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How can Kentavious Caldwell-Pope get back to the player he was last year?

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been unexpectedly bad for the Lakers during their first eight games. Here is a look at how he can regain his form from last season.

Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is not having the best start to the season, to put things politely. To put things more bluntly, Caldwell-Pope has pretty much been a disaster, which comes as a bit of a surprise considering the shooting guard came into this year as the second-most lauded offseason signing next to LeBron James after a productive 2017-18 with the Lakers.

Caldwell-Pope may not have literally been the “manna from heaven” that Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka unforgettably described him as during his introductory press conference, but he was a pleasant surprise for Los Angeles on the perimeter last year.

Caldwell-Pope led the team in minutes, shot 38 percent from three, was the second-best perimeter defender behind Lonzo Ball, and even led the team in free-throw percentage (though the Lakers could really use somebody who shoots better than 79 percent from the line).

KCP is currently 25 years old, firmly within his athletic prime, and gave every indication that he would improve upon last year’s performance, especially while facing competition for minutes from Josh Hart. Thus far, not only has Caldwell-Pope failed to maintain his previous level, he has gotten much worse.

But the Lakers are only eight games into the season, so there’s plenty of time for KCP to return to the player the front office thought they were signing. The question is: How can he regain his prior form?

On the offensive end, Caldwell-Pope is going through a cold-shooting spell, starting the season 15-42 from the field. He was a strong finisher at the rim last season, shooting 67 percent, and has increased his frequency of shots near the basket thus far. KCP’s layups look fine, but he has had no touch on his floaters, so he should probably excise those from his game for the time being.

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Caldwell-Pope’s jump shooting was an asset for the Lakers last year, but he hasn’t found his stroke this season. I watched all of his field goal attempts from the past eight games, and although his pull-up jumpers look a little rushed, nothing seems dramatically different from the KCP of 2017-18. Nevertheless, Caldwell-Pope can’t seem to hit anything from the left side of the floor. He has never been a particularly good mid-range shooter, so we shouldn’t expect that to change, but corner threes have historically been one of his strong suits. In an offense with LeBron, one would expect his 3-point percentage to rise soon enough.

Unfortunately, if KCP isn’t shooting well, he doesn’t provide a ton of value on offense. His assist rate is average, and he is good at driving and dumping the ball off to the big, but he doesn’t really create opportunities for his teammates so much as deliver the final pass, or get generously credited for preposterous assists at Staples Center.

In short, for Caldwell-Pope to become a plus offensive player again, his shot will have to fall.

In what is a very small sample size so far, Caldwell-Pope has played his best with Rajon Rondo and fairly disastrously next to Ball, his backcourt mate from last year. Unexpected as that is, KCP’s minutes will be more closely aligned with Rondo’s going forward, so the continuation of that trend will benefit Los Angeles. It seems like Caldwell-Pope is not yet comfortable with the frenetic pace of the new Lakers starters, and thus benefits from the construction of the second unit, where Rondo is a more conventional point guard creating shots for him.

Defensively, though Caldwell-Pope was more effective than the other Lakers guards not named Lonzo last season, he wasn’t exactly stifling the opposition. He was a slightly below-average defender, and has gotten worse. Lineups featuring KCP have a defensive rating of 114.9 (per Cleaning the Glass), which would be the 27th-ranked defense in the league. Admittedly, that’s not much worse than the overall L.A. defensive rating of 112.8, but Caldwell-Pope was supposed to help the Lakers on this end.

KCP has the length to disturb shooting guards and even some smaller wings, and has had high steal rates (around the 80th percentile) throughout his career. He manages to be a pilferer without fouling, consistently having among the lowest foul rates for his position. He still isn’t fouling this season, but that’s because the pressure is absent, and he’s just become a walking turnstile for opponents.

There was hope that Caldwell-Pope could be a solid defensive rebounder after his success in that department last year, but his ability to crash the glass has also been nonexistent and seems unlikely to return after what appears to be a one-year blip. That’s especially disappointing because Luke Walton’s new rotation slots KCP with three other guards, so rebounding will be an even bigger challenge and necessity.

It’s possible that Caldwell-Pope’s conditioning isn’t up to par to start the season, and once that climbs back to its normal levels, his effort level will return on defense. His shooting should also regress upward to the mean, even if he settles around 35 percent from long range instead of his career-best mark of 38.3 percent he posted last year. KCP had bad eight-game stretches last season, including to start the year, and bounced back to be one of the Lakers’ most impactful players after the All-Star break.

The problem now is that he will not get the minutes to regain his rhythm if he doesn’t improve his production. His confidence has seemingly already dipped, and he is shooting 20 percent less frequently, despite an abundance of shot creators around him at all times. Playing next to Rondo, Stephenson, and Hart in the second unit doesn’t help him on defense either, because he has to cover bigger players.

I really enjoyed watching Caldwell-Pope last year, in spite of the regular heat checks and wild forays in transition. He played hard and was rewarded with the best season of his career. It’s difficult to believe that his peak is already behind him, and it’s hard to fathom — even considering his play to start the year — that the majority of the discussion surrounding him is already about how his contract can be used to facilitate a trade.

If Caldwell-Pope can regain his shooting touch, play with more energy on defense, and ideally share the floor with one of Brandon Ingram or James at all times, he should start to resemble last year’s KCP again. At this point, that would be quite the unexpected blessing.

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