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Is the big the Lakers need already in-house?

The Lakers are still searching for a big to pair with Anthony Davis, and undrafted rookie Colin Castleton just might be the answer.

2023 NBA California Classic - San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — After a few consecutive makes, Colin Castleton’s confidence started to show, if one was looking closely. He’s not a very expressive player, but a subtle fist bump and head nod bookended successful offensive sequences. As the game progressed, Jalen Hood-Schifino and other Lakers teammates began clapping him on the back harder and harder, dapping him up with more energy and enthusiasm. These things don’t appear on a box score, but directly impact chemistry, camaraderie and momentum, and are telltale signs that a player is starting to impose their will on the game as their teammates attempt to gas them up into further dominance.

This game might have been at a technically neutral site (the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas), but the crowd was heavily Lakers-leaning, joining Castleton’s fellow summer Lakers in their cresting enthusiasm; getting rowdier and rowdier with every basket he converted as the lead ballooned into an 18-point win.

Castleton was the man of the match, ending the game with 21 points and 14 rebounds, and afterwards, he had a subtle grin on his face as he walked towards the media scrum to discuss his performance. It might have just been summer league, but he was still playing for one of the most storied franchises in the NBA and was the person everyone wanted to talk to after a Lakers win. No matter the circumstances or location, it all had to feel special for the undrafted rookie.

On that last descriptor: The Lakers’ newest two-way player could have been picked in the second round. But taking a page from Austin Reaves’ recent path to greatness — they share an agent, Aaron Reilly of AMR — Castleton opted to go undrafted so he could join the Lakers organization, and he’s been blossoming at Summer League.

“I feel like the Lakers are the best opportunity for me to grow and develop. They got a great G League team as well as obviously an NBA team, so just being around high-level pros every day, great organization is something I focused in on and I feel I’m in the best spot possible,” Castleton told Silver Screen and Roll.

The Lakers’ front office must be pleased with his performance in purple and gold so far in Las Vegas Summer League. Time and time again, the Lakers are finding Castleton in the paint and he’s able to score off his mid-range runners. He’s making great decisions at the top of the key, either passing to a cutter or taking his defender off the dribble and driving to the basket. His ability to clean up the offensive glass and score near the rim helps the Lakers dominate inside and get second-chance opportunities.

With the Lakers already having a superstar big in Davis, getting a center who can be a threat to score and still willing to do the little things is critical. Castleton appears accepting of that role.

“Being able to playmake out of the middle of the floor, being able to pass the ball, setting really good screens, playing physical, crashing the offensive rebounds and just doing all the dirty work, I’m fine with doing that. I love doing anything coaches want me to do,” Castleton said. “Whatever they tell me, I’m doing.”

Now before we start putting Castleton on the Mount Rushmore of Lakers bigs let’s remember, he’s a prospect. He may have chosen to go undrafted, but he was still, at best, a second-round pick. Even if Castleton reaches the heights of recent undrafted Lakers finds like Alex Caruso and Austin Reaves and becomes a bonafide NBA player, there will be growing pains along the way.

In fact, his first minor setback happened in his first game as a Laker, when Nikola Jovic dominated with 21 points and 8 rebounds and UCLA Bruin Jaime Jaquez Jr. had the highlight of the night, posterizing him en route to a blowout loss.

“I didn’t think he could get up like that,” Castleton said about his welcome to the NBA moment. “When he dunked on me, it was a wake-up call.”

Since that wake-up call, he’s averaging 15.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in all Summer League games, and only the Lakers' second-year pro, Max Christie, has looked better.

Castleton’s level of play has not only resulted in his stock rising, but it’s led to success in Vegas and has fostered a level of chemistry with his fellow rookie, Hood-Schifino, that’s made them a dynamic duo for the Summer Lakers.

“I know how to help my point guard out,” Castleton told the media after the win against Charlotte. “Just being able to hit him in the pockets, set a good screen so he can get in the mid-range cause he has a phenomenal mid-range shot.”

The Castleton/Hood-Schifino combination has brought out the best in both players, and could be a sign of things to come from the two of them as part of a bench mob unit as players for the purple and gold this fall. We know Hood-Schifino will be there as a point guard option for head coach Darvin Ham; it’s just a question of if Castleton will stay on his two-way — and only be able to play 50 games max as a Laker — or if he can take one of the team’s two remaining, full-time roster spots.

If Castleton does play in games that matter this year, how much time he’ll get and how often he’ll do so will likely depend on his effectiveness in the Ham’s motion offense. He’s already demonstrated his value in motion by doing the thing required of bigs in such an attack; spacing the floor, setting screens, and being an option as a finisher in the dunker’s spot.

The central aspect Castleton needs to improve on when it comes to fitting into the system is shooting better from deep. He went 2-15 from the three-point line in his final year in college and only attempted one NBA three in his three games in Las Vegas, which he missed. To excel when the Lakers go five-out, everyone has to be a threat to score immediately. Right now, teams will not respect Castleton that far out, and will sag off and clog the paint.

So while Castleton has been a pleasant surprise, he’s not a finished product. At 6’11 but just 230 pounds, he also needs to bulk up a bit and gain some strength to handle the NBA’s physicality. Luckily, it’s an area of improvement he is aware of and seems focused on.

“Gaining weight, gaining muscle is something I’m going to focus on as soon as Summer League ends,” Castleton said. “But I feel like definitely holding up well. All I do is fight.”

Castleton’s basketball journey started in Daytona Beach, Florida, and now it’s taken him to the other side of the country, where his fight for his NBA dream continues. So far, the signs have been encouraging that he has a skillset the Lakers desperately need for depth and versatility in the center position. Now it’s a matter of seeing if those encouraging flashes can lead to results on the floor if and when he gets a shot during the 2023-24 campaign.

For now, Castleton is just focused on what he can do, which is work as hard as he can and stay ready for his opportunity.

“Just getting better, that’s the biggest thing,” Castleton said, noting that he wants to come in and work out early in the morning and late at night as he tries to prepare himself to make an impact. “Just grinding and getting better is the biggest thing for me.”

If he can do that, it’s a safe bet his regular season teammates will be just as hyped for his success as his summer league ones.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.

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