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Let’s appreciate a Laker: Kendall Marshall was the point guard we needed

Kendall Marshall burned bright in Los Angeles as another point guard who hitched his wagon to the star that was Mike D’Antoni.

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Milwaukee Bucks v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: For as long as the NBA season is stopped, we’ll be taking a look back at players from Lakers history that we can’t stop thinking about. Today, we remember Kendall Marshall.

There’s a special relationship between Mike D’Antoni and point guards, something so beautifully symbiotic that allows even mediocre floor generals to elevate to a level beyond themselves. Steve Nash was the poster child of the D’Antoni movement, and James Harden and Russell Westbrook are his current superstar disciples, but it was the lesser-known players who really exemplified the genius of D’Antoni. The point guards on the scrap heap, the Jeremy Lins and the Chris Duhons, their careers hanging by a thread until D’Antoni lifted them out of obscurity.

In 2014, that’s what happened in Los Angeles with Kendall Marshall.

Marshall was a first-round pick the year before, but he was a casualty of the dysfunction within the Phoenix Suns organization. He was also among the last of his kind, a pure point guard in a league that was increasingly prioritizing lead guards who could score. But the Lakers needed a point guard in the worst way, and Marshall’s partnership with D’Antoni made for one of the few bright spots in a bleak 2013-14 season.

Los Angeles Lakers v New York Knicks
Kendall Marshall and Mike D’Antoni formed a symbiotic pair in Los Angeles, helping keep the Lakers running and Marshall’s career afloat.
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

By the time Marshall got to the Lakers, Kobe Bryant was already out for the season with a knee injury and Nash only played nine games the rest of the year. Steve Blake was recovering from a torn ligament in his elbow, and Jordan Farmar tore his hamstring, so Marshall had free rein of the offense. Once he joined the starting lineup, the former North Carolina Tar Heel was regularly playing 35 minutes a game until the tank rolled through after the trade deadline.

He may not have justified a predraft prediction from yours truly, but Marshall could ball. The Lakers were bad that year, but they were 3.6 points per 100 possessions better with Marshall on the floor. Marshall shot 40% on 3-pointers (on limited volume relative to today’s game) and assisted on 42.6% of the team’s baskets when he was on the floor, a rate that trailed only Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo that season.

Marshall came of age in Roy Williams’ uptempo offense at North Carolina and seamlessly fit in with the creator of Seven Seconds or Less. He loved to push the pace and had a knack for reading the floor in transition. His hit-ahead passes remind me of Lonzo Ball in a simpler time.

His accelerated tempo made him a natural fit alongside Jodie Meeks, one of the fastest players in the league who also had a quick trigger beyond the arc. That same synergy worked with Nick Young. As Marshall became a more confident scorer, he developed fruitful pick-and-roll partnerships with Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill (all hail the mid-range king).

The young point guard also made the offense aesthetically pleasing, which was no small feat considering all of the injuries the Lakers were dealing with. The less that is said about his defense, the better, but again, this was a D’Antoni team.

Marshall was easy to enjoy, and easy to root for. He had a great Twitter presence, always putting out love for North Carolina, Cookout, and Chipotle while trolling Ryan Kelly and Duke the appropriate amount. It also didn’t hurt that he bore a passing resemblance to fan favorite Vlade Divac. Marshall’s beard was also part of a wonderful hashtag from the Lakers team account.

It shouldn’t have been that easy for me to fall for a Tar Heel, even one wearing a Laker uniform. My memories of Marshall prior to the NBA consisted of him leading a group of walk-ons to a lead over Duke in a game that would decide the ACC title in 2011, or handing the Blue Devils their most embarrassing senior night loss in 2012.

But Marshall made me move past that. My favorite memory from his time in Los Angeles was an April game against Portland. The Lakers were down 16 in the final minute and Marshall was pushing the ball on the break when he was tackled by Meyers Leonard. Kelly immediately came to his defense, and Marshall hit Kelly with the alley-oop on the ensuing possession. The rivalry had no bearing on the two of them being excellent teammates.

After the season ended, it seemed like Marshall had earned a future in Los Angeles, at least as a backup point guard who could credibly run the offense — even if he lacked the physicality and athleticism to play the position full-time. As it turned out, the Lakers run would be the highlight of Marshall’s NBA career. D’Antoni resigned, the team waived Marshall, and I was crushed; that was before having to deal with an entire season of Lin and Ronnie Price running the point. Lest we forget, those were dark times.

Kendall Marshall, however, was a delight to watch. He made a lousy team bearable with his throwback passing, and he thawed my ice cold, Duke blue heart. For that, he is a Laker worth appreciating.

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