When the Los Angeles Lakers signed Jared Dudley this offseason, it was the first time since the team signed LeBron James that a free-agent acquisition had been met with such universal praise.
Other than their ages, Dudley and James don’t ostensibly have much in common. Consider their physiques, for one. Or that James has regularly been chasing titles for over a decade, while this is the first time Dudley is playing for a preseason championship contender.
But what Dudley does possess, like James, is an understanding of the pulse of the NBA, the knowledge of what needs to be done on and off the court to ensure survival in this league. The term “veteran presence” may be thrown around a little too loosely, but there are few better ways to describe Dudley’s current role in the NBA, and on the Lakers. Dudley isn’t ever going to be the best player on the court; he simply strives to be the best possible teammate.
Being a role player around stars like LeBron James who take up so much oxygen isn’t an easy task. Several veteran Lakers balked at seeing their roles reduced last year, even resulting in a locker room mutiny before the trade deadline. Dudley hasn’t been one of those guys. Despite not being in the rotation when the Lakers are fully healthy, he maintains the same demeanor on the bench and is ready to go when called upon.
Dudley hadn’t played outside of garbage time since Kyle Kuzma’s return against Dallas, a stretch of six contests. But with Anthony Davis needing to rest against Golden State, Dudley was called upon to be the third forward option Wednesday, and he fit seamlessly back into the lineup. He knocked down both of his 3-point attempts — keeping his perfect streak alive to start the season — and chipped in four assists and three rebounds.
Here is Dudley implementing head coach Frank Vogel’s extra pass basketball to get Alex Caruso a clean look at a 3-pointer.
And here is Dudley drawing a double team, and then quickly moving the ball to JaVale McGee after his drive collapses the defense.
Both were simple plays executed well to generate easy baskets for the Lakers. Dudley doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary when he gets on the basketball court — what sets him apart is the mindset that allows him to be prepared no matter when the opportunity presents itself.
“It’s a skill you have to have to be able to last in the NBA,” Dudley said after the win over Golden State. “If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.”
With Davis and James both expected to receive some amount of scheduled rest over the course of the season — despite their stated objections to load management — Dudley will have more chances to play an expanded role. He says that Vogel has been very forthcoming about when he will receive minutes, allowing him to tailor his workouts accordingly.
When one of their star forwards is out, the Lakers can count on Dudley to produce, but that’s only one reason why he’s in Los Angeles. He’s also here to show the team’s younger players what it takes to carve out a role in the NBA. The Lakers don’t have as many this season, but Kuzma, Quinn Cook, Caruso, and Talen Horton-Tucker can all benefit from Dudley’s experience.
Dudley doesn’t have to set a tone on a team with so many veterans; instead, he can demonstrate the joys of being a complementary player to superstars.
“It’s a certain personality you have to have to let them do their thing and you feed off of them,” Dudley said Wednesday. “I actually like it, it’s your own little niche that you have to have to be able to help them, because they might get the accolades, but the role players are the glue to the team.”
Perhaps no individual relationship is as important for Dudley this year as his mentorship of Kuzma. Dudley came into the season highlighting his past experience working with young stars like D’Angelo Russell and Devin Booker as an example of how he could help Kuzma reach his untapped potential.
Kuzma has been hyped as the third star, or at least the third scoring option, behind James and Davis. His scoring outbursts have made the third-year Laker a fan favorite, but those have been harder to come by in the new offensive environment. As Kuzma has gotten his legs under him, he has reached double-digit scoring in his last three games. As Dudley notes, however, there is still more work to be done on his offense.
“He definitely found his rhythm shooting touch wise,” Dudley said about Kuzma after the Golden State game. “I think that the next step for him is now to differentiate between good shots and bad shots. To know that when he plays with movement like he did in Phoenix, that’s the perfect role for him. A little bit less iso, a little more getting the ball side-to-side.
“He’s young, and oftentimes when you’re young, you add a component like Anthony Davis and you’re third, and all of a sudden your shots are coming from different spots than last year. So it takes time, and I’ll definitely watch film with him in the next couple days just to see if there are things that I think he can do better at, but defensively I thought he was a lot better tonight.”
Dudley certainly won’t approach the minutes totals of Kuzma, or come close to approximating his impact on the floor, so he is working to help Kuzma become the player the Lakers need him to be by expanding his game beyond being a one-dimensional scorer. It’s another way for Dudley to fulfill his role and bring value to the team.
As Dudley said Wednesday, he isn’t built to handle an 82-game workload anymore. “Body’s a little achy, but good thing AD will be back on Friday,” he joked postgame. At this point in his career, being a veteran mentor and a superstar understudy is the job that suits him and the Lakers best. It’s the role he was born to play.