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The Lakers are hoping Max Christie makes a huge leap this season — can he do it?

Max Christie enters his second season with a rotation spot for the taking and a pathway to even more than that... if he’s ready to make a leap.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers

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 Max Christie.

Max Christie spent his rookie campaign jet-setting between the G League and the Lakers' main team in hopes of getting as much on-court experience as he could with the South Bay squad and then learning as much as possible from a group of established veterans when called back up to the big club.

This approach, along with putting in extra work on his ballhandling, shooting and general all-around skills before and after practices and games has earned Christie the reputation of a strong worker bee. A reputation that, even without the comments from coaches and teammates about his general ethic, would be obvious by the gains he’s made in developing his once-wiry frame with the type of muscle and improved strength that will pay dividends over the course of what he hopes will be a long NBA career.

This past Summer, Christie showed the value of the work he’s put in with an impressive run through both the California Classic and the Las Vegas Summer League. Tasked with being the team’s number one option, Christie shot efficiently from beyond the arc (50% on 4 attempts a game) and from the charity stripe (perfect on 6.3 attempts a game) while scoring 19 points a game, showed off improved ball handling and shot creation ability off the dribble in isolation and when running pick-and-rolls, and did it all while being the team’s top defensive option for the opponent’s best player whenever he was in the game.

Heading into a contract year that will ultimately lead him to a restricted free agent market that is — Austin Reaves notwithstanding — not typically robust for players with only two years of experience, Christie will look to jump on a similar track as Reaves, who parlayed a second season leap into a hefty pay raise and an established role on a team hoping to win an NBA championship.

What is his best-case scenario?

This is a pretty straightforward season for Christie in that he has both a pathway to the rotation spot that he covets, and the type of three-and-D game that fits well on any roster, but particularly one led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

At a baseline level, then, Christie winning the competition for backup shooting guard and establishing himself as a firm rotation player is one of the better outcomes for him this season, particularly because of the depth on the wing that he’ll be up against. Whether it is the established Taurean Prince (who is more of a small forward, but Darvin Ham already alluded to as a potential option at SG in “bigger” lineups) or the pedigree and talent level of Cam Reddish (who has all the same physical tools as Max — and is even more athletic, but does not project to be the same level of shooter), Christie is facing hungry players who want the same thing he does.

Beating both out would be real win for Christie, and him doing so shouldn’t be taken as a given. That said, the absolute best case isn’t that Max just wins this rotation spot, but that he plays so well that he begins to infringe on some of the roles of his more established teammates.

For example, can Christie prove strong enough as a point-of-attack defender and general defensive pest to absorb some of the minutes allotted to Jarred Vanderbilt? Can he take and make three-pointers at a high enough rate to eat into some of the minutes that would, under normal circumstances, go to D’Angelo Russell or Gabe Vincent?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s likely for Christie to supplant any of these veterans entirely. But a world in which his defensive ability takes a major leap forward to the point that he’s a viable option to put on some of the league’s better wing offensive talents is not out of the question. Nor would it be shocking if his shooting, in conjunction with his defense, becomes so knockdown that the less polished ball handling and shot creation he offers in comparison to the other guards matters less than his positional size and ability to play a complementary role at a high level.

Again, neither of these paths are particularly likely. But the Lakers believe in Christie and it looks as though he will be afforded every opportunity to justify that belief — just as he has to this point of his young career through all the work he’s put in to get to the point he is at already.

What is his worst-case scenario?

When Max Christie walked into Michigan St. as a McDonald’s All-American, he was projected to be another one of Tom Izzo’s success stories who would ultimately prove to have a combination of defensive chops and offensive upside (with high-level shooting) worthy of ultimately becoming a lottery pick.

Instead, Christie didn’t make shots in his Freshman season and his defense, while fundamentally sound and showing the bones of a strong foundation, wasn’t great enough to make a huge impact at the NCAA level. Christie then left after that lone college season and fell to the second round of the draft, where the Lakers took him — and at pick No. 35 might have even “reached” for him based on where some mock drafts had him (several had him going in the 40’s).

A worst-case scenario this upcoming season might look eerily similar to what Christie experienced at the college level, in that his shot-making does not live up to where it is expected to be and his defense is good, but not great enough to justify the investment with a real rotation spot over the course of the season. Instead, then, Christie becomes a spot rotation player of sorts, getting inconsistent minutes based on player injury, foul trouble, or as a change of pace option when the coach just wants to give him a random shot on any given night.

With this sort of partial commitment, Christie doesn’t get the reps he needs to really improve, but also doesn’t get as many chances in the G League because those opportunities are instead reserved for Jalen Hood-Schifino and Maxwell Lewis, both of whom are under contract for multiple seasons while Christie’s deal is up next summer.

Christie, then, becomes a sort of half-prospect who is still young enough to invest in and still has enough promise to believe he’ll come around eventually, but is stuck between worlds with a Lakers group that doesn’t have the developmental minutes with the big club and has other quality young players who will get the minor league minutes in the hopes of them being able to make the leap Christie wasn’t able to.

Just for clarity’s sake, I don’t believe this is what happens to Max this season, but the outline of this sort of turn is certainly on the table whenever a young player is looking to claw out a role on a team hoping to win the championship.

What is his most likely role on the team?

In every step of Max Christie’s brief career he’s proven willing to put in work, and then shown how the work has paid off in order to grow the belief around him that he’ll fulfill his promise as a prospect. The player he was in his first summer league games back in 2022 barely resembled what he was able to display this past July, and the incremental steps over those 12 months were evident to anyone paying attention to his efforts to improve.

This season, the expectation should be that these trends continue and that he achieves what he has stated out loud multiple times since the end of the regular season — that he wants to a rotation spot and to play a real role for the Lakers.

And while the front office has done an excellent job of bringing in quality veterans who will challenge Christie to achieve that goal, the natural way his skillset fits next to the team’s best players should translate into him getting exactly what he wants.

That said, this won’t come without hiccups or hurdles. It’s easy to point at Austin Reaves as an avatar for Christie to model his own path after. But Austin’s rookie season came on a team that floundered and flailed its way out of the playoff race entirely, and his second season started under a 2-10 specter that required trying every imaginable option in the search for a way out of the hole. Austin’s rise wasn’t flukey by any means, but it certainly didn’t come under the expectations of a team that is a near-consensus preseason pick to compete for the championship.

So Christie’s path will come with much more scrutiny, and with the burden of him needing to fulfill a role towards helping a team trying to achieve greatness. This is amplified even further because that team is the Lakers. There are plenty of players who have proven not to be built for such a spotlight over the years, and if the same were said about a second-year player who is less than 18 months removed from being selected in the 2nd round, no one should feign huge surprise.

But, if I had to guess what was more likely...

  1. that Christie fails in his pursuits
  2. or that he comes out the other side of this pressure looking like a rotation player who was ready to take advantage of the opportunity afforded to him

...I’d pick the latter every single time. Because Christie, first and foremost, has shown he is about the work.

And when that is your approach, things have a way of working out.

You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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