Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every weekday, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at Damian Jones.
There will be a trail of footprints waiting for Damian Jones to follow in once he steps back on the floor for the Lakers this upcoming season.
No, they are not the gargantuan ones left by the storied names hanging in the rafters. Instead, they belong to the centers who have most recently played for the team — some even belonging to Jones himself, left behind after his first stint in Los Angeles back in 2021. These will serve as his roadmap this year.
The Lakers’ asks of their bouncy big are relatively simple: be athletic, finish your chances around the cup and be a deterrent on defense.
How well he can perform these tasks in his biggest role to date will be the deciding factor if his return to L.A. ends up being a successful one.
What is his best-case scenario?
Since the arrival of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers have experimented with the deployment of various kinds of bigs behind their stars.
But after finding the most success during their championship-winning season when they trotted out a King Ghidora-esqe trio of centers that caught lobs and blocked shots at a head-spinning rate, the Lakers have since tried to recapture that formula with mixed results.
Fortunately for Jones, the checklist of skills the team has recently sought from the 5-spot aligns swimmingly with his strengths.
He is a rangy, fluid athlete with good hands, and at just 27 years old, should provide the Lakers a much-needed infusion of fresh legs at of the center position. The average age of the squad’s previous five centers — excluding Anthony Davis — is 31.5 years old.
When looking at how Jones fared in a few areas on offense versus the team’s most recent center tandem of DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard, it becomes even clearer that his transition back into a similar role should be a smooth one.
As the graph above illustrates, Jones performed better nearly across the board compared to the bigs he will be replacing. And specifically, that superiority came on the very same play types and shot attempts he likely will be handed this upcoming campaign.
For more context, according to The BBall-Index’s “rim shot-making” metric — a catch-all stat that measures a player’s ability to finish around the rim when taking into account the degree of difficulty and where the shot comes from — Jones ranked in the 98th percentile of the league this past year. Howard and Jordan clocked in at the 76th and 7th(!) percentiles, respectively.
For the Lakers, the hope is that Jones continues to trend upward, or at the very least, outperform his predecessors and be able to replicate what was arguably his strongest season of his career last year in Sacramento.
Offensively, Jones’ combination of athletic tools and touch around the basket should thrive next to James’ playmaking and Davis’ gravity. Whether it’s catching off the roll, finishing out of the dunker spot or throwing down a thunderous lob, Jones will have plenty of chances to showcase he the’s right player for the job.
What is his worst-case scenario?
On paper, Jones perfectly fits the archetype of big that the team has recently sought after. However, as last season’s Lakers proved, something that looks good on paper doesn't always lead to success.
Up until now, the majority of Jones’ playing career has come within a reduced role and low-stakes environments.
His brightest flashes have come most recently on a Kings team that won just 30 games last season. Now a member of a Lakers team that has clear aspirations to get back into the title contention picture, the amount of pressure on Jones will be exponentially higher than anything he’s encountered in his professional career.
Beyond the brighter spotlight, there is also the question of how he adjusts from a physical standpoint to what will likely be the largest playing role he’s had in the NBA. While it remains to be seen how Darvin Ham plans on doling out minutes, Thomas Bryant and Anthony Davis’ recent injury history suggest that Jones may be tasked with pushing past his career-highs of 56 games and 1017 minutes played.
Outperforming his predecessors isn’t the tallest of tasks, but only time will tell if Jones is up to it both physically and mentally.
What is his most likely role on the team?
Similar to most role players, Jones excels when he’s put in a position to do only the things he is best at. The list of his strengths is short, but sweet, as he can both finish and contest at a high level.
On offense, Jones will likely serve as the team’s primary vertical threat. Jones will be responsible for catching lobs out of the pick and roll, rim-running in transition, and being the occasional mismatch beater who James and the team’s guards can find over the top.
Jones is able to accomplish these things thanks to his nimbleness. Despite being a seven-footer, he navigates pockets of space well, can operate within tight quarters, and has a feathery touch that helps him cash in on his chances when there's resistance at the rim.
In other instances, when force is the way to go, defenders definitely should take heed of his eagerness to serve up a poster at a moment’s notice.
On defense, Jones will be asked to shore up the paint and help the Lakers improve on the 67% shooting they allowed at the rim last season (fifth-worst). Similar to his strengths on offense, Jones relies on some elite physical tools to make his impact felt.
His quick feet help him make up ground as well as stay attached on and off the ball. He also navigates the pick-and-roll well out of a drop or at the level of the ball-handler. And his length (7’4 wingspan) proved to be an effective asset last season when going straight up or coming over to contest at the backline.
The advanced metrics paint a similar picture:
Beyond his tangible tools, Jones’ motor should also be a welcome addition on a team that far too often played at a snail's pace and looked unable to hang with their opposition on a purely athletic or sheer desire level.
Defense is as much mental as it is physical, and Jones has shown the flashes to possess both.
Although he was not the buzziest addition of the offseason, Jones very well could be one of the team’s most important swing players.
If he can continue to improve while proving he can thrive within a bigger opportunity, he should easily outperform the minimum contract he signed for. And if he doesn't, the Lakers still have a big enough safety net in the form of both Bryant and Davis slotting in at the 5-spot when needed to protect them.
Jones fortunately already has the compass and altimeter to help him on his flight to success.
Tasked with protecting the skies from rim-bound bogies and throwing down the passes only he can reach, Damian Jones is primed to breathe life back into the center position that has — for the Lakers — been grounded for far too long.