It’s been well-covered how bad the Los Angeles Lakers have been at defense the last few years. The team has set new lows for worst-defensive efficiency in franchise history the last two seasons, and while rookies aren’t generally known for their defense, two of the Lakers’ four 2017 NBA Draft picks have said they want to change that in recent days.
Kyle Kuzma went on “The Popcorn Machine” podcast with the wonderful and talented Joey Ramirez of Lakers.com to say that he wants to improve his defense as a rookie, and his fellow first-rounder Josh Hart went on as well to say he wants to make his name on that end as well during his debut campaign.
“I just want to be the best player I can be. Everyone has their own roles. Do I think my role will be to go out there and score 20? No,” Hart said. “I wouldn’t mind it, don’t get me wrong, but I want to find my niche and do that to the best of my ability.
“I want to be a defensive stopper. I want to go against the best players at my position, the best guards and put myself to the test,” Hart continued. “That’s what my goals are for this year: to keep getting better.”
Hart was part of one of the best defenses in the country last season, with his Villanova squad ranking 12th among Division I teams in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
“For me, defense is personal,” Hart said. ‘Obviously it’s tough to stop people one-on-one, but when you have this mindset that you’re going to take this personal and it’s you against the other guy, and there’s one ball and only one person is going to eat.”
“I want that to be me, so that’s something that I definitely think I can help by having that mindset going into this year,” Hart continued. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Rookies generally don’t make a positive impact on their teams due to defense, because NBA defense is hard and many players drafted into the league have never played in systems as intricate as the league features, or gone against players as talented as those in the NBA all while being asked to focus more on defense than they ever have.
Hart knows his defense-first mindset is atypical for a first-year player, but he makes no apologies for it.
“You see there’s a lot of emphasis on scoring and getting up and down,” Hart said. “Obviously I love scoring. I love going in and dropping 20, 25, 30 and talking a little bit of trash. That’s cool, but when you match up against somebody and do it on the offensive end but then you’re able to come back, bunker down and get stops, that’s where games are won. You can score 100 points but if you give up 105 you’re going to lose, so I take pride in the defensive side of the ball.”
The Lakers have needed a few guys to take pride in their defense, and it’s probably a large part of why they drafted Hart and his increasingly coveted “three-and-D” skillset. It may not be something he’s able to take advantage of as a rookie in a crowded Lakers backcourt, but if he continues to battle in practice and shows value on the defensive end he’ll be in the Lakers’ rotation sooner rather than later.
All stats per NBA.com, KenPom.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.