Last month, the Los Angeles Lakers wrapped up their 2017-18 campaign with 35 wins, a nine-win improvement from the previous season and the most wins they’ve produced in five years. While some of their improvement can be attributed to the veterans they acquired in the offseason like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez, more, if not most, of their success can be traced back to the 2017 NBA Draft.
Heading into last year’s draft, the Lakers were in a unique position with three first-round selections. No only did they have their own pick, but they also had the Boston Celtics’ pick (acquired in the D’Angelo Russell trade) and the Houston Rockets’ pick (acquired in the Lou Williams trade).
The Lakers ended up keeping the two higher picks to select Lonzo Ball No. 2 overall and Kyle Kuzma No. 26 overall, but they traded Houston’s pick (No. 27) to the Utah Jazz on draft night for the No. 42 pick, used to select Thomas Bryant, and the No. 30 pick, which was used to select Josh Hart.
A fourth year senior out of Villanova University, Hart wasn’t projected to go in the first round despite having a successful college career. There were legitimate questions about his ability to score at the next level because of his lack of explosiveness and his average ability as a ball handler.
However, Lakers assistant general manager Jesse Buss, the youngest of the Buss children, and the scouting department saw enough from Hart to justify trading down a few spots in the draft to get him.
“We really liked Josh in the draft. We were looking at a couple of other players at that position as well, but Josh was our guy,” Buss told Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report. “We felt moving down a spot, we were pretty confident he was still going to be there.”
Luckily, their instincts would be proven correct, but it was going to be a while before Hart got a real chance to show it.
Hart’s first opportunity to show his stuff would come in July at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League, but he missed all but two games after suffering a sprained ankle. It wasn’t until early October did Hart get another chance to showcase his talents, but even then he was dealing with a nagging hamstring injury that limited his playing time.
Meanwhile, fellow rookies Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma were making names for themselves and establishing themselves as part of the Lakers’ young core. Hart had some ground to make up.
His game isn’t as flashy as Ball’s or Kuzma’s, but Hart’s high basketball IQ and blue collar work ethic made him a fan favorite with his teammates, his coaches and his boss, president of basketball operations Magic Johnson.
“If we could have 20 of him, this guy is unbelievable,” Johnson said during his and general manager Rob Pelinka’s exit interview. “He’s a winner, he’s tough, plays on both ends of the court.”
In 63 games for the Lakers, Hart averaged 7.9 points per game on 46.9 percent shooting from the field and and 39.6 percent from behind the arc. He also contributed 4.2 rebounds and 1.3 rebounds per game.
Of rookies that played at least 60 games and attempted at least three 3-pointers per game during the regular season, Hart ranked third in 3-point percentage only behind the No. 3 pick in the draft Jayson Tatum and the No. 12 pick Luke Kennard.
Rookie stats don’t impress you much? Hart was also one of five guards to shoot above 39 percent from behind the arc this season while grabbing more than 4 rebounds per game. The others? Steph Curry, Jaylen Brown, Tyreke Evans and Kyle Lowry. So Hart is either a future star, or Tyreke Evans.
While Hart’s 3-point marksmanship was surprising, it wasn’t as surprising as how dominant he was on the boards, earning him the nickname “Josh Barkley” among his teammates.
Hart finished in the top-15 among rookies in total rebounds with 263 rebounds despite missing 19 games. Not rookie guards, the entire rookie class.
Maigc Johnson had high praise for Hart and his rebounding ability during his and general, calling Hart the second-best rebounding guard in the league only behind Oklahoma City Thunder guard and reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook.
“I think he’s one of the best rebounding guards in the league,” Johnson said. “If you think about the guy in OKC, after him, I think Josh is second as a rebounding guard.”
But Hart showed he can do more than just the little things that made him so popular with the fans. He also showed in the final few games of the season that he can carry the scoring load if needed.
While Ball, Kuzma and Brandon Ingram were nursing injuries, Hart took on more of the offensive burden than usual, and in doing so showed that he can do more than just stand in the corner or attack the rim.
In the last four games of the Lakers’ season, Hart averaged 23.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.3 steals. He recorded at least 20 points in all four games, including a career-high 30 points on 7-of-9 shooting from 3 in the Lakers’ season finale against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Sure, it might be a very small sample size, but Hart showed he has the potential to more than just a “3-and-D” guy, something he said was important for him to show as the season winded down.
“I don’t want to put a limit or ceiling on what I think I can be,” Hart said in his exit interview. “When you think of a ‘3-and-D’ guy, you think of someone that can stand in the corner, somebody that can make jump shots when they need to and play defense. I think I can do that, but I think I can do so much more than that.”
Hart will be one of two returning Lakers guaranteed to be participating at this year’s Las Vegas Summer League. Even after a successful season, Hart won’t let talk of him now being part of the Lakers’ get to his head.
“I just go out and do my job. I’ve done that since I was in high school,” Hart said. “I wasn’t the most highly recruited or talked about player. I just out there and do what I’m supposed to do to help my team win and if any benefits come from that, then that’s cool.
“It’s funny because before my name was mentioned in that, there was an article that talked about the ‘young core.’ It was Brandon, Lonzo, B.I. Then a month or month-and-a-half after that, someone showed me almost an identical article but it had my name in there.”
After a season of surpassing expectations, Hart has proven he deserves that status.
All stats were provided by stats.nba.com unless otherwise noted. Exit interview quotes were transcribed via Lakers.com.