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Matt Ryan keeps finding his way on to the court for the Lakers

The Lakers’ 15th man is making fun things happen, at least on offense.

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Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers’ deficiencies on the wing were well-documented heading into the season, but an underlooked aspect of the roster was how light they were on frontcourt players period.

Thomas Bryant missing the first month of the season compounds that, but the Lakers are really struggling to find big bodies to put on the court. Damian Jones has been ill-equipped to handle even backup center minutes. Wenyen Gabriel was in the G League at this point last year; as important as his energy has been for the Lakers, he’s still someone who has averaged about 11 minutes per game in his NBA career and who’s trying to do center things in a 6’9 body. Perhaps the Lakers were relying on Juan Toscano-Anderson to fill in some forward minutes, but he’s also only 6’6.

That leaves only one 6’7 player for the job — and no, it’s not Cole Swider despite my pod partner Raj Chipalu’s pleas all summer. Somehow, Matt Ryan, the last player signed to this roster, might be the Lakers’ third big. Ryan is averaging more minutes per game than Gabriel or Jones. If your counter-argument is that Ryan has only played in four contests, well, his total minutes still exceed those of Gabriel or Jones.

What’s amazing about Ryan’s early-season performance is that the NBA has supposedly become more punishing in recent years. If a player has any weaknesses, opposing teams will strike. And yet, Ryan does one thing — and really only one thing — well. But he’s so good at that specific skill that the Lakers keep finding minutes for him, and it keeps working out in their favor.

In the four games that Ryan has played, the Lakers have won his minutes three times for a total mark of plus-17 in 51 minutes. That’s tied for the best plus-minus on the team with Gabriel. Admittedly, it’s been a very small sample, and there isn’t a lot of tape yet on Ryan for opponents to attack. But it was a great story when Ryan made the roster, and it’s been equally cool to watch him function as an actual NBA player in real games.

Against Denver, it was a treat to see Ryan’s confidence on offense. His hands are always in position to catch the ball and he is ready to go up. He missed his first three of the night but was perfectly placed for the catch-and-shoot nonetheless. When Ryan got another chance in the third quarter, he’s calling for the ball before Austin Reaves has even gotten the screen from Anthony Davis to drive into the lane. And on his second three, Ryan knows he probably made a mistake taking the dribble pull-up, but he atones for that error by spotting up in the corner, ready to fire on the offensive rebound.

Defensively, the Matt Ryan experience hasn’t been nearly as fun. He let two cutters zoom past him to the rim on the same possession in the second quarter, Michael Porter Jr. for the offensive rebound and then Ish Smith for the lay-up, and was fortunate that Davis was there to clean up the mess. Ryan was on the court for the team’s 17-0 run spanning the third and fourth and solidly tracked Christian Braun for the majority of that stretched, but it’s still a little scary to watch him navigate through screens and try to box out wings of his height who have a strength advantage on him.

Ryan did have one nice contest on Porter, a player whose mobility upon returning from injury doesn’t exactly the Lakers forward. Ryan also ran back in transition to contest Porter in the lane, giving Patrick Beverley just enough time to meet Porter but ultimately foul him.

As long as the Lakers find themselves in rumors of imbalanced trades, the players at the back end of the roster can’t feel super certain about their place on the team. Even if Ryan is out-performing a couple of his teammates at this juncture, he’s probably the first player on the chopping block if the Lakers need to open up a roster spot.

For now, Ryan is still the player who inspires the most confidence when he launches a 3-pointer, and though that’s a low bar to clear on this roster, it makes for a fun watch. That means we’ll keep celebrating Ryan’s NBA journey for as long as we can.

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

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