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NBA Draft: Why the Lakers should try to move up in the first round

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With plenty of thought invested into what is available at No. 28, we examine the Lakers’ current needs and try to see if there are other options that might better fit their need in a trade up in the first round.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

This draft process has been a notably more contentious event than in previous years for Los Angeles Lakers fans, Lonzo Ball’s unorthodox game and the wide variety on opinions on it no doubt inflaming those tensions. That we have been inundated with a veritable deluge of reports hinting at the Lakers’ interest in other top prospects has fed the flames, but it seems equally, if not more, likely that this is mostly noise meant to drum up interest around the Lakers’ pick to facilitate a trade should the team find it advisable to move down for whatever reason.

We are thus left with the scenario thought most likely from the moment that Mark Tatum announced that the Lakers would end up with the second pick in the draft for the third year in a row: drafting Ball. We are also, however, left with a clear paradigm for the future of the team, one centered around D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, and Ball as the principal actors in the system Luke Walton is working toward building.

In the past, the Lakers were mainly adding pieces in a vacuum, as the clear goal was to rebuild a cupboard of talent left utterly bare by Dwight Howard’s departure and to simply get the absolute best guy at each opportunity since every position had openings to fill. But after this draft and the presumed pick of Ball, the team has a clear identity that it’s developing, so we can also identify particular needs and tailor our view on the draft process accordingly because a pure best player available (BPA) approach becomes less practical when we have to start dealing with fit as a concern later in the draft. These are a bunch of prospects who aren’t going to get any playing time if you slot them behind two to three other young guys they can’t beat out for rotation minutes (read: every mono-positional power forward).

At any rate, identifying these needs comes easier when we look at Luke’s post-Ball system, which will emphasize heavy transition play even more courtesy of Ball’s superb instincts as a passer and controlling the pace in general; considerable off-ball motion in the halfcourt with two backcourt players who are capable cutters, spot-up shooters, and passers; and a healthy amount of switching on defense with two guards of roughly the same size along with a super long and potentially multi-positional defender in Ingram.

Conceptualizing our needs here probably gets a bit easier if we divide things into offense and defense sides of the ledger, although they’ll intersect a bit.

Offense

On offense, the team can best complement Russell, Ingram, and Ball with three things: (1) shooting, (2) penetration, and (3) a capable pick-and-roll big. As for the first item, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have made obvious that shooting at nearly every position vastly improves your overall offensive chops, as it opens up lanes for your drivers and increases the efficacy of your off-ball movement, among numerous other benefits.

This rings especially true for the Lakers, as Russell has been left wanting for capable spacing around him despite demonstrating solid passing chops in the pick-and-roll, and while Ball will help in this respect, he will be filling the shoes of Nick Young, who was if anything a capable outside shooter. As the razor sharp focus on shooting in my recent back-and-forth with Jerry Khachoyan illustrates, improvement here needs to come from the frontcourt, which offered limited-to-no spacing at all and left Russell oftentimes with lineups that exerted very little gravity.

The shooting woes dovetail nicely with the need for a good pick-and-roll partner, as an alternative way of creating gravity is having a roll man who sucks in the defense since he must be accounted for when on his way to the basket with a head of steam. In this respect, we can be more sanguine about internal improvement, as Ivica Zubac showed great chops for a 19-year-old. What we didn’t have here, however, was a good pick-and-pop big man, Zubac again being one of the better options here, and this compounded Russell’s issues (this will be a pattern) by making the Lakers’ pick-and-roll sets more predictable.

The focus in Russell in the pick-and-roll also pushes attention onto the team’s inability to find someone who could push him off-ball, ease his creation burden, and, going to our third need, offer some penetration going to the basket as a scoring threat who could set up other players. This particular need is perhaps accentuated with Ball in the mix, as he doesn’t project as an effective slasher whether in isolation or otherwise, and the backcourt is usually where most teams look toward for when considering how they generate offense going toward the basket.

Ingram’s development in this respect in the latter part of this past season was quite encouraging, as if he can be an effective slasher at the three or the four, he alleviates the need for Russell or Ball to be consistent threats driving to the basket (although both are good cutters and Russell probably has some driving chops that can still be uncorked with better spacing and a good pick-and-roll partner). Outside of Ingram progressing, the Lakers’ best option is likely Julius Randle, who is nominally a good fit with Russell and Ball in that he showed real playmaking ability last season, especially when paired with his legitimate first step.

The problem with projecting Randle as a long-term piece moving forward is that he either needs to figure out how to shoot or develop enough defensive discipline to be a worthwhile defender in Luke’s switching scheme. To be fair to him, a lot of the caveats we give to Russell should be extended to Randle, who was at his best when he could drive and dish to shooters on a spaced floor last season, but next season is definitely a make-or-break year for him. It’s not completely outlandish that he develops enough next year to stick as part of the core but this will require a skill jump that might not be forthcoming.

Defense

The skill jump on defense for Randle also might be an even bigger problem than the shooting, as rewiring what amounts to essential basketball instincts is significantly tougher than just adjusting shooting mechanics. And this is unfortunate since the Russell, Ball, and Ingram trio would benefit tremendously from a big who can switch onto smalls at will and have the speed to recover back to help out on rotations. Randle certainly has the foot speed here but not only did his effort here wax and wane, he’s probably not the high level defender LA needs in the interior to maximize their defense.

Mind you, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Randle is out if he’s not a top shelf guy here, as moderate development here could still make him quite useful, but rather that this three-man core has fairly clear defensive needs on the wing and in the frontcourt that he ultimately might not address. Ingram for his part doesn’t project as a lock-down guy on the wing, offering more as a disruptive help defender who can make an impact with his length, and if his long-term future is at the four, there will especially be a big need for a solid wing defender next to him.

This is especially the case since Russell and Ball aren’t great shakes here, although concerns about them as outright sieves seems a bit overblown. Russell was below average last season but for what truly lazy defense paired with awful instincts looked like, we had Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson as helpful foils. Ball’s foibles against the point of attack checking opposing point guards have been widely discussed, but his length should play well on the wing and he doesn’t have bad instincts here (indeed, quite to the contrary: when sufficiently engaged and not dying on screens, Ball showed some surprisingly good chops).

The larger point to make here is that you need a fairly good perimeter defender to slot in here to take the pressure off Russell and Ball and to combo with Ingram in providing disruption in help situations. A wing defender who can check several positions and switch onto smalls and bigs would be most ideal. As is plain, that guy currently doesn’t exist on the roster at all, or at least, might not until 2018 (help us Paul George, you’re our only hope), so this certainly ranks up there as a top long-term need this core will require.

The other big defensive need is in the frontcourt as alluded to above with respect to a switching big, but the other type of guy who can help out is a rim protector who can erase mistakes on the back end. This guy doesn’t have to provide switching defense necessarily (so drop back defense on the pick-and-roll is fine, albeit this has to be competent) but be capable of acting as an obstacle if drivers are funneled to him. About the only current guy who helps out here is Zubac, who also needs loads of work to improve his instincts here, but he’s at the very least huge and a capable shot blocker so the tools are there.

You ultimately probably require both a switching defender and a rim protector, partly since they are so rarely tied together in one package and also because every now and then you need to defend a somewhat more traditionally sized matchup. So that leaves us with three particular needs defensively with this core: (1) wing defense, (2) a big capable of switching onto smalls, and (3) rim protection.

How do the options available with the Houston pick address these needs?

The good news is that several of the choices likely to be available at No. 28 address several of these needs. D.J. Wilson was my option of choice in the aforementioned back-and-forth with Jerry, as he’s an exceptionally rare case of a guy who could possibly offer rim protection, switching defense, and frontcourt shooting in one package, thus tackling a host of needs all at once. However, with Jonathan Jeanne dropping off most boards and someone from the giant center blob in the mid-to-late first likely dropping, it would be surprising to see him available at #28.

Jordan Bell is probably the best option overall insofar as addressing the team’s defensive needs, being exceptionally quick for his size while still providing rim protection. He’ll have to drill down his discipline on this end in the pros (as he wasn’t super great at defending on switches in college despite his speed but he has all the tools in the world to do so with) but the upside is considerable if he manages to do so, as he’s an ideal defender for the modern NBA. Offensively, he’s significantly more limited but he has good chops as a passer in the short roll and flashes some midrange skill, so he’d be useful in the pick-and-roll with the Lakers’ primary guard pair.

Addressing the wing defense issue is much tougher since practically every wing with a pulse defensively is going to get snapped up by a team in the mid-first that doesn’t want to take one of the center blob. Sindarius Thornwell might be the best of the remaining bunch here, and to be fair, there is a lot to like between his strength and wingspan allowing him to check both wing spots and even move up to the four in some lineups as he did at South Carolina.

Thornwell, however, needs a little projection to work offensively since we have to figure out how much of his awesome senior year production is real. The main thing is determining if he can shoot since that allows him to set up his drive game and otherwise be useful with or without the ball; he probably doesn’t have enough chops to fill the Lakers’ penetration need but a good enough outside shot will let him bring his strength to bear in attacking closeouts and such.

A consistent theme here with all of these guys is that they address multiple needs or a single need exceptionally well. Compare say Semi Ojeleye, who’s a dismal defender, an inconsistent penetrator since he doesn’t have the vision or handle to perform well there, and brings one primary strength to the table in the form of his shooting. And to be fair, that shooting tool was pretty good at SMU, but unless you’re banking on him to use his admittedly great physical tools to figure out how to play defense, he probably doesn’t help as much as the aforementioned options because the shooting probably isn’t enough to outweigh the rest of his foibles.

Of the field here, however, we’re not getting a lot of penetration, wing defense, and to a lesser degree, frontcourt shooting (depending on how sanguine you are on Wilson being there in the late first). On the flip side, the highest possibility seems to be that the team finds someone to be a switching defender in the frontcourt in Wilson, Bell, or someone else like Bam Adebayo or Jonah Bolden (who increasingly intrigues if Wilson isn’t there, although you wonder whether he’s actually on LA’s radar).

The penetration problem is particularly irksome since there actually are options in this range to rectify that in Jawun Evans and Derrick White, but both of these guys don’t make sense from a rotation perspective unless you trade Clarkson. And this brings us to another point in that redefining the Lakers as being built around the Russell, Ball, and Ingram trio makes by corollary every other option on the team expendable if they don’t fit into how this core projects to look in the long-term.

Randle and Zubac were the most frequently mentioned names when reviewing the needs above, so they probably have the strongest argument to stick around assuming skill progression from both of them. Larry Nance Jr. is also in the mix because his defense eclipses any current player on the team, but he’s not an ideal switching defender and that his development was largely stagnant last season was an under-the-radar storyline.

The biggest trade candidate, however, has to be Clarkson, whose game didn’t only stagnate last season, it outright regressed. And the fact is he stands in the way of several 2018 free agent dreams due to his contract, pushes a number of useful guard options like Evans and White off the board, and is a terrible fit for an idealized motion offense with Russell and Ball as a ball-sticking guard who doesn’t shoot efficiently nor pass effectively.

Should the Lakers trade up in the first round?

These four guys, along with extraneous pieces like Tarik Black (who’s actually kind of a fun trade candidate since the date for his salary to be guaranteed is before free agency kicks off, so he’s essentially free money for another team), should thus probably be available as chips for the Lakers to secure assets that make more sense with the current core. We can quibble on what kind of package we should be getting in return, as one for Randle or Zubac probably should be richer than one with Clarkson or Nance, but suffice it to say that if you think another asset can better maximize the main core, you should be willing to move any or all of these five.

To that end, there are a few options in the late lottery to the mid-first that make a lot of sense for filling the Lakers’ needs. OG Anunoby is probably the best wing defender in the entire draft depending on how what you think of Jonathan Isaac, and he has been falling as of late in recent mocks, whether due to injury worries (he will essentially have to rehab for most of the 2017-18 season and if he gets on the court, will be likely in the G-League on assignment) or concerns about his offensive game.

A lot of Anunoby’s on-court weaknesses get mollified, however, in that he’ll almost never have to create with Russell, Ball, and Ingram being capable of handling the ball, and the main thing he’ll have to do to create offensive utility is figure out how to shoot. And on the other end, he can cover nearly every position, taking a huge lift off Russell and Ball’s shoulders in checking primary creators, and he creates a fascinating pairing with Ingram on defense with two super long interchangeable forwards (7’2’’ wingspan for Anunoby, 7’3’’ for Ingram) who can create chaos on and off ball.

How much you have to give up for Anunoby is a fair question since it really depends on how you view his stock. If he’s an early 20’s pick as Draft Express would imply, then a package based around Clarkson, Nance, and Black probably could get some mileage in that range, but if he’s going to go in the early lottery, then you might have to throw in Randle or Zubac to interest a team there.

Past Anunoby, the remainder of the wing options are less appetizing for a variety of reasons, whether Jackson (you wonder if the shooting increase is real, so-so athlete who might not have the bulk to check threes), Mitchell (would be significantly more interesting if the Lakers’ primary core didn’t include two guards), or Kennard (again, a pure two who’s weak defensively, as fun as he would be offensively on this squad). We mentioned the team’s probable lack of interest in the center blob, as very few of them fit the team’s needs save with one glaring exception.

Zach Collins benefited a ton from the NCAA tournament in bettering his stock, and he’s a fascinating fit with this core as a mobile, sweet shooting big who can also defend the rim while not being incapable on the perimeter. Collins’ ceiling does involve a fair bit more projection than most because he came off the bench for Gonzaga and had a relatively smaller role on a deep team, but he absolutely makes sense as both a pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll partner for Russell (and likely Ball as his career progresses), as well as an interior defender who might be able to play next to Zubac in the same frontcourt lineup in a pinch due to his mobility.

Whereas Anunoby’s stock might be falling, however, Collins’ is, if anything, increasing. Getting into the late lottery is usually a hard sell and he would probably require most of the Lakers’ assets outside of their primary group to interest a team in that range. Depending on how you view Randle or Zubac, this is a little rich, as they could offer a lot of the same strengths assuming they pan out. And if the Lakers could get up this high in the draft in the first place, they could also possibly have a shot at someone like Isaac depending on how the top group shakes out.

But altogether, this appears to be a unique opportunity to cash in some of the Lakers’ assets and rejigger the roster to better match their new core before it’s actually played a game together. The Lakers’ young players are all on rookie contracts save for Clarkson, although he’s fairly cheap, and trades can likely be constructed with any partner the Lakers find from the late lottery to the late first.

Looking long-term, a top shelf wing defender and a mobile big who can cut it on defense while providing shooting chops are probably the toughest assets to find that the Lakers will ultimately need to complement this core, so a bit of introspection with respect to whether keeping their powder dry is certainly worthwhile. At least as far as Anunoby and Collins go, taking a shot on Anunoby seems eminently reasonable if it won’t cost a ton to nab him since the fit with this group would be very, very good.

And that’s the biggest advantage of moving up since you can zero in on prospects that are superb fits for the current core rather than hoping for your guy to fall to No. 28, although as has been extensively discussed at this point, the options there do fill certain, albeit much more specific and overall lower on the totem pole, needs. How this cost-benefit analysis works out at the draft with a new regime that might be more willing to wheel and deal than the previous one will be fascinating to watch.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.