Years before Christian Wood made his Lakers’ debut, he met the man who would become his advocate, and eventually, his head coach.
After bouncing around the league in the early stages of his career, Wood found an opportunity with the Milwaukee Bucks and their G-League affiliate in 2018. Although it wasn’t the first time or place he crossed paths with then-assistant coach, Darvin Ham, it was during this time the two would forge a bond.
Despite eventually going their separate ways in their careers, Ham would maintain contact with the “lanky kid” he helped mentor years ago.
“He will tell you, I always checked on him,” Ham told Andscape’s Marc Spears. “He was in Detroit, New Orleans and went on to other places, Dallas even, I tapped in with him.”
Ham checked in on Wood again over this past summer. This time, to convince him to join his team. After canvassing the league for a new contract, the 28-year-old began to see money and chances dried up. His spotty reputation of being a no-defense-playing, stat-hunting player, seemed to put his once budding career on ice. He needed a new environment. A new coat of paint. A lifeline.
With a roster spot still open and the Lakers’ clear need for front-court depth still a priority, Ham was aggressive in his pursuit. The coach tirelessly “worked” Rob Pelinka to get him on board with his vision of where the big could fit in on the roster. But he didn’t stop there.
“He called me every day in free agency,” Wood later revealed after eventually signing with Los Angeles. “I could say that now.”
Like anyone, athlete or not, Wood desired the universal urge to be wanted. Who better to help offer it than the man who had put his figurative and literal arm around him for all these years?
These calls were not only an attempt to persuade Pelinka and Wood to trust his hunch but also a reflection of Ham’s confidence — not simply in Wood but also as a head coach and his ability to get even the most stubborn zebra to change their stripes.
There was initially some understandable skepticism about the signing. Even though the cost and downside were relatively low with the minimum deal Wood inked, many felt his past obscured his outlook even on an entirely new team with entirely new expectations.
In Houston, Wood perceived himself as the big fish in a small pond. He gobbled up shot attempts, usage and overlooked everything else. Because that’s what was innate. That’s what the ecosystem said was right as the guy at the top of the food chain.
In Dallas, Wood was tasked with taking a step aside for a larger, more decorated fish in Luka Doncic. The partnership made sense on paper, but in actuality, Wood’s role and favor within the organization fluctuated wildly after stretches of shoddy defense and effort.
For his detractors, Wood’s merry-go-round of arrivals and exits was proof that his one-dimensional view of the game would never be conducive to winning. His eighth team in his eighth season would be no different.
Although it’s only been five games into the new season — a granted extremely small sample — Wood’s play thus far is proving Ham’s unwavering belief was warranted mainly because, for arguably the first time since making a name for himself, Wood is contributing tactile things to winning basketball.
He is no longer fighting for his place in the pond, but instead, helping maintain its clarity.
Despite his aforementioned checkered reputation, there is no arguing Wood’s talent. Armed with a unique combination of size and skill, the big smoothly has assimilated himself within the Lakers’ game plan on both ends of the ball.
On defense, a long-standing weak point of his game, Wood has looked like a new player. He has been engaged and helped fill in important gaps that the Lakers’ starting unit in particular has been hindered by.
Due to a small perimeter group, the team has routinely been burned on the boards and in mismatches whenever Anthony Davis is not in a position to offer help. As a result, the team has had to rely on funneling everything into Davis’ drop coverage in these units to try and deter the opposition from hunting out leaky faucets.
While Wood’s presence has not solved every issue by any means, he has offered the Lakers’ defense much more versatility. Beyond providing more size on the backline, he has paved the way for the team to switch more often. Wood has even already had a handful of standout moments hanging with several stars on the perimeter, showcasing his agile feet and length in the process.
The other area where Wood’s impact has been most felt on the defensive end has come on the glass. As previously stated, given the size deficit with the Lakers’ current starting group, opposing teams have made a concerted effort to lure Davis out to the perimeter to exploit the unguarded castle behind him.
Outside of more rim attempts with Davis preoccupied, this has also directly led to teams outmuscling offensive rebounds away from Los Angeles. Not only extending defensive possessions but putting more tax on Davis as well to try and be in multiple places at once.
According to Cleaning the Glass, when Davis has been the sole big on the floor this season, the Lakers are allowing their opposition to rebound 26.1% of their misses and have a woeful defRTG of 122.2.
This is where Wood’s size in particular has helped fortify the holes in the barrier. When Davis has been engaged away from the paint, it is now the 6’11” big who can swarm in to clean up the glass rather than the team’s guards and wings being responsible for boxing out bigger players.
The front-court pairing's early returns have been extremely encouraging. As of this article, the Lakers are giving up an offREB% rate of just 23.8% and holding their opposition to an unbelievable 84.3 defRTG when Davis and Wood have shared the floor (+32.7 net).
Even if the latter metrics will likely not be sustainable, the effort level and optionality Wood has shown is a fertile foundation the team and their coaching staff could build upon.
With so much of the focus and early acclaim being given to Wood’s defense, his offense remains his calling card, albeit now coming in a more streamlined and subtle version.
One of the biggest changes Ham and his staff have made this season compared to last is the implementation of a 5-out setup in the half-court. Naturally, having bigs who can space and initiate offense from the top of the key helps grease the wheels of the alignment, which is likely what made Wood such an appealing free-agent target.
Thus far, Wood has shown how his gravity can be useful as he has predominantly slotted himself behind the arc to maximize spacing potential. Especially in lineups where the Lakers play two — and most recently three — bigs.
The Lakers haven’t fully capitalized on Wood’s shooting prowess yet (5-13 from three), but there have been glimpses of what he can bring to the table as a catch-and-shoot threat, pick-and-pop partner and even attacking closeouts by putting the ball on the floor.
After several seasons as the focal point of an offense, Wood has noticeably taken a backseat in his new surroundings.
His current 15.2% usage rate would rank the lowest of any season he’s played more than 15 games in. As a direct result, 80% of his makes so far have been set up by a teammate. That’s a 9% jump from his mark with Dallas and 12% up from his last season in Houston.
Although it was expected that Wood would need to alter his game to fit in next to the likes of LeBron James and Davis, he deserves credit for how seamless the transition has been.
It will continue to take time and reps to see if this shift in Wood’s playstyle and mindset is here to stay or if it is yet another case of an early season mirage.
“Winning, that is my next thing,” Wood said before the year. “I’ve already proved that I’m an NBA player. I’m a rotation player and I could play in these games. My next step is trying to win as many games as possible. Trying to affect the game in a winning way.”
Whether it’s holding up on a switch, soaring in for a rebound or creating room for others, Wood has backed up everything he’s said since arriving in Los Angeles.
There will assuredly be bumps along the way for Wood this season, but it may finally be time to make a pond a home. No matter what it takes.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.