EL SEGUNDO —Upon entering the UCLA Health and Training Center, you feel the Lakers' presence the moment you pull into the parking lot. Once you pass through security, the iconic purple and gold colors permeate your senses. The court is just as bright and glorious as the one Crypto.com Arena, retired jersey numbers of the legends we all remember are etched into the walls, and the championship banners they won hang from the ceiling.
Above the court, you can see the front office watching over you from the windows of their offices. Is that Rob Pelinka? One of the Buss brothers? An NBA scout? They aren’t too far away, but just out of reach enough that you can’t distinguish the faces from the floor.
Such is life in the G League. Close to where you want to be, yet still ever so far.
It all begs the question: With the Lakers' main squad — even after an active trade deadline — searching for talent for this year and next to give LeBron a shot at another title, could the player they need be right here, in the very same building the team practices in?
I was sent down to El Segundo to investigate. Here’s what I learned about three candidates.
Chances are, you don’t have as much confidence as Cole Swider. Few humans do.
Swagger oozes out of his pores, and he carries a million-dollar grin while he takes jumper after jumper during his pregame workout.
He’s a certified sniper.
While warming up pregame in January, Cole put on a shooting clinic. He has perfect shooting technique. Wide stance, smooth vertical motion, same follow-through every time. The ball went through the net without ever touching the rim, with a perfect swish 16 times in a row. Swider was unphased. For him, it was just another day in the office, making baskets in all parts of the court, from both corners, the top of the key and the wings.
But while his workout was good, his talk was even better.
“I’m one of the best shooters in the world,” Cole Swider told Silver Screen & Roll. “So obviously, I think the (Lakers’) roster, it’s not a secret to anyone, I think they need some shooting along with the shooting that they have, and I think I can provide that, being 6’9, being able to guard bigger players and being able to get my shot off against smaller defenders.”
In-game, he made 3-pointers every which way. He started with back-to-back treys, one catch and shoot from the left corner, followed by a dribble hand-off three on the right. In the fourth, he executed a beautiful zipper cut, resulting in a top of the key basket. Swider ended the night with four threes, 16 points and was called up to play with the Los Angeles Lakers the following day.
So why have we yet to see more two-way Swider with the Lakeshow? Well, for one, he’s been hurt.
He suffered a stress reaction to his right foot, which sidelined him for weeks. Now that he’s healthy, the hope is he can get more run with both squads.
“I think for me it’s all about just getting my rhythm back; sitting out for ten weeks it’s hard for me,” Swider said. “I’m used to being in the gym every single day, shooting and as a shooter, rhythm is the most important thing.”
If you can shoot a little, the L.A. Lakers need you a lot. A 6’9 wing who can shoot at a consistent clip is invaluable in the NBA. The Lakers are hoping they have one of those modern players in Swider. Only time will tell if they do. For now, you can catch him in El Segundo, averaging 15.7 points and 4.1 rebounds a night in the G League.
Scotty Pippen Jr.
Scotty Pippen Jr. is a rarity among most G Leaguers: A player with a familiar name. The son of Hall-of-Famer Scottie Pippen isn’t hiding from his roots — you can find his six-time-champion dad courtside for virtually every South Bay game cheering his son on, nodding with approval, and grimacing when he makes an ill-advised pass or takes a poor shot.
The privilege of coming from basketball royalty can be a catalyst for nepotism accusations, but unlike other industries, ultimately, you have to produce to be successful in basketball. The younger Pippen’s name and resources may have opened doors for him, but Rob Pelinka and the Lakers signed him as an undrafted rookie because of his play on the court, not the name on the back of his jersey.
“Scotty Pippen Jr., who is just a tenacious defensive-minded kid that is gonna compete every night he plays,” Pelinka said shortly after signing the Villanova guard. “I know he’s gonna compete for a position and play hard and we just loved his attitude when he came here and worked out.”
Scotty has come a long way from this past summer to now. He’s adjusting well to NBA-caliber guards (despite being listed as 6’1) and is a good on-ball and off-ball defender. On Jan. 5, when I was in the building against the Birmingham Squadron, with South Bay trailing by three in the fourth, Scotty helped snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
He applied ball pressure, forced a turnover, and set up Max Christie for the alley-oop. Unfortunately, Max couldn’t convert, but Scotty had the putback. On the very next possession, he intercepts the ball and passes to Shaq Harrison for the breakaway slam to regain the lead and secure the win. He ended the night with a team-high 22 points, 12 assists and 5 rebounds. Scotty was unequivocally the best player on the floor for South Bay that night and his defensive tenacity and ability to score off the dribble are aspects of his game that could transfer to the league.
Being on a two-way deal, Scotty has had the chance to play with the Lakers. So far, he’s clocked in 31 minutes spread out through six games and will likely get more opportunities. And while being on a two-way contract by definition leaves a player tantalizingly close yet perilously far from the NBA dream, Scotty seemed to be taking it all in stride when I sat down with him and asked about his experience playing professionally so far in his rookie campaign.
“As far as the Lakers and playing in the G-League, (I’m) just getting reps down here and preparing myself for when I do get called to go out and make the best out of my opportunities up top,” Pippen Jr. said.
For the South Bay Lakers, he’s been nothing short of spectacular averaging 24.3 points, 6.9 assists and 3.8 rebounds. This play has put the league on notice and earned him a selection to the 2023 Jordan Rising Stars Game happening during NBA All-Star Weekend. So while he may not be at his final destination, Scotty is on the right track.
Jay Huff is the most known unknown of these three. While some might wonder why a team lacking hasn’t called up a 7’1 monster who is averaging 15.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in the G-League, I came in with an open mind curious to see what attributes could translate to the league, and which ones could not.
I came away optimistic.
He terrorized the Birmingham Squadron, dominating the paint on both ends of the floor. Offensively he had spin dunks, a couple of reverse slams and a handful of putbacks. Defensively he only had two blocks, but he altered countless shots forcing players to take bad angles or pass up the attempt completely kicking it back outside.
Jay Huff out here playing on his playground #SBLakers pic.twitter.com/LPY5Z3PFtg— South Bay Lakers (@SouthBayLakers) January 6, 2023
His rim protection was even better the following week against the Oklahoma City Blue. He had six blocks and five defensive rebounds in the victory. He shot 50% from the field and went 2-3 from downtown, showing the potential of becoming more of a stretch five.
So what’s the issue? Why is this 7’1 center not getting run with the Lakers? Of course, the team will never openly say, but one theory is that he’s stuck in limbo. Good for the G-League, but not good enough for the next level. Specifically, on defense, people have said he seems a bit too slow and too weak to handle NBA bigs. I talked to Huff about this hypothesis.
“I would say that I have gotten stronger than I was in college and I think that’s something that I’ve worked on,” Huff told Silver Screen & Roll in a 1 on 1 interview. “I’ve gained weight, I’ve done all that... I want to get strong, but I also want to continue to play the game that got me here.”
With the Lakers acquiring Mo Bamba at the NBA trade deadline, perhaps an opportunity is not in the books for Huff this season. For now, it appears that will only happen if they are out of the play-in picture or someone goes down. Until then, he’ll continue to grow and develop in South Bay.
It’s natural to see the player’s upside and neglect the negatives. You either ignore Huff’s lack of perimeter speed, Scotty’s size and Swider’s defense, or bargain that those things will improve enough that the upside justifies taking a chance.
Ultimately, the question is, can any of these guys play in the NBA? I believe the answer is yes. The Lakers have done an incredible job of developing South Bay players and turning them into NBA talent in years past. Alex Caruso, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Josh Hart all spent time with the South Bay Lakers and are now NBA rotation players. Austin Reaves was just a two-way player until he showed out in camp and now he’s a crucial part of the Lakers rotation. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that one of these players will join that list of successes.
But the development of these players will take time. If the Lakers' track record is any indication, one of these young guys will be in an NBA uniform permanently soon. Still, the timing is tough. With the clock ticking on LeBron James’ prime, the Lakers need help now, not later. So these players need to grow up fast and take advantage of any looks they get with the main team if they want to don purple and gold in 2023.
As I left the UCLA Health & Training Center, I felt ambivalent; a sense of hope that the future is here in these new baby Lakers, but also that time is running out. Getting this far takes one’s whole life, but the drive from the practice facility back to LAX is short.
I came here looking for hope for the future. I found it in these players, but more questions than answers on who will rise above and become a certified NBA player and become the next South Bay product to help a star who will ultimately get their jersey up on those walls.
Luckily, it’s not my job to bet on one of them and get it right; that’s up to the Lakers organization. Given their track record, I’m comfortable they will.
You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.