Josh Hart did not have to play in this year’s round of Summer League games.
The Lakers, and their front office even hinted as such during the team’s exit interviews with their initial two-game restriction on the former Villanova Wildcat.
Yet, their attempts to preserve Hart failed to deter his personal goal to “dominate.” Through his own tireless persistence and even some begging, he not only played in every single game, but won the league’s MVP award while leading the Lakers to their second-straight championship game.
Although the team ultimately failed to repeat as Summer League champions, Hart’s determination and dominating play not only impressed the Lakers’ brass and the club’s fans, but also his newest teammate — LeBron James.
MVP!!!! @joshhart Congrats G #LakeShow— LeBron James (@KingJames) July 17, 2018
Sitting behind the basket for the first time officially as Laker, James got a first hand look at what Hart has to offer on the basketball court during the team’s blowout win against the Detroit Pistons.
Hart scored an efficient 18 points in only 21 minutes, and stuffed the stat sheet with four assists and two steals with James in attendance. The two were even snapped hugging it out on the sideline pre-game.
It’s no coincidence that James seems to have quickly gravitated to Hart and his game, as among the entire young core, Hart may represent the most seamless schematic fit and offers the most stylistic familiarity next to 14-time All-Star.
Although he should not be pigeonholed as simply a “3-and-D” player, Hart proved to be uber effective in both areas as a rookie.
The “3-and-D” role itself has been proven to be an invaluable archetype beside a monster primary initiator like James, and between Hart’s Summer League efforts and his rookie season, he projects to be one of the King’s favorite role players.
The most immediate niche Hart will able to provide for James next season is in his 3-point shooting, but more specifically his 3-point shooting from the corners.
James’ teams have historically been league leaders in both corner three frequency and efficiency through the Jupiter-like gravitational pull he creates on his drives. Last season, the Cavaliers had a mere 5.6 percent corner three frequency with James off the court (24th percentile) and converted those opportunities at a poor 30.6 percent clip (11th percentile) according to Cleaning the Glass.
With James on the floor, those numbers skyrocketed. The Cavaliers corner frequency nearly doubled from 5.6 to 10.7 percent (95th percentile) and they converted their attempts at a 41.7 percent clip (66th percentile) with James running the offense.
The Lakers’ shooting concerns next to James may be valid in some senses with their poor efficiency numbers last season and how they decided to round out their roster, but the corners were actually a source of strength for the purple and gold last year.
Often considered one of the most efficient spots on the floor, the Lakers were 12th in the league in corner three efficiency (40.2 percent) despite shooting only 34.3 percent from every non-corner area. The main reason why this did not translate itself into more points per possession and a better offensive rating is the team simply had one of the lowest frequencies in the NBA.
The Lakers actually had a smaller percentage of their attempts come from the corners (5.4 percent) than the aforementioned LeBron-less Cavaliers’ lineups.
One main reason for this — beside schematic play calling — was the team’s lack of a gravity-generating player to suck defenders into their orbit. Often defenses would dare the Lakers’ young players to attack in iso situations without fear of the end results, thus not having any need to sag off their man to help.
With James now on the roster, it is a safe assumption that the Lakers’ frequency of corner threes will substantially climb, and one of the best recipients of those kick outs should be Hart. The former 30th overall pick was a significant reason for the Lakers’ corner efficiency as he was among the league leaders there last season.
Hart shot a lights-out 49 percent on his corner three attempts as a rookie, finishing the season in the 89th percentile among all wings in the league. That 49 percent number from the corners was actually identical to one of James’ favorite targets last season, Kyle Korver, whom Hart may play a similar role to.
Hart will most likely never be the decorated shooter Korver has been for the duration of his career, but he has shown similar tendencies that can possibly present similar results for James.
Below is an example of one of Korver’s best traits as a shooter—his ability to relocate.
Notice here how he reads his defender crashing down to offer help in the paint and smartly slides down to create the passing outlet for James for the open corner three.
One of the more underrated skills of shooting specialists is their ability to create their own looks by proper positioning, and Korver is one of the best in the league at this.
Hart does something similar here on Ingram’s drive. First he points and directs Jordan Clarkson to where the swing pass should go, Brandon Ingram in this case, then, like Korver, he slides away from his defender to the far corner off of Ingram’s drive to create the angle for the pass and nails the look.
The Lakers are likely also going to be one of the more exciting and frequent transition teams in the NBA next season, and this is the arguably where James and some shooters are the most deadly.
Let’s take a look at how this looked last season.
With all eyes on James and the ball in this semi-transtision sequence below, Jeff Green quickly screens off Korver’s man creating the necessary spacing for him to slide down to the corner once again.
Watch Korver’s feet and positioning in this clip, he stays horizontal to the ball all the way down the court which creates an easy pass pocket for James to hit on the break.
While there is no screener that creates the spacing for Hart in this example, Hart shows off veteran awareness, realizing the Lakers have numbers and sprinting to the corner knowing Randle will fill the driving lane off the break, thus setting himself up as the outlet for the extra pass.
This is the type of spacial awareness that will create scoring opportunities not only for Hart, but his skill at relocation will also benefit his team as it provides proper floor spacing, specifically for James, one of the most dominant forces attacking downhill the league has ever seen:
Although he showed improvement in this area during Summer League and in his time at Villanova, Hart’s shooting off of motion will be the next step in taking his shooting to the next level.
The Lakers ran a lot of sets for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope curling off of screens last season, as the Cavaliers did with Korver. If Hart can consistently show the ability to do the same, and maintain his adept catch and shoot ability from the corners, he will prove to be an even more dangerous threat beside James and become one of his favorite targets.
Hart’s grit and multifaceted modern skillet will make it hard for Luke Walton to not play him minutes beside James, but it possibly may not happen often initially with the current depth chart.
Currently projected to be slotted behind Caldwell-Pope, and possibly Lance Stephenson, Hart will have to continue to provide all of the invaluable “little things” that have endeared him to Lakers’ fans, and more importantly create that on-court chemistry with James from the get-go to steal more time on the court.
Like some of James’ best teammates in the past, Hart offers multi-postional defense, tremendous finishing on the break, and the spacing threat James has always operated best alongside.
It may sound like a lot of pressure for a player going into his second season to provide all of this and remain hyper-efficient, but Hart has already proved that once he puts his mind on dominating there is no stopping him.
*Statistics provided by CleaningtheGlass.com | video courtesy of NBA.com. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla