Editor’s Note: In this series, “The Next Step,” we are going to be taking a look at one specific thing each of the young Lakers needs to improve on over the summer. We continue with Josh Hart.
It is excruciatingly difficult to find reasons to not like Josh Hart. Honestly, go ahead and try.
Similar to the majority of basketball fans in general, Hart plays way too many video games in his downtime, loves to watch reruns of “The Office” and compounds all of those eerily relatable interests by simply playing his ass off on the court and sporting a whopping ‘Moreyball Rate’ (percentage of shots that come either from three or at the rim) of 87.5 percent.
NBA hipsters adore him, and for good reason based on his shot profile. But more broadly, his general give-a-damn attitude and candidness off the floor is also steadily inching him towards having his likeness etched beside the dictionary definition of ‘fan favorite.’
Since he first donned the purple and gold, Hart’s hard-nosed game has conjured up warm memories among Laker faithful of other former fan favorites like Rick Fox, and most commonly, the team’s former bulldog of a guard — Derek Fisher.
Like Fisher, Hart instantly proved to understand and accept his role as a versatile defender, loose-ball chaser and knockdown specialist as a rookie, doing the things that are more commonly referred to as “3-and-D’” skills. That was why many deemed Hart to be the most seamless fit among the team’s young core to slide in beside LeBron James this season.
Unfortunately, whatever initial signs of validity rang true in those predictions through the positive early season numbers fell significantly off the table following a combination of injuries and regression.
During what ultimately became a rough sophomore season for Hart, many of the always-existent warts that were simply concealed during his rookie campaign — mainly because of his outstanding perimeter numbers — were soon revealed as he struggled mightily to find ways to impact the game once his shots stopped falling.
While this ultimately proved unfortunate for the Lakers this year, it did help identify the area Hart must work on this summer in hopes of taking that “next step” in his development: His in-between-game.
As his aforementioned ‘Moreyball’ rate demonstrates, Hart did not only avoid shots that came within 8-24 feet from the basket this season, he was downright allergic to them.
On the year, Hart attempted only 22 total shot-attempts that came from where NBA’s tracking data classifies as “midrange,” a stunningly low number, even when considering this era of basketball’s distaste for two’s that do not directly come at the rim.
For comparison and contextual sake, Hart’s teammate, Lonzo Ball — whose poor in-between-game has notoriously and carefully been scrutinized since entering the league — attempted nine more attempts from midrange than Hart this season despite playing in 20 less games.
While the Lakers as a team did seemingly make a concerted effort to limit the areas of the floor often deemed as the least-effective (sixth-fewest frequency in the league) Hart’s drastically low numbers simply continue to stand out.
According to Cleaning the Glass, 90 percent of all NBA players that have been classified as “wings” this season posted a higher midrange frequency than Hart’s 13 percent clip (the exact same percentage of attempts he posted as a rookie, it should be noted).
While there could be a genuinely good argument to be had that Hart has simply adopted the types of shots that many around the league have classified as most optimal, there still remains a significant and flawed one-dimensional feel to the sophomore guard once his most relied upon strengths are taken away, which is exactly what happened this season.
Like nearly everyone who sported a Lakers’ jersey this year, Hart’s 3-point shooting numbers took a sound hit. His near 40 percent conversation rate from behind the arc in year one, plummeted to 33.6 percent in year two. That’s an especially harmful regression as 56 percent of Hart’s total shot attempts this year were in fact from three.
This in turn directly presents where adopting an ability to finish both in the midrange and just outside the restricted area could serve Hart tremendously going forward, as up to now, it is still a non-existent and ineffective part of his game.
The most immediate benefit for Hart revamping his midrange game is that it would instantly make him a more flexible option for the Lakers on offense.
There were many instances this season when the team attempted to use Hart in similar off-ball actions (floppy, etc) as his teammate, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but because of his inability to pull up or knock down a jumper in space, Hart often drove into a crowded paint and fired off a difficult look, or simply passed it out without gaining any advantage.
Conversely, when used as secondary playmaker in direct and indirect ball screens, Hart would be freed up to make a play for himself or his teammate, which almost always resulted in defenses daring him to knock down a 10-16 foot jumper, which he often clanked.
When removing garbage time from the equation, Hart was only able to convert his midrange opportunities this season at a 21 percent clip, which placed him in the 4th percentile of the league among wings, meaning only around three percent shot worse than Hart did on such attempts.
A possible solution for Hart — once he is again put in similar situations as the film above exemplified — is adding a consistent runner or floater to his arsenal. Although it’s easier said than done, a reliable tear drop option could drastically help Hart with his often unpleasant in-between chances.
As his low numbers overall suggest, Hart did not attempt many of these types of shots this season, but when he did, he also struggled. According to Synergy, Hart attempted only ten total runners this season, and converted just two.
It should be reiterated that even with this flaw, Hart, and players like him, add tons of other ancillary positives to teams across the league, which is why they are so readily sought after.
However, if Hart and the Lakers are serious about him branching out of the 3-and-D archetype and reaching his highest possible outcome, he desperately needs to diversify his shot-making ability once defenses close out hard on the perimeter and clog the paint.
That area smack dab between Hart’s comfort zones may ultimately be the key to unlocking his untapped upside — in a dubious Twilight Zone of sorts for the modern NBA, no less — but for Hart, it could be the difference between him simply being an average role player, or a star in his role. Another summer of player-development time will give him the chance to choose between the two.
All stats and video per NBA.com. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts, or listen to Alex talk about what each of the young Lakers need to work on in the episode below: