“I guess I’ll start as I often do with a story,” said Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka at the mid-July press conference in which he introduced the team’s new $18 million shooting guard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “I would venture to guess there’s people in the room that are familiar with the stories in the Book of Genesis, where there was a time when the Israelites were wandering in the desert and all the sudden bread came down from heaven. That’s kind of what today feels like for us to have KCP join.”
Though Pelinka’s biblical reference is slightly inaccurate (the bread descending from the sky example is actually from Exodus 16), Caldwell-Pope’s defense is indeed functioning as the team’s promised, honey-sweet manna through the season’s first quarter. Fittingly, the fifth-year shooting guard’s first points in the purple and gold came on October 22 after Pope stole the ball from New Orleans Pelicans’ guard Darius Miller and took it in for a dunk.
Largely due to the addition of Caldwell-Pope, the Lakers rank eighth in defensive rating this season, holding teams to 102 points per 100 possessions. Just last season, Los Angeles were at the bottom of the league with a defensive rating of 110.6.
Caldwell-Pope himself is experiencing career-highs in almost every major defensive category, including 1.7 steals per game, .4 blocks per game and a defensive rating of 102.2. His defensive rating ranks third on the team, behind Brandon Ingram (101.5) and Julius Randle (100.2). To put that in perspective, Lakers guards D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young had defensive ratings of 113.4 and 112.1 respectively in 2016-2017.
Both Caldwell-Pope (10th) and Ingram (8th) are ranked in the top ten in the league in defensive rating out of players who average at least 33 minutes a game. In Wednesday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors, the duo had a pair of back to back steals in the third quarter to take a 78-74 lead, exemplifying their two-way impact.
Caldwell-Pope notices that there is an open three-point shooter in the corner and is able to make the steal by anticipating Curry’s pass in the play above. It’s plays like this that showcase how his basketball IQ is a difference-maker on defense.
In the Lakers’ November 21st victory against the Chicago Bulls, Kentavious provided a textbook example of how to guard a lob play during the second quarter. As Kris Dunn goes right to the hoop off of a Cristiano Felicio screen, Brook Lopez is forced off of Felicio to help Lonzo Ball cover Dunn. While the pick-and-roll unfolds, Caldwell-Pope keeps his eyes on Dunn while guarding a then red-hot Antonio Blakeney (I know, weird).
With a sense of where his man is and a vision of the point guard, Caldwell-Pope notices Dunn’s intent to pass and is impressively able to slide over and slap the ball away from Felicio:
Though his individual stats remain impressive, Caldwell-Pope’s impact is seen more-clearly when considering the team’s most efficient defensive lineups.
Out of rotations that have played at least 12 minutes (a full quarter’s length) together, Caldwell Pope is in two of the Lakers’ top-three lineups. Under the same criteria, the team’s most efficient defensive lineup of Ball, Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Randle ranks among the twenty highest defensive ratings out of the eligible rotations at 81.7.
In July, when Pelinka went full impromptu-biblical at KCP’s introductory presser a la Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction , the guarantee of pending salvation seemed at-best farfetched. However, through the first stretch of the season, Caldwell-Pope’s defensive presence is looking nothing short of divine.