LOS ANGELES- As Luke Walton sauntered past the Los Angeles Lakers’ court on his way into Staples Center hours before a recent loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, he saw something he didn’t like.
Black ball cap slightly askew, Walton had spotted sophomore forward Larry Nance, Jr. and guard Tyler Ennis shooting 3-pointers, and sarcastically yelled at them to stop.
"Neither one of you need to be working on those threes,” Walton said. “Neither one of you'll shoot them [in a game].”
Nance looked over at Walton before yelling something back and launching a few more, and despite his head coach’s jab, he’s been increasingly willing to fire away from deep in real games, too.
The sophomore forward has taken nine of his 23 3-point attempts this season over the Lakers’ last eight games since he pledged to take more, and he’s not the Lakers’ only young power forward to do so.
Julius Randle has also upped his output from 3-point range, attempting 19 triples in the Lakers’ last eight contests, over one third of the 47 3-pointers he’s attempted this year.
"Larry and Julius have been putting in a ton of time on their 3-point shots in practice and they both look good shooting them. So there are certain threes I want them taking when it's in the rhythm of the offense and the ball has been moved from side-to-side,” Walton said. “We've got to know if one of them is going to be able to space the floor to the 3-point line. They want to, they work hard at it and they shoot the ball well in practice but it's got to translate to games"
For most of the year it hadn’t translated. Nance has shot just 26.1 percent on threes this season, while Randle has canned only 27.7 percent of his own. But over the last eight games in which they’ve begun to fire away more often and more confidently, their percentages have ticked upwards, with Randle making 36.8 percent of his threes and Nance knocking down 44.4 percent.
"It feels good. It feels good,” Randle said, repeating himself for emphasis. “I just got to let it go. I practice too much to not shoot it, and it feels good."
Those are admittedly small sample sizes, but they’re notable in how they’ve allowed Randle and Nance to play together. Randle has played more minutes with eight teammates than he has with Nance, and lineups featuring that pairing have been outscored by 5.7 points per 100 possessions on the season.
That rate that is still better than the league-worst -7.7 net rating the Lakers have allowed this season, but it’s hardly the type of results that would lead Walton to have faith he could go small a lot with both of his power forwards.
Since they started ratcheting up their 3-point attempts, however, the Randle-Nance frontcourt has worked. The Lakers have outscored their opponents by 2.9 points per 100 possessions over their last eight games when Nance and Randle share the floor, promising results if they can hold over a larger sample size.
"At the beginning of the season it was just like 'okay, I've got a three, who else is open?’” Nance said. “Now it's like all right, I've got it, where's the shot clock at?”
Walton has said he doesn’t want Randle or Nance taking threes before the ball has been moved around, but after the offense works it’s way through a read or two, he’s fine with his young frontcourt pairing letting it fly.
“It's a good shot for us, because I'm confident in it. Our team is confident, the coaches have given me confidence in it, and I'm ready to let it go,” Nance said.
Even if they can’t play together, Nance or Randle adding a 3-point shot to their game would space the floor more properly for a Lakers roster sorely lacking in outside shooters.
In Randle’s case specifically, an outside shot would make it take at least a split-second for defenders to decide whether or not to allow a shot or close out. For Nance, defenses could no longer play him for the pass with impunity.
If both of them can master it — or at least become league average — the Lakers might have something dangerous on their hands.
“It's definitely a part of our game where we've still got a long way to go, but there's definitely big strides being taken,” Nance said. “I'm just more and more comfortable out there.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per NBA.com. and Basketball-Reference.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.