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Most Interesting Lakers No. 6: Can Josh Hart be the perfect role player for this team?

Josh Hart has the makings of a championship-level role player, but is the Lakers guard ready to produce like that in just his second NBA season?

NBA: Summer League-Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Lakers Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: The Silver Screen and Roll staff is counting down the most interesting Lakers heading into next season (The 15 guaranteed contracts plus the two guys on two-way contracts). We continue today with No. 6, Josh Hart, and will be counting down to the Laker we think is most interesting with a new piece each weekday until we hit No. 1.

Perhaps the most important Laker headed into next season averaged just under 8 points during the roughly 23 minutes he played each game last year. He barely registered an assist per game, shot it okay overall from the field (just under 47 percent), and didn’t even manage a full steal per contest.

Why, then, on a team now featuring three top-two draft picks, will the progression of Josh Hart, the final selection of the first round in the 2017 NBA Draft, be so damn important to the success of these Lakers?

To answer that question, let’s put Hart’s 2016-17 campaign (and, to a lesser extent, his subsequent Summer League MVP performance) into perspective within the context of the now Lebron James-led Lakers.

Fresh off of a stellar four year run at Villanova, Hart fell to the Lakers with the 30th pick of the 2017 NBA Draft with the expectation he’d be among the more “NBA ready” players selected.

But while following that logic to draft players gets teams into trouble more often than not, the Lakers were rewarded for their trust in the more mature Hart (he’ll turn 24 this season), who, paired alongside Kyle Kuzma — the 27th pick in the same draft — has to be considered one of the most successful late-round picks of the last half decade in spite of his relatively quiet statistical season.

Hart’s primary offensive value last year stemmed from his ability to succeed off the ball as a combo guard capable of both high-level 3-point shooting off the catch and decent playmaking attacking closeouts. He showed the former extensively during his first campaign, shooting it from deep at just under 40 percent overall — a borderline-elite number for any player, and especially for a fairly low-usage rookie.

Hart also proved adept at moving off the ball and putting himself in situations to succeed before catching the basketball. Without an elite drive-and-kick player capable of bending the geometry of entire defenses consistently on the roster last season, that off-ball work was often required of Hart, and it generally paid off — he shot 40.7 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last year.

That’s a really solid number, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it went up again next year considering how good Hart’s overall 3-point shooting (which includes typically more difficult off-the-dribble opportunities) was last season.

Hart was consistent with his shot, too — before the All-Star break, Hart took 2.6 threes per game. In the 11 games he played in after it (a broken hand forced Hart to miss about a month’s worth of action between late February and March), he more than doubled that number while keeping his percentage from deep essentially level. Impressive stuff.

It goes without saying that this skill, above all others, will be most crucial to Hart’s success alongside James this year. It sounds like a broken record, but the following statement bears repeating for every James teammate: If he can consistently knock down the open and semi-contested looks LeBron will inevitably create for him, Hart’s mere presence on the floor will spread out defenses and, in turn, swing entire games in favor of his team.

Once defenses start catching on, Hart is more than capable of taking advantage of aggressive closeouts off the dribble. He’s an elite finisher at the rim — 64.9 percent in the restricted area — who uses his impressive strength and length to create beneficial angles for himself around the tin.

Almost always under control, Hart uses his body like a bowling ball, clearing defenders out of the way with sturdy leaps towards the basket before waiting for the perfect moment to flip the ball into the cup over or around the outstretched arms of the rim protector.

Unlike many rookie guards (Lonzo Ball could learn a thing or two from his teammate in this area), Hart has no issues dealing with contact deep inside the paint — he trusts his strength and rarely appears bothered by size at the rim, either getting fouled or forcing defenders who simply don’t want to deal with Hart’s torpedoing mass rocketing towards the hoop to get out of the way. After the All-Star break, Hart’s free throw attempts tripled over his first half season numbers. Expect them to increase again this year.

Using these borderline elite off-the-catch skills will almost certainly be Hart’s most valuable trait for the Lakers this year. With the strong ballhandling trio of James, Ball and Rajon Rondo on the roster, it’s unlikely Hart will be forced into a primary playmaker role often. You never know, though. Ball’s health continues to be a tenuous proposition, and James shouldn’t be forced to replicate the 82-game miracle he pulled off last season in Cleveland.

Hart could fill that role in spurts, which, barring disaster, is all Luke Walton will ask of him. Expect mixed results, though. He only handled the ball out of pick and rolls in just under eight percent of his shooting possessions last season, per Synergy, mustering just .67 points per possessions out of such opportunities (23rd percentile). Hart also posted just 13 total isolation shooting possessions last season. It’s a minuscule sample size, but he fared even worse on those relative to the league, averaging .69 points per possession (worse than 80 percent of NBA players, according to Synergy.

The Lakers made a concerted effort to force Hart into situations where he’d have the ball in his hands during Summer League, and he responded as well as they could have possibly hoped. He was dominant this summer — in three times the frequency of pick and roll ballhandling chances, Hart increased his efficiency to .95 points per possession, good for the 78th percentile at Summer League, per Synergy.

Hart scored more total points off isos during Summer League than he did during the entire 2017-18 regular season, all while maintaining his elite spot-up play. He doesn’t have transcendent vision as a passer, but Hart is a really intelligent ball mover — he puts the ball where it needs to be when it needs to be there pretty consistently. It was just Summer League, sure, but completely ignoring Hart’s MVP performance is just as much an oversight as overinflating its significance (Laker fans wouldn’t know anything about the latter, would they?).

Even if Hart is never in a position to be the senior squad’s primary playmaker, developing those skills as a secondary or tertiary option offensively is still crucial. The more playmakers on the floor, the better, especially when a player like Hart has so many dimensions to his game.

Hart is skilled enough offensively that he’d provide enough value with the ball in his team’s hands to justify playing him if he was even a slightly below-average defender. What makes Hart so enticing as a player, both now and in the future, is that his game doesn’t require that tradeoff.

Hart is a superb defender — quick enough to defend point guards and strong enough to not just hold his own, but to be a positive defender in the post. That versatility is a product of not just his ideal frame (6’5” with a 6’9” wingspan at a compact 205 pounds) but his defensive wits. Hart is a conductor on defense, constantly pointing and shouting out coverages to adrift teammates (of which there were a few last year). His overall defensive dexterity makes him an almost perfect switching guard.

Walton should have confidence in Hart switching 1-4 this year to the point where he could end up roaming some defensively, a la Draymond Green, hunting for valuable switching opportunities and steals. He already did this to a certain extent last year — switching off the ball with Ball, for example, when the point guard got caught in the post against a big — and Hart’s defensive potential could get unleashed if Walton affords him a little more slack.

Still, Hart is by no means perfect defensively. His defense didn’t necessarily translate to team success defensively last season — the Lakers were, in fact, nearly four points worse per 100 possessions on defense when Hart was on the court last season. Defensive stats are still tricky, though, and that metric is probably more indicative of the four teammates sharing the court with — or how much time he spent in the Lakers’ hapless late-season groups — than Hart himself, but it’s worth keeping in mind as we continue tracking his numbers going forward.

Hart is also already a borderline top-10 rebounding guard in the league. He posted the thirteenth-highest rebounding percentage among guards who played at least 50 games last season, and snagged nearly seven per game in the eleven games he played after the All-Star break.

A lineup featuring Hart, Ball and James would be able to send two of those three into the paint to chase offensive boards as the last gets back on defense, a strategy which could prove catastrophic for opposing backcourts not used to boxing out such crafty rebounders. That three-man group could clean the glass and extend possessions about as well as any trio in the league — astounding given none is taller than 6’8”.

Two-way players as skilled as this rarely fall as late in the draft as Hart did, and there’s a reason why. By providing positive value on both sides of the court, Hart makes it easy for Walton to call his number because the coach doesn’t have to worry about balancing offense and defense with him. Hart can play in any situation with any lineup, worry-free. You can only say that about a limited number of guys in the league — many teams don’t have any on their rosters.

The Lakers are lucky enough to have a few, and it wouldn’t shock me if the 23-year-old rose to the top of that group by January this season. Hart took his lumps at times just like any rookie, but he was a really, really solid two-way player last season with a relatively low usage rate (13.6).

And don’t let Hart’s all-around prowess distract from that fact that, above everything, he’s a dead-eye shooter at every level of the court — he led all rookie guards with a 57.3 eFG%, a number which placed him in the top ten amongst every NBA guard last year.

If anything, Hart’s value to this year’s Lakers team is being criminally undervalued. I’d still take the talent of Brandon Ingram and Ball over him long term, and while I’m not sure I’ve quite hopped on the “Hart will be better than Kuzma” train yet, I certainly think there’s an argument to be made that Hart is the third, not fourth, most important Baby Laker on this roster.

In a seven-game series against the Rockets or Warriors, Kuzma’s defensive deficiencies could force him off the court after each team inevitably figures out attacking him is its best offensive bet. Neither Houston nor Golden State could take the same approach with Hart.

That fact alone could be enough to keep Hart on the floor in the spring, and it certainly makes him amongst the most interesting Lakers to follow this season. Players like Hart are essential to winning basketball games at the highest level, and I’d bet that he’s on the court at the end of games during the season’s biggest moments, with his uniquely intelligent skill set quickly turning him into one of the few young guys James ends up truly trusting on this team.

Expect Hart to quickly warrant the respect of his head coach, and, maybe more importantly, his superstar teammate. If he continues displaying the kind of growth he’s shown over the past year, the only question will be when, not if, Hart will carve out a spot in this team’s most-important five-man lineup.

The countdown so far:

6. Josh Hart

7. Ivica Zubac

8. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

9. Moe Wagner

10. Michael Beasley

11. Svi Mykhailiuk

12. JaVale McGee

13. Isaac Bonga

14. Lance Stephenson

15. Luol Deng

16. Alex Caruso

17. Travis Wear

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