Right after the Lakers won the 2020 championship, as they basked in the glory of their achievement to cap their 95th night of an NBA bubble experience that took so much of a mental toll that LeBron James has said he’ll never forget exactly how long he was in there, starter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope pulled head coach Frank Vogel aside for a quick conversation, away from the din of the Three Bridges Bar & Grill where they celebrated on the water at Disney World.
Caldwell-Pope just wanted to thank Vogel for never losing faith in him as he went through early season struggles, or when he went 0-9 from the field in the Lakers’ first playoff game. He felt like Vogel’s confidence in him had helped him keep confidence in himself, and wanted to express his gratitude for it.
“That’s just special and something I’ll never forget. Above all else, that’s what you do this job for. For those types of moments,” Vogel said then.
Given the special bond they forged throughout the crucible of all the criticism both of them received during their first year together, perhaps it should be no surprise that Vogel seems to be taking a special joy in Caldwell-Pope’s incredible start to the season, during which he’s shot an NBA-high 56.9% from deep while helping the Lakers become one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the league. And after Caldwell-Pope exploded for seven 3-pointers against the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday, Vogel wanted to make sure he credited the veteran guard for everything he did to get to this point.
“It’s one of the more rewarding things in coaching, when you have a player that was basically not a fan-favorite of Laker Nation to start the season last year,” Vogel said. “But when you see a guy who plays as hard as he does, that brings value whether he’s making shots or missing shots, guys like that earn minutes. And when they earn minutes, they get more comfortable shooting the basketball.
“He really had a remarkable growth year last year and has taken it to another level this year. He really does appear to feel very comfortable in his role this year, and he’s a big part of the early season success that we’ve had so far.”
This is clearly a tenet of Vogel’s coaching, but it’s fair to say it’s one that is uniquely important to Caldwell-Pope. He’s a player who seems at times to be uniquely prone to hot and cold streaks, one who has gone from hated to beloved among Lakers fans, and chose the mantra “Never Give Up” as the name for his clothing brand (yes, he has a clothing brand, being a Laker has its perks).
Caldwell-Pope can often be soft-spoken, and it would be easy to take his seeming shyness as a lack of belief in himself. But when listening to what he’s actually saying this year, it’s clear he has never been more confident in a Lakers uniform.
If his shooting wasn’t enough, he’s gone from rarely saying anything of note, his Southern drawl barely raising above a whisper, to getting quoted by the Lakers’ 9.5 million follower Twitter account while he gets the wrestling-promo-style walk-off treatment for a nationally televised win with Anthony Davis.
Vogel isn’t the only one that’s noticed the increase in confidence. So has Caldwell-Pope’s co-star in that video.
“He’s playing extremely well on both ends of the floor. His confidence is very high. We expect him to make shots and we’re finding him,” Davis said. “He’s a big-time shot taker and a big-time shot maker, and when he has it going, we kind of look for him. We kind of got on him in the Golden State game about not taking a shot that was open for him late in the game, and he came out tonight and let it fly. So when he’s got it going like that and is making shots, it opens up the paint for all our drivers and it’s huge for us.”
The shot Davis is referencing came with just under four minutes remaining against the Warriors, when Caldwell-Pope passed up a corner three and gave up the ball to Kyle Kuzma. It eventually ended up in the hands of James, who traveled. He could be seen yelling at Caldwell-Pope for declining the open look right after he was whistled:
But Vogel was never worried about that play, even though it got most of the attention. He said multiple players on the team passed up open looks in that game, something he got on the whole roster about, going out of his way to make it clear to reporters that this was not just a Caldwell-Pope thing, and that he shouldn’t be singled out, despite his low-light drawing most of the attention due to James’ reaction to it.
“You take that play away, and the entire year he’s been a sniper on the back side. I’m not worried about that one play,” Vogel said, and on the flip side, he wasn’t that surprised by Caldwell-Pope’s success to start the road trip in Milwaukee.
“This night tonight is really not a big anomaly for how he’s been playing for us all year, and quite frankly how he played for us in the playoff run last year. He was a big part of the championship that we won, and he’s off to a great start this year,” Vogel said.
But even if he wasn’t, Vogel would keep the faith, just like he did during Caldwell-Pope’s 0-9 start to last season. Vogel’s confidence is unwavering, and while it’s obviously not the sole reason for Caldwell-Pope finding his groove — he and the work he’s put in deserve most of the credit — however much it is responsible for doesn’t matter, because if Caldwell-Pope keeps this up, he and Vogel may be well on their way to another post-championship heart-to-heart.
And in the end, that’s what Vogel is coaching for.