LOS ANGELES — It’s safe to say that Lakers fans were not happy with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at the start of the season. And between getting booed when he checked into games and fan demands for him to be traded getting so prevalent that Dwight Howard felt the need to address them publicly and defend his teammate, it seems reasonable to guess that the 2019-20 campaign didn’t begin the way Caldwell-Pope wanted, either.
Since then, though? He’s been pretty good, and lately he’s been stellar, averaging 12.8 points on 57.7% shooting while knocking down 73.3% of his threes over the last four games. Most recently, on Sunday Caldwell-Pope torched the Dallas Mavericks for 19 points off the bench while nailing five of his six 3-point attempts in a 108-95 win.
Making those feats more impressive is that these have been Caldwell-Pope’s first four games since being replaced by Avery Bradley in the starting lineup and moved back to the bench, meaning that a player who has previously struggled with adaptation and inconsistency has thrived immediately upon being thrust into a different role.
“I feel good. The ball is coming off well, I’m in a good rhythm, I’m out there just in the flow of the game and trying to find open shots where my teammates can find me,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I’m not thinking about shots and just shooting the ball, even if I’m open or they’re closing out on me, I’m not worried about it.”
That approach has worked for Caldwell-Pope, who has spoken about how he appreciates Lakers head coach Frank Vogel’s approach to changing his role, taking him aside and letting him know that he would be moving back to the bench before announcing he would do so publicly, and how he understands that Vogel has established a culture where a player won’t lose their starting spot due to injury. Making matters even easier is how he is among the scores of Lakers who clearly like and appreciate Bradley.
”I knew when Avery went down we had already talked about it, it was next man up. I did my job and now he’s back healthy,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I don’t mind coming off the bench. That’s just helping the team. I love Avery. I’ve learned a lot from him and I’m glad he’s healthy.”
Vogel has appreciated Caldwell-Pope’s approach to the whole situation, and while he deadpanned “I think his coach has just been drawing good plays for him, credit the head coach” when asked what has made Caldwell-Pope so efficient from deep lately, he later turned serious, and wanted to make sure his the 26-year-old guard got credit for how he’s handled all this fluctuation in his role. Vogel wants fans and the media to know how Caldwell-Pope has constantly stayed in the gym and worked on his shot, and how well he’s dealt with all the criticism he’s received publicly.
“Credit to his mental toughness and character. Guys can go in a shell if they’re facing heavy criticism, and he didn’t do that. He responded by remaining confident and being true to himself, believing in himself,” Vogel said.
He wasn’t the only one who believed.
“He had the support of our coaching staff and his teammates for the job that he was doing and what he brings to the table,” Vogel said. “It’s a tribute to just remaining confident in yourself. He’s had a dramatic turnaround on the offensive end. His defense has always been great for us. (He) struggled a little bit out of the gates, but he’s playing just terrific, terrific basketball right now.”
Vogel even felt that way before Caldwell-Pope’s latest explosion against the Mavericks, gushing to reporters pregame with obvious pride at how well Caldwell-Pope has handled all the internal and external adversity that’s come his way this season.
”I couldn’t be happier with how he’s performed ever since that first week to 10 days where he struggled a little bit offensively. He’s really settled in and several times this year... hit big shots in critical moments. He’s as good as it gets with regard to perimeter defense and what he brings to the table on that end of the floor,” Vogel said pregame on Sunday.
“That’s how you win games. You win games with guys that play both ends of the floor. Two-way players. He’s performing his role to the max.”
It’s made KCP’s struggles to start the season — it took him three games to knock down his first field goal, and he scored less than three points in six of the Lakers’ first 10 games — a distant memory. It’s one Caldwell-Pope doesn’t want to re-visit, either.
“We don’t look back, we’re gonna look forward,” Caldwell-Pope said with a smile. And considering that his strong play for a contender of late has made his future and present look a lot brighter than his past, it’s hard to blame him.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.