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Lakers Training Camp: Key positional battles to watch

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The Lakers have plenty of talent to sort through during training camp, with a few key roles to watch.

2017 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Please join me in welcoming Christian Rivas to the Silver Screen and Roll community! I’m incredibly excited to introduce the first new member of our staff, and know he’s going to be a great member of the team. Give him a follow on Twitter, then read on for some serious training camp hype!

There is a ton of excitement surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers and their revamped roster as the team gets ready for training camp. Momentum has roared on coming fresh off of a Las Vegas Summer League championship run led by No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball and summer league finals MVP Kyle Kuzma. Not only did they add a plethora of young talent through the draft yet again, but they made a handful of moves during the offseason that could result in the Lakers winning more than 30 games for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

Earlier this week, the Lakers capped off their summer by signing Andrew Bogut, who reportedly turned down offers from legitimate title contenders like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers to don the purple and gold. However, with more than half of the Lakers’ training camp roster made up of players that can play the five, Bogut will have to battle for a spot regardless of his impressive resume, which includes a championship with the Golden State Warriors just two years ago.

Bogut is just one of the several players that will have to fight for playing time this year. Here are three position battles to keep an eye on as training camps gets underway:

Kyle Kuzma vs. Larry Nance Jr.

Whether it’s pure luck or a stroke of genius by the scouting department, the Lakers have picked extremely well late in the draft, and Kyle Kuzma and Larry Nance Jr. are prime examples of that. Both drafted with the No. 27 pick, Kuzma and Nance have shown enough early in their careers to warrant some hype leading up to the Lakers’ preseason opener against the Timberwolves on Sept. 30. Unfortunately for them, they both play the same position and will have to fight for minutes all season long.

From day one Nance will have the edge with two full NBA seasons under his belt, but Kuzma won’t be far behind him. While Nance is the better athlete and rim protector at this point in his career, he has yet to add a reliable jumpshot to his arsenal, something Kuzma had no problem showing off during summer league.

Kuzma averaged 21.9 points per game on 51.4 percent shooting from the field while also contributing 6.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists through seven games. In the Summer League championship game, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Lakers to a 110-98 victory over the Portland Trailblazers and give the Lakers their first Las Vegas Summer League championship in franchise history. Not too bad for the No. 27 pick in the draft.

If Kuzma continues to impress as the season goes on, minutes at the power forward position will be sparse, but that’s something head coach Luke Walton sees as a positive for his team.

“Absolutely. Great competition here between Julius and Larry and Kuzma, who can play some four too and is probably the best three-point shooter out of the three of them,” Walton said in an interview with ESPN LA earlier this week. “There's decisions that are going to have to be made, but it's exciting because it's good players competing against each other.”

With the league going small, it’s not hard to imagine Walton experimenting with lineups where Kuzma and Nance are on the floor together. In fact, it should be expected. But if Nance fails to show some semblance of a consistent jumper in the preseason, he could start seeing his minutes leaking away to the rookie.

Andrew Bogut vs Ivica Zubac

The year is 2017 and we’re still talking about traditional, back to the basket centers in the NBA. Who would have thought? While the rest of the league is getting smaller, the Lakers are getting bigger, with four legitimate 7-footers on their roster (not including Brandon Ingram who is allegedly pushing up the height chart as well).

One of those seven-footers is Brook Lopez, who the Lakers acquired in the trade that sent D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets earlier this summer. Lopez, if healthy, should be the Lakers’ starting center on opening night. After discovering that shots from behind the arc are worth more than the ones in the paint, Lopez averaged 20-plus points per game through at least 70 games for just the third time in his career.

That means Andrew Bogut, Stephen Zimmerman and Ivica Zubac will be battling to backup Lopez. However, there’s reason to believe the Lakers are going to use their last two-way contract spot on Zimmerman, whose partially guaranteed $50,000 contract can be converted into a two-way contract. That leaves Bogut and Zubac, two traditional centers that, unlike Kuzma and Nance, are very much married to their positions, making this arguably the most interesting battle to watch during training camp.

Zubac made a name for himself last year during summer league, wowing fans and teammates alike with his soft touch around the rim and shot-blocking ability, which earned him the name “Zu-Blocka.” Some of that success carried into the second half of the season after Zubac spent some time with the Lakers’ D-League affiliate, the D-Fenders (now South Bay Lakers). In fact, the No. 32 pick in 2016 started nine of the Lakers’ last 17 games before going down with an ankle injury in March. During that stretch, Zubac put up a career-high 25 points against the Denver Nuggets, where he also added 11 rebounds, giving him his fourth and final double-double of the season, the second-most by any rookie.

*Fun fact: Tyler Ulis, who is just 5-foot-9, led all rookies in double doubles (6).

So why would the Lakers bring in Bogut with Zubac being groomed to play a role in the team’s future? Readiness.

Despite the flashes of excellence Zubac showed sporadically last season, it was evident he needed time. A few months later, that hasn’t changed. If anything, he looks worse than he did when the regular season ended, struggling to re-create the same magic he found in last year’s summer league this year. His digression could be a direct result of playing with Lonzo Ball, who loves pushing the ball in transition.

“I've got to adjust my game, I've got to run more. This whole summer league everyone is playing a lot faster than last year,” Zubac said after a disappointing loss to the Clippers in his return to Sin City.

Bogut, on the other hand, knows all about playing with a crafty point guard that likes pushing the pace. Bogut played alongside Steph Curry for four years in Oakland, even winning a championship with the Warriors in 2015. While he saw his role shrink as the Warriors experimented with smaller lineups, he was an integral part of their championship on both ends of the floor.

Walton, who was part of the Warriors’ coaching staff during their championship run in 2015, was the “chief recruiter” when it came to landing Bogut, who reportedly turned down offers from contenders:

Depending on how Bogut recovers from fracturing his tibia in his debut with the Cavs in June, he could be a big help for the Lakers’ bench, but Bogut will be 33 in November and has a contract that expires at the end of the season. With a season of NBA basketball under his belt, it will be interesting to see how Zubac responds to the pressure of the Lakers bringing in Bogut.

Tyler Ennis vs Josh Hart

This time last year, the Lakers went into training camp with six guards on guaranteed or partially guaranteed contracts: Lou Williams, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Nick Young, Jose Calderon and Marcelo Huertas. Of those guards, Clarkson is the only one suiting up for the Lake Show this season, unless you count Marcelo Huertas, who is suiting with the team in spirit now and forever (I do).

Clarkson will be entering the second year of a four-year, $50 million contract he signed last summer and will likely be the first guard off the bench this season behind Lonzo Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The second guard off the bench? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Lakers have a handful of guards on their 20-man training camp roster, but with Bogut likely to make the team, guys like Vander Blue and Briante Weber are essentially auditioning for a two-way contract with another team.

Aside from Clarkson, Ball and KCP, the Lakers only have two guards on guaranteed contracts; Josh Hart and Tyler Ennis. While very close in age, Hart and Ennis took two very different paths to the NBA.

Lakers fans are already pretty familiar with Ennis, who was acquired at the deadline last season. The 23-year-old guard out of Syracuse University was solid in his 22 games with the Lakers, earning himself a one-year contract this summer to stay in Los Angeles. His best stretch of games came in April, when he averaged 11.3 points, 3.6 assists and 1.3 rebounds in 27.7 minutes. Should he put up similar numbers in a smaller role, he should have no problem cracking the rotation. That is unless rookie Josh Hart is as NBA-ready as he looked during his senior year at Villanova.

Hart was drafted with the No. 30 pick in the draft and was immediately received with open arms by Lakers fans because of the name he made for himself in college. During his four years at Villanova, Hart racked up more than a handful of accolades, including a national title in 2016, the Julius Erving Award, given to college basketball’s best small forward, Big East Player of the Year, Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year and was named one of the four finalists for the Naismith Player of the Year Award in 2017. And that was just his senior year.

Unfortunately, Hart’s already at a disadvantage going into training camp. He missed crucial playing time in summer league because of a nagging ankle injury and his first game in over six months is going to be against a team looking to compete for a title. Regardless of how good he was in college, that’s not an easy transition to make. But if Hart comes back showing the same intensity he played with his senior year, Luke Walton will have no problem finding time for the rookie.

***

This year’s training camp promises to be exciting. Fans will get their first look at the new and improved starting lineup, featuring a ripped Julius Randle, a stronger Brandon Ingram with a tweaked shot form, a passing wizard in Lonzo Ball and two talented two-way players with all the financial motivation they need before hitting the open market next summer.

The Lakes tip-off against the Timberwolves at 7 p.m. PST on Saturday, Sept. 30.