Outside of allowing players to find their land legs and kick the last remnants of their summer hangovers, the purpose of the NBA preseason revolves around turning the theoretical into reality.
Teams transfer offseason depth-charts, lineup configurations, and play-diagrams from whiteboards onto the hardwood for the first time. This is the state of metamorphosis where the experimentation and evaluation process can finally begin.
Although these games are ultimately still just exhibitions, there are still kernels of truth — both positive and damning — that can be revealed about the campaign ahead. The Lakers have proven no exception to this through their first three games.
Despite still not receiving a significant sample of the team’s expected core players on the floor at the same time, there have been glimpses of Darvin Ham’s new system being put into effect, players beginning to define their roles and a general sense of optimism for fans to cling onto.
What follows are three early positives from a team still very much rehearsing ahead of opening night.
Wenyen Gabriel, ever-growing
Wenyen Gabriel doesn't want to go back to where he was prior to joining the Lakers. That’s because there is no “there” to go back to, instead, only the liminal space he occupied during his ongoing search for somewhere to call home.
Before signing with Los Angeles late last season, Gabriel was the epitome of the life of a player trapped in basketball limbo. He wore four different jerseys before signing with the team last year alone, and has now donned nine (including the G-League) thus far in his short career.
Fortunately, Gabriel made enough of a splash in his new surroundings to survive a mass-exodus of the club’s roster over the summer and has since emerged as one the most impressive players for the team this preseason.
In many ways, the Lakers continue to be the right place at the right time for the 25-year-old as they continue to sorely lack size, defense and energy at the forward position just as they did before inking Gabriel last year.
It is a roster hole Gabriel will not individually be able to shore up, but if his play thus far is any indication, there may not be many — if any — options already on the roster better suited to bandage the situation.
Standing at 6’9” and equipped with a 7’1” wingspan, Gabriel is arguably one of the most physically versatile players Darvin Ham will be able to rely on during the regular season. Gabriel’s frame has already showed to have utility, as he’s shifted between forward and center, and proven capable both in a drop or as the helper within Ham’s defensive scheme thanks to his quick feet and seemingly never-ending arms and legs.
In addition to fueling his athletic tools, Gabriel plays with a palpable hunger. His always-hot motor drives Gabriel’s furious stampedes down the floor on the break, thrilling weak-side blocks, and a bloodhound-esque nose for the offensive glass — an area where he ranked in the 99th percentile in among forwards last season, according to Cleaning the Glass.
All the things Gabriel has shown this preseason aren't necessarily new, but that does not make them any less useful.
This is especially the case on a team that continues to lack the specific set of skills this journeyman just so happens to possess, which could end up proving to be the very thing that helps expand his role in a front-court that’s still in-flux.
Kendrick Nunn flinging it
It took just less than two minutes of his first uniformed basketball action in over a year for Kendrick Nunn to let it fly from deep.
Fittingly, the shot and corresponding splash came courtesy of Anthony Davis’ dish out of a double-team. It was a sequence and result Lakers’ fans had hoped to see a lot of from Nunn last year, but unfortunately never came to fruition due to what became a season-ending bone bruise suffered during the team’s last preseason.
Now, Nunn is finally back on the floor, quickly acclimating to a role beside the team’s stars — a process that has been sped up by the multi-dimensionality of his jump-shooting.
Through the team’s first three games, Nunn has converted exactly half of his 10 3-point attempts on what have mostly been the types of looks he’s expected to see next to the likes of Davis, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook this year. He’s also showcased his pull-up ability in both transition and as the pick and roll ball-handler.
Beyond Nunn's obvious good health and ancillary benefits he provides on both sides of the floor, the three-ball falling hopefully is a only continuation of what has been has a strong shooting profile for Nunn early in his career.
With the Heat, Nunn proved to be a reliable off-ball weapon and floor-spacer as he drilled 38.1% of combined catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts and 42.7% of his wide-open looks.
As a part of an already crowded backcourt, Nunn has begun to separate himself early on from the pack during the exhibitions thanks to his shooting ability, which if it can translate to the regular season, could go a long way in solidifying his spot as one of the team’s go-to options.
Turning good shots into great ones
One of the main highlights of the preseason thus far has been the noticeable improvements to the Lakers’ offense.
Although the shooting numbers or point totals may paint a different picture, the emphasis should be on the process, not the result. The quality of looks combined with the spatial advantages coming from Ham’s 4-out-1-in approach continue to be an encouraging development.
One staple to this free-flowing and high-tempo scoring attack has been the team’s willingness to make the extra pass. This was an area in particular where last season’s squad consistently floundered, which resulted in a high volume of isolations and stagnant possessions.
According to the league’s tracking data, the Lakers ranked 17th in passes made and received per game last season, as well as 20th in secondary (hockey) assists — those logged when a player passes the ball to a teammate who then records an assist within one second and without dribbling.
Despite potentially running into the pitfalls of redundancy and overcrowding down the line, one of the benefits of this year’s roster is the slew of players with strong playmaking ability and more importantly, a willingness to operate as connectors for others.
Austin Reaves, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Patrick Beverley are excellent examples of players who understand the value of the pass after the pass. They leverage the gravity of stars, often coming via direct actions with them (screener) then pinpoint the weaknesses of a collapsed defense either by attacking a closeout or making the extra swing pass that results in someone being open.
"You can't pass it better than they just did." pic.twitter.com/aqUqqI2ySL— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) October 6, 2022
This understanding of ball movement, and in particular, action and reaction, are important ingredients to any successful offense. The Lakers are well-equipped to be one of the better playmaking teams in the league in this regard given their personnel, but there does have to be a level of sacrifice and buy-in before that could happen.
It’s still tremendously early, but under Ham’s new system, the Lakers are seeing the ball hum around the court in search of the great shots, not the good ones.
Regardless of the outcome of the final shot, that is a process that’s worth getting excited for.
The Lakers still have a lot of rehearsing to do during the preseason before they hit centerstage on opening night, but there seems to be positive momentum building already.
Understudies are emerging as potential contributors and the choreography has been sorted, creating a sense that the LakeShow could click into place by the time they transcend the dress rehearsal stage of the season.
Improvements are being made daily, and even if only incremental, it’s a good start for a team that is sorely in need of one.