NBA level would merit a first-round selection in a re-draft.
Clarkson will head into the season with the pressure of his new boss Magic Johnson pushing him to win Sixth Man of the Year, which isn’t that far fetched for the fourth year guard.
Despite a sluggish start to the preseason, there’s reason to believe Clarkson can take on Magic’s challenge. Of players that came off the bench at least 60 times last season, Clarkson only trailed Sixth Man of the Year candidates Eric Gordon and Lou Williams in points per game (14.4).
Joining Clarkson off the bench this season will be Ivica Zubac and Larry Nance Jr., two players that have also outplayed their late-draft positions. While the latter has been especially disappointing as of late, they have shown enough early on in their careers to be optimistic about their futures with the team.
The value of the Lakers’ homegrown talent can’t be understated. Along with the Lakers’ lottery picks, Zubac, Nance Jr. and Clarkson were part of a team that was only second to the Timberwolves in points per game from players that were drafted by their respective teams last year.
Considering the Wolves had six lottery picks on their roster last year, including a pair of No. 1 picks in Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, that makes sense. After not making an appearance in the postseason since Sam Cassell, Mark Madsen and Fred Hoidberg were still NBA players, I’d hope they have a decent collection of young players.
When lottery picks are taken out of the equation, no one comes close to the Lakers’ trio of late first round picks, who averaged 29.3 points per game off the bench last season. With increased roles and another late first-round pick in Kuzma, that trio should turn into a higher scoring quartet.
Young, productive players on cheap contracts are going to be invaluable for the Lakers; a team planning on chasing two max contracts next season. Combined, Clarkson, Zubac, Nance Jr. and Kuzma will make roughly $18 million through the 2018-19 season, with Clarkson taking up $12.5 million.
Assuming Clarkson isn’t on the team next year, which at this point might be a reality that’s on the way, Nance Jr., Kuzma and Zubac will take up a measly $5.5 million. That’s not including Thomas Bryant and Josh Hart, who could also break into the rotation with promising rookie seasons.
Whether it has been luck, impeccable scouting or a combination of both, the Lakers’ late first round picks are proving to be just as valuable as their high draft picks. Hopefully these individual success stories amount to a much-larger step forward sooner rather than later.