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Is Usman Garuba the backup center the Lakers are looking for?

With a clear weak-link at backup center, the Lakers have long been reported to fill their 14th (and possibly final) roster spot with a big man. Could recently released Usman Garuba fit the bill?

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Since signing their pair of recently drafted rookies on July 8, the Lakers have refrained from making another official roster move. Still, they stand at 13 players on the roster, not counting the three players on two-way contracts — one short of where they typically choose to start the season, and two short of the league-allowed limit of 15. With only Jaxson Hayes supporting Anthony Davis at the 5, and the team openly touting an interest in returning to a rotation that consistently features two-big lineups, the Lakers will probably need another big man to make that idea even remotely feasible.

While Christian Wood remains atop the list of free agent bigs in terms of pure talent, especially on offense, an even higher-pedigree center just came available after being released by the Thunder and clearing waivers last week. Usman Garuba, the Spanish former first-rounder, is entering his third NBA season and has yet to earn consistent minutes in either of his first two campaigns. However, the tools that made him arguably the top defensive prospect in the 2021 Draft make him worth a look even after underwhelming freshman and sophomore seasons.

What made Garuba so impressive as a prospect was his overall feel for the game combined with his high motor. More specifically, his impressive instincts in knowing when to help, timing in blocking shots, willingness to scramble and recover, and 7’2” wingspan helped him show Draymondian flashes of being the kind of Swiss Army Knife who is the centerpiece of a high-level defense.

Further, his general understanding of the basketball chess game extended to the other side of the floor, as he regularly made the right passing reads when they appeared. In fact, that skill has persisted into the present. Only a week ago, Garuba dished out seven dimes for Spain in an exhibition against the Dominican Republic.

However, not all of his defensive prowess in Europe has translated to the NBA so far.

Stats via the Basketball Index.

Altogether, these metrics hint at a guy who is often in the right position, grading well in terms of his overall ability to contest shots around the rim, but not able to do much when he is there, performing less well as an actual shot blocker or deterrent. While he has solid footwork and a strong base, he hasn’t improved as a vertical leaper, making him a sturdy, yet stationary presence in the paint.

Instead of Draymond Green, Garuba’s looked more like Reggie Evans with some on-ball juice — occasionally flashing the ability to push the ball in transition or take open jumpers (albeit on very low volume), while gobbling up rebounds at an elite clip whenever he’s in the game. As a defensive rebounder, the Basketball Index has him in the 94th percentile while ranking in the 83rd on offense.

At only 21 years old, Garuba has plenty of time to grow the edges of his game, but my guess is that his limited verticality against NBA athletes has scared teams off from investing in him long term — which is why the Rockets, Hawks, and Thunder have all passed on that opportunity despite rostering him at some point this summer.

His rebounding and playmaking advantages would certainly help any team, but given the Lakers’ lack of secondary rim protection after Anthony Davis, Garuba likely can’t satisfy L.A.’s biggest remaining need. Further, as a near-non-shooter with funky mechanics, even with the solid connective passing, Garuba probably lacks the offensive flexibility to fit as a 4 next to Anthony Davis or Jaxson Hayes.

Unless the Lakers are sky-high on Garuba’s ability to improve his vertical leap and/or outside shooting, he’s probably not the best fit for the team. It’s unlikely he lands in Los Angeles, but now that he’s available, Garuba should be considered at least in the mix with known quantities like Bismack Biyombo, Gorgui Dieng, Dewayne Dedmon, and of course, Wenyen Gabriel. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and with only a veteran’s minimum contract to offer any incoming free agent, there are less talented players to settle on than Garuba.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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