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Can Kendrick Nunn live up to the Lakers’ faith in him this season?

After turning down more money to come to Los Angeles, Kendrick Nunn could be key for the Lakers this season as a valuable role player.

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2020 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every week day, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at Kendrick Nunn.

The Lakers’ financial and roster constraints this offseason left them with effectively one way of bringing in an external free agent on any contract greater than a veteran minimum: The taxpayer’s midlevel exception. That they used said exception on Kendrick Nunn shows their belief in a young player, while also putting pressure on him to deliver this season. Contenders almost always need their midlevel signings to pan out, and the Lakers will be no exception.

The good news is that there are reasons for optimism on that front. Nunn established himself as a talented player during his two years with the Miami Heat, highlighted by a runner-up finish to Ja Morant for the Rookie of the Year award in 2019-20, ahead of Zion Williamson. He only improved his efficiency across the board in his second season, one of the few bright spots in a frustrating and disappointing season for the Heat.

But like the Lakers in the past, Miami’s eyes were on bigger fish, and Nunn was let go so the team could bring in veteran point guard Kyle Lowry despite his impressive two years. Even still, Nunn was likely to get a hefty contract as a highly efficient combo guard but turned down more money to join the Lakers and compete for a title once again.

On a Lakers roster full of veterans, Nunn is a breath of fresh air, not just in terms of age at 26 years old, but also in terms of his playing style. An energetic guard that has shown an ability to score at multiple levels, Nunn will be able to step in and contribute from day one in Los Angeles, and the team will need him to.

Nunn’s successful rookie season featured him averaging 15.3 points per game in 67 contests, and he finished with an effective field goal percentage of 52.1%. His performance in the Finals against the Lakers also wasn’t enough to overcome the injury to Goran Dragic, a tough ask of any rookie.

Despite the short offseason that left many of the Heat and Lakers scrambling and injured, Nunn showed vast improvements as a scorer in his second year in the NBA. His field goal percentage jumped five percent, his three-point percentage improved by three percent and his free throw percentage went from an already stellar 85% to 93.3%. Add it all up, and Nunn’s effective field goal percentage last season was 58.2%.

Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

For reference, of players with at least 650 field goal attempts last season — Nunn shot 658 — only 14 had a higher effective field goal percentage than Nunn. Factor out the centers and Nunn had the 10th best effective field goal percentage last season, just ahead of LeBron James and just below Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The value of a three-level scorer in the modern NBA doesn’t need to be explained, especially for a Lakers team that will need big contributions from its multitude of role players this season. Per Cleaning the Glass, Nunn’s 3-point percentage ranked in the 65th percentile among guards, while his mid-range percentage ranked in the 67th percentile. Perhaps most intriguingly, he shot 69% on shots at the rim, ranking in the 89th percentile for combo guards last season.

For that reason, Nunn will see big minutes this season. His off-ball scoring will allow him to feature in any lineup alongside LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. According to Synergy, Nunn’s two most common play types were in the pick and roll and as a spot-up shooter. In the latter, he ranked in the 88th percentile while finishing in the 92nd percentile in unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunities.

His on-ball ability will be important, too, as the pick and roll has been his most common play type in both his seasons. And while he was just a tick below exactly average last season by ranking in the 47th percentile, that was one of the few areas he was better at in his rookie season when he was a 67th percentile pick-and-roll ballhandler — in more possessions, even.

Offensively, Nunn is a versatile player who can attack in a variety of ways and should find success with the Lakers as a result. But with Frank Vogel as coach, the Lakers will always put an emphasis on the defensive end, which may be what limits Nunn’s playing time. Last season, Nunn’s 111.6 defensive rating was worst among rotation players on the Heat, and Miami was over three points better defensively per 100 possessions with him off the court.

While defense is a hard thing to measure with one number or statistic, most don’t paint him in a favorable light. Nunn’s ranks in Defensive Box Plus-Minus or Cleaning the Glass’ defensive metrics aren’t great, though ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranked him 25th among shooting guards defensively. It’s a slippery slope to measure defense in a vacuum, but Nunn will certainly have to prove his worth on that end of the court.

If he can, there’s a legitimate case for Nunn to be a starter alongside Russell Westbrook, James and Anthony Davis. Even if he can’t, he’ll see big minutes because of his offensive skillset. Most importantly, though, the Lakers NEED him to play well. To assemble a title-winning team around superstars — especially a Big Three — teams need players to outperform their contracts. The Lakers targeted several players they hope can do so, especially Nunn and Malik Monk, two young players with high ceilings.

Rob Pelinka took a risk that Miami wasn’t willing to take in bringing Nunn in this season, and did so with the Lakers’ only mechanism for signing a player to a non-minimum contract. Now, Nunn will have to return the Lakers’ faith and perform this year. If he does, the Lakers’ risk could pay off in a big way and bring them even closer to another banner in the rafters. If he doesn’t, next summer is unlikely to treat him much better than this one did.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.

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