Even though the 2017-18 Los Angeles Lakers were a couple games behind the initial pace of last year’s group (10-10 start, 16-46 finish), this year’s team has already shown signs of significant advancement in some key areas; yet, they still clearly have room to improve over the remainder of the year. All preseason hype and hoopla aside, guys like Brandon Ingram, rookie Kyle Kuzma and Julius Randle have each been impressive in the early going.
The general conversation will inevitably continue to surround the ongoing development of rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, whom contrary to conversations often held by those guilty of box score hunting rather than watching the game, has played relatively well beyond the shooting struggles. This team has a ton of other moving parts and intriguing storylines to continue monitoring though, as listed in the season preview breakdown.
Also detailed in the aforementioned season preview were several questions and challenges for this team:
1. Can Ball actually have the type of impact the organization and his promotional team all-but guaranteed heading in?
The jury is still out in terms of his ultimate impact, but Ball appears to be working through his shooting difficulties and finding other ways to impact the game on most nights. No one did him any favors with all the hype coming into the year, but if Ball is going to be as transcendent as the front office seems to think, he’ll continue finding ways to positively impact the game all while developing a more well-rounded offensive game.
The court vision and leadership qualities (sans the bad optics surrounding a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope/Tyler Ulis shoving match) are completely evident, and Ball is a better defender than most anticipated given his slight build. He uses his length, plays the passing lane and hits the boards well for his position (7.0 RPG). His game, like most young players, remains a work in progress; but he has shown signs of what the organization anticipated as he navigates the muddy waters of rookie life as a point guard in the NBA.
While generally in agreement with those that hate the rookie player comparisons to legends or even Hall of Fame players — generally, because it tends to lead to disappointment and unrealistic immediate expectations — Ball’s numbers through 20 games are eerily similar to those of Jason Kidd; a player with whom Ball was famously compared to around the time of the draft. Like some of you, Coach Kidd may not have been a fan of it, but the numbers don’t lie.
Does this mean Ball will go on to have the type of career arc Kidd wound up enjoying? Of course not. But one could also point out that considering a 20-year-old player just 21 games into his rookie campaign a “bust” is just as foolish as guaranteeing he’ll be great.
2. Can the additions of Brook Lopez and Andrew Bogut help remedy some of the issues this team has historically struggled with on both sides of the ball; and can their presence help with the development of Ivica Zubac and even rookie Thomas Bryant?
Lopez actually put together a nice stretch of games where he scored in double figures in nine of 10 (13.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game overall), was spreading the floor nicely with the threat of the three-point shot (down to 30.1 percent from deep after missing his last 10 attempts) and was at least challenging opponents at the rim with consistency. His playing time has trailed off a bit as he’s struggled over the last four games, but that is also a result of the coaching staff showing more and more faith in playing Randle and Nance Jr. at center in an effort to create matchup difficulties and in order to switch around the perimeter against opposing teams doing the same. Bogut has played sparingly at best, but the hope would still be for him to bestow some of his experiences and knowledge for the game on the younger big men at some point.
For now, Zubac has completely disappeared from the rotation altogether, and rookie Thomas Bryant is averaging 21.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per contest for the G-League’s South Bay Lakers through seven games. It will be interesting to see whether the team decides to give him an opportunity to fight his way into the rotation as a reserve at some point, but it has to be taken as a positive sign that he’s played so well thus far. It will also be interesting to see if his ability to spread the floor (46.2 percent on 5.6 three-point attempts per contest) and agility results in Thomas usurping Zubac in their future plans in the event Zu isn’t able to get it going.
3. Can the team find ways to draw the best from KCP and other guys currently in contract years without stunting the growth of the younger players?
Caldwell-Pope is off to a solid start (14.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.7 steals per game) on both ends of the court, and appears to really embrace the challenge of going head-to-head with the opposing team’s primary wing scorer. He’s also shooting what would be a career-best 35.4 percent from deep on the season.
Randle is another player vying for a major offseason payday, and even though his 22.2 minutes per game are the lowest of his career (aside from the 14 total minutes he technically played as a rookie), he’s been very active and efficient with the action he is getting. To be clear, Randle is getting paid whether it is by another franchise or ultimately by these Lakers. He’s absolutely dedicated himself to being in peak condition and is slowly, but surely getting more comfortable facing the rim and pulling up for the open jumper.
His 12.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and .9 blocks per game have been a major part of a bench mob that is currently fourth in the league in scoring (41.4 points per contest as a unit per hoopsstats.com).
While there has been much speculation about the future of some of these players come February’s trade deadline (with the grand scheme in mind), don’t put it past this front office to at least explore potential deals as of December 15th when teams can consider moving most of the players signed in the offseason. Another batch of players become eligible on January 15, 2018 as individuals that re-signed and received at least a 20 percent raise, or whose extensions carried their respective teams over the salary cap (Early Bird Rights), can then be moved.
4. Is Ingram as “untouchable” as some of us continue to believe?
The short answer? Yes. Obviously, if a team is offering an absolute superstar in his prime, you have to consider any move. But outside of that taking place, Ingram (15.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, .9 steals, .9 blocks) is really starting to show the type of impact the front office was so eager to see following a full summer of honing his skills and adding strength. He may still be as thin as a rail, but Ingram has been in attack-mode for the better part of the season, and is now showing an ability to finish with and through contact from bigger players. He may not be a knockdown three-point shooter just yet, but his stroke looks much smoother, and he’s starting to hit the corner three (33 percent from beyond the arc) with more consistency as defenders are forced to respect his ability to put the ball on the floor.
Perhaps the most positive sign with Ingram is that he’s clearly not done growing, both as an overall player and in actual stature. As he keeps adding strength and continues to evolve as a player, Ingram is a becoming the guy the Lakers anticipated as a potential two-way star.
5. Can Coach Walton and his staff effectively translate their desired ideology into lessons these guys can and are willing to follow?
They started the season ranked in the top-four in defensive efficiency, and even though they’ve slipped over past five games, the Lakers are currently tied with the Utah Jazz for seventh-best defense rating. They’re also third in blocks per game and eighth in block percentage, and 10th in steals per game. On offense, they may be 13th in points per game (106.6) and the team leads the league in points scored in the paint (55.2 per game), but finds themselves in dead last in three-point shooting (as we anticipated) and just 28th in overall offensive efficiency (100 points per 100 possessions).
All of that to say, while they are far from a finished product and we’ll all have to see whether they can maintain some of the more positive numbers, this is a group that plays hard for the staff and appears to be steadily (or, at least, minimally) improving in most categories. Although we heard some initial rumblings about designated roles, it does appear everyone is either embracing it at this stage or are willing to play through any residual frustration for the betterment of the team.
Larry Nance Jr. is easily playing the best basketball of his young career, having earned a starting spot heading into the season, but Kuzma is the guy that really jumps out at you. Perhaps due to relatively low expectations, perhaps due to his immediate ability to step in against NBA-level talent. Kuzma’s offensive arsenal is impressive, simple as that. The coaching staff may be rightfully attempting to encourage the same type of energy and focus on both ends of the floor, but Kuzma’s 16.7 points per game still lead the team and his versatility has come as a welcome surprise.
Like Randle, Jordan Clarkson is also having a strong year (15.4 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists on 49.4 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from deep) in just 22.6 minutes per game off the bench. He’s also been a bit more careful with the ball, and his decision making, as he’s scored in double figures in 18 of the team’s 21 total games.
For everything being made of Ball’s shooting — which, for the record, is a legitimate cause for concern and will obviously be reworked — he leads all rookies in assists (7.2 per game), is third in steals (1.4), fourth in rebounds and is seventh in blocks (.8). All of this, and he would probably admit he still has a ton of room for improvement across the board as he grows into his role at this level.
Even though the coaching staff has done a good job of getting these guys prepared to go out and play on a nightly basis, there have been some questionable rotations and decisions when it comes to divvying up playing time.
Tinkering with things in the early going is understandable, but it would be nice to see guys really establish themselves in roles. It would also be nice to see this team do a better job at taking care of the ball as the Lakers rank 29th in turnovers per game (17.2), and 27th in turnovers per offensive play (14.7 percent). This will happen with a young team that pushes tempo at times, but that’s an area that you’d like to at least see them somewhere towards the middle of the pack when all is said and done.
You don’t, necessarily, have to be the best shooting team in the league, but you certainly cannot accept being the worst, and these Lakers shoot a collective league-worst 31.6 percent from deep.
We knew this would be an area of concern after parting ways with three of their better shooters last offseason, but they’ll need to find a way to get cleaner looks moving forward. You also can’t be satisfied with being 30th in the league in free-throw shooting. Whether it is a confidence thing or another part of finding his stroke, Ball can’t afford to be the team’s worst free-throw shooter (47 percent).
He shot 67.3 percent from the charity stripe in his lone season at UCLA, and while the three-point line may be more difficult at this level, the free-throw line remains just 15’ away at all levels.
Main Goal(s) for the next quarter of the season?
In a nutshell? Simply endure. Not that the first quarter of the season was any sort of cakewalk, but the next stretch includes trips to Denver, Golden State, Houston (twice) as well as Cleveland, and multiple games with the Warriors, Timberwolves and Thunder, to name a few. Although it would be a bit of a surprise to see them struggle the way last year’s team followed the 10-10 start, it will be important to keep everyone on the same page and the overall morale as high as possible if they happen to hit a skid and drop something like 10-11 of 15.
It will be vital for the staff to help these players either build upon the success they’ve already enjoyed or work themselves through the issues currently plaguing their games. The trade scenarios and rumors will take care of themselves down the line, but for now patience (bad word, we know), individual and collective growth have to be the focus.