The unknown is something ominous. It’s a word that conjures shadows, doubt and has no limitations. In sports, specifically when it comes to prospect evaluation, the unknown can trigger similar emotions, but also, represent opportunity.
On Thursday night, the Lakers stepped into the unknown with the 35th pick in this year’s draft by selecting Michigan State freshman Max Christie, a move that could pay major dividends for the team, or leave them the victim of their own hubris.
It is not difficult to see why the 19-year-old, rail-thin Christie — even for rookie standards — has already been stamped him with the dubious “project” label following his selection.
“Christie is a project, pure and simple,” Sam Vecenie of the Athletic stated in his post-draft analysis of the Lakers’ pick. “A team’s evaluation of him comes down to where it is organizationally with its roster spots and how confidently it feels about developing his frame over the next two years. He will not be effective as a rookie.”
The support-system and patient development cycle that most young players needs is something the Lakers could offer Christie, but for now, his growth may have to take a backseat to their current priorities.
By virtue of LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ rostering, the Lakers are still very much in win-now mode. The inclusion of a still teenager into that pressure-cooker of a basketball environment feels like a dicey attempt to serve both present and future ends — a slippery slope few have mastered.
The team’s bucking of conventional wisdom is not just a blip, however, but rather, the latest example of the organization swinging for the fences. Examples of the team’s history of chancy moves include betting on another teenage project in Talen Horton-Tucker, reshaping the roster a season after winning a championship, and rolling the dice with Russell Westbrook last summer. Moves that have garnered mixed results at best, thus far. The team also recently hired Darvin Ham, a popular move that offers the team upside, but is ultimately dependent on how well a first-time head coach can navigate choppy waters.
In order for the Christie selection to pan out, he will need to prove he can also swim where others have sunk. Fortunately, there are enough signs to feel optimistic about his prospects.
“I think the wrong thing to do in the draft is to just say, ‘We need to get this guy who can play for us right now.’ That’s when you can make big mistakes,” Rob Pelinka told reporters Thursday night. “We wanted to take the player that we thought could help our team in the current, present time but really develop into something special. And we think Max Christie has that DNA.”
Although the Lakers’ selection of Christie was seen as a surprise to many, Pelinka and the team’s proven scouting department are not alone in being fans of the former five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American.
Beyond his aforementioned pedigree, the Chicago native also has flashed the very skills and athletic tools that have become immensely valuable in the current basketball landscape.
At 6’6,” and in possession of a near 6’9” wingspan, Christie’s anthropometric blueprint portends that of a prototypical modern wing — the exact player-type the Lakers noticeably lacked this past season.
At the league’s pre-draft combine, Christie also posted the fastest three-quarter sprint time, the sixth-best standing vertical leap, and finished 10th in the lane agility test among all prospects who participated.
When you combine Christie’s smooth offensive game that hints at an ability to score at all three levels with a versatility on defense that saw him often guarding the opposing team’s best player, Christie’s ability to eventually find success at the next level as a much-coveted 3-and-D wing looks like a worthwhile risk.
The question remains as to how quickly the future “project” can become a present contributor.
He can accelerate towards the latter possibility if his defense can translate immediately, a rarity in young players but a valuable key in finding a spot in the rotation as the likes of Austin Reaves and Alex Caruso did before him. Those who have worked closely with him suggest he may be on track to do so.
“He’s really, really impressed me defensively,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo told the Athletic about his freshman wing.
“He’s a lot better player defensively than he was, I think, in high school, and he’s gotten a lot stronger. I think he’s taken a good game and made it even better — or a great game and made it even better. He’s exciting because he’s just a great kid, great student, he’s got all the intangibles.”
When it comes to “3” element of Christie’s game, it’s a skill that may ultimately be what swings whether the Lakers got the home-run talent they sought out.
In 123 college attempts with the Spartans, Christie converted just 31.7% of his 3-point chances. While the number may be disappointing on its face for Lakers’ fans looking for improved perimeter shooting this upcoming season, there is credence to it being a bit misleading.
His smooth shooting mechanics — highlighted by his Mt. Everest-scaling release point —along with a large sample of impressive shooting as an amateur suggest that improved spacing and conditioning could help Christie could find his stroke once again.
Max Christie's 3PT% was solid most of this past season for MSU. Then February came and he hit a wall.— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) June 24, 2022
NOV, DEC, JAN, MAR: 35/98, 35.7%
FEB: 4/25, 16%
67% of his misses in February were short. In general it seemed like he ran out of juice. March saw a lower MPG & better %.
“A lot of his success will rely on his shot coming back around,” Zach Milner told Silver Screen and Roll. For Milner, whose public work has been seen in The Stepien and most recently in a private role, Christie — and his jumper — have been of interest.
“According to the Cerebro Sports database, Christie shot 39.6% (42-106) from three over 20 games in 2019 that included UAA and FIBA U16s, if that does happen again, I think his game translates well to the next level. I actually thought Christie deserved top 20 consideration this year, and felt confident he should be a first round pick, so grabbing him at number 35 is good value.”
Despite the limitations that naturally come with a being a rookie, and one whose body will likely need time to develop before he can effectively contribute at the next level, it is understandable why the Lakers were entranced by Christie’s skills and physical tools, especially when given their limited resources to obtain a player with either, let alone both.
Two-way wings simply do not grow on trees. With their scarce supply and increasing demand sending their value skywards in recent years, this leaves a team like the Lakers — who are strapped for cap-space and trade assets — limited in their options to acquire one.
The hope is the Christie pick sets them on their road to acquiring what they will have difficulty doing otherwise. And it may just pay off if they have the patience to see it to the end.
“We really think he’s a guy that if he would’ve chosen to go back to school, you’re talking about a guy that could’ve easily been in the top 20, top 15 of next year’s draft,” Pelinka expressed following the draft. “So to be able to get a player like that and develop him with the 35th pick is rare, and we’re really proud.”
Without a minute played yet at the professional level, Christie will continue to be the mystery box the Lakers plunged into the unknown after. Until that seal is broken, the possibilities for both windfalls and downfalls are endless.
Rewards are typically reserved for those willing to accept some risk; those who not only embrace the unknown, but seek it out. There were likely safer picks than Christie when the Lakers found themselves on the clock, but they have proven to be gamblers. That’s their creed they’ve chosen to follow.
Boom or bust be damned.