Outside of Marc Gasol, it’s probably fair to say that no Laker has had a tougher last few weeks than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Lakers openly shopped their starting shooting guard in in the lead-up to the NBA trade deadline, and subsequently leaked that it was because they wanted to be able to keep Alex Caruso, Dennis Schröder and Talen Horton-Tucker in the offseason.
At the time, Caldwell-Pope said the rumors didn’t bother him, but his play at the very least suggested something was off. Over the last eight games prior to the Lakers’ Friday night win against the Sacramento Kings, Caldwell-Pope was shooting just 29.4% from the field and 29.2% from three. He was slumping. Badly.
Whether that was at all influenced by the deluge of trade rumors involving him we’ll never know for sure, but Lakers head coach Frank Vogel noticed that something was wrong, and went to Caldwell-Pope on Friday with a message.
“I talked to him pregame tonight and said that we need him to play more of a scoring role with [Anthony Davis and LeBron James] out, and I want him to be more aggressive. Both in catch-and-shoot, attacking off the bounce, mid-range pull-ups, whatever he needs to do to give us more offensively,” Vogel said. “He responded in a big-time way.”
Caldwell-Pope’s response was to scorch the Kings for four threes, and his activity and speed looked far more akin to the player who was indispensable to the Lakers’ championship run last season, a hungry predator who preys on weak spots in a defense and aggressively hunts opportunities to snipe his opponents into oblivion. His 13 points didn’t tell the whole story. Visually, Caldwell-Pope looked as impactful as he’s been all year.
He blamed himself for this outburst not coming sooner.
“I should have known to be aggressive, hunt shots, shoot the ball, try to get more attempts up, just be out there playing hard,” Caldwell-Pope said. “[Vogel] came to me and was like ‘man, I need you to be aggressive. Look for your shots.’”
Caldwell-Pope took the advice, but Vogel also asked to shoulder some of the blame for not giving it earlier.
“KCP has been struggling, and I want to take some blame for that. Because when AD and Bron go out, KCP’s role with those guys in the lineup is to defend, to hustle, to run the floor and to knock down open shots when they come,” Vogel said. “But with those guys out, I hadn’t talked to KCP about this, and that’s where I take blame.
“He had a great first half, really set a tone for our group that we’re going to go after these guys with our offensive efficiency, and he deserves a lot of credit for tonight’s win as well.”
It wasn’t just Vogel giving Caldwell-Pope a pep talk, either. Just like last year when he was struggling, he says that his teammates never stopped encouraging him.
“We try to pick each other up no matter what is going on. The slump I’m in now, I’ve had guys come up to me every day and continue to tell me to shoot the ball,” Caldwell-Pope said.
But it wasn’t just that Caldwell-Pope was finally listening to his teammates pleas to shoot. It was that he was looking for shots. These weren’t just wide-open, spot-up threes that he had no choice but to take. Look at how actively he was looking to locate weak spots for his triples against the Kings:
Could this be the start of an improved stretch for Caldwell-Pope? He thinks so, in part because he says he needed time to adjust to James and Davis being out.
“When they went down, it put a lot of, I wouldn’t say pressure, but we had to step up a little more than usual,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We needed more scorers out there. Me not being aggressive enough in the past games, not hunting shots, tonight I just wanted to just be aggressive.”
Mission accomplished. And it was clear that Caldwell-Pope’s success gave the whole team a boost. Not just in the functional spacing that his cold-blooded sniping created, but also in the infectious energy he was providing. Watching a guy run the floor like that can’t help but have an effect on the rest of the team.
“When we’re out there, when we’re enjoying the game, sharing the ball, pulling for each other, it’s all fun,” Caldwell-Pope said. “It’s good for myself to just enjoy the game again. And me having a great game, it gives my teammates energy. Getting in transition, running the floor, playing defense, not really caring about anything else, I think it just carries over to everybody else.”
After his teammates picked him up during one of his roughest stretches of the season both on and off the floor, he’s just returning the favor.