LeBron James had options in free agency other than the Los Angeles Lakers. Options that might have put him closer to championship contention than he is now, like the Philadelphia 76ers and the Houston Rockets.
He could have also pressured the front office to trade for another All-Star player like Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler, but he didn’t. Instead, James banked on the Lakers’ young core growing up on the fly, and while it’s worked out for him so far, head coach Luke Walton knows there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Following practice on Tuesday, Walton said that in order for the team to be as successful as they want to be, the young players on the roster need to step up sooner rather than later.
“Everyone needs to improve,” Walton said. “Brandon, and Kuz, and Zo, and Josh Hart, and if Moe starts getting there a little bit. People around the league know what LeBron can do, we know what Rondo’s going to do, JaVale has been deep into the playoffs the last few years.
“Where we’re trying to get to... How much success we have by the end of the year is in large part going to be dependent on how much and how quickly our young players continue to grow.”
Walton reiterated that the players have every opportunity to develop during the regular season, and added that the type of development the Lakers are looking for actually happens more in the regular season than in the offseason, even if the players don’t always see it that way.
“I think it’s hard to sometimes recognize how much you’re improving as a player because you’re in it,” Walton said. “You don’t see the little bit that’s happening here, and the little bit that’s happening there, but you get out there and you do it day after day it definitely happens.”
The Lakers are only 23 games into the regular season, but Walton said he’s pleased with the way his young core has progressed in spite of the circus that has surrounded the team this season.
“They’ve been great,” Walton said. “We give our young guys a ton of responsibility, and that’s not easy in this league, to ask of them what we do.
“[We came] out of the gates struggling — record-wise at least — and having a new team, new teammates, media everywhere, and they just keep coming in and working,” Walton said. “They keep wanting to get better and figure it out. I’m very pleased with our young core.”
The real test for the Lakers and their young core will come in the postseason, where they’ll see legitimate title contenders with proven veterans and, in some cases, proven young players. It will be a challenge, no doubt, but it’s a problem they’d surely love to have.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RadRivas.