Early grades for the Lakers’ young core!
Why the next four to six weeks will be critical in determining which of the Lakers’ young stars fit with LeBron James
Timing’s everything as the Los Angeles Lakers are rapidly approaching the point when they’ll need to make a decision as to whom of their young core’s games and growth fit well with LeBron James and whom should be moved.
The Lakers’ contract with LeBron gives them three guaranteed years to build a championship team but they’re already on the clock and facing pressure to upgrade the roster and make a run for their 17th championship this season. How the Lakers fare and their young core complements LeBron over the next four to six weeks will determine whether the team makes a midseason move involving their young core or remains patient and waits until next summer.
The only thing certain is the Lakers aren’t going to make a midseason trade that would cut into the cap space they plan to have this summer to sign Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, or Kemba Walker to a max contract. So unless something crazy happens like AD demanding a trade from the Pelicans or the Hornets deciding to trade Kemba, odds are the Lakers’ moves will only involve expiring contracts and the kids will be safe until summer.
Come next summer, that could change. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, or Josh Hart could easily be included in a trade for a third superstar to join LeBron James and the second free agent superstar the Lakers plan to sign this summer. That means the clock is ticking for the Lakers’ young core and they will need to take a major leap this season if they want to be part of the Lakers’ future. What are their chances and what do they need to do?
Here are my early season grades for the Lakers’ young core:
Lonzo Ball: D
TYR: 8.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.2 steals in 26.6 minutes
LYR: 10.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals in 34.2 minutes
Shooting TYR: 40.2/34.7/57.1%. Shooting LYR: 36.0/30.5/45.1%
We’ve unfortunately seen too little of the best and too much of the worst of Lonzo Ball so far this season. The good is Lonzo’s best fits well with LeBron so there’s still a good chance Lonzo and LeBron together can work. For that to happen, Lonzo needs to be much more aggressive and play with confidence. His defense and playmaking must be elite and his scoring adequate. Like it or not, Lonzo’s on the clock to prove he’s the Lakers’ point guard of the future.
As unfair as it might be, should Lonzo fail to make the leap the he needs to make this season, the Lakers should not hesitate to pursue a trade for an elite point guard to replace him, not with just two guaranteed years remaining on LeBron’s contract. We know LeBron was able to win a championship playing with an elite score-first point guard like Kyrie Irving so it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Lakers look to sign Kemba Walker as a free agent this summer.
Brandon Ingram: C
TYR: 15.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals in 28.8 minutes
LYR: 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.7 steals in 33.5 minutes
Shooting TYR: 45.3/33.3/69.4%. Shooting LYR: 47.0/39/68.1%
Like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram has seen his minutes, touches, and role changed dramatically since the arrival of LeBron James. More than any of the Lakers’ young core, Ingram needs the ball to score, which is a challenge when playing with LeBron. While Ingram has the potential three or four years from now to be the number two scorer LeBron needs, he’s just not ready to fill that role yet and has often struggled to play well when on the floor with LeBron.
None of the Lakers’ young core has the upside of Ingram but at 21-years old and still growing into his body, Brandon likely won’t be ready in time to help LeBron in his quest for Lakers championships. Like it or not, Ingram is the member of the Lakers’ young core most likely to be traded next summer or whenever the Lakers cash in their trading chips to acquire Anthony Davis. Ingram’s going to become a superstar at some point, just not for the Lakers.
Kyle Kuzma: C
TYR: 16.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.5 steals in 30.3 minutes
LYR: 16.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.6 steals in 31.2 minutes
Shooting TYR: 47.5/30.2/75.7%. Shooting LYR: 45.0/36.6/70.7%
Kyle Kuzma should on paper be the one member of the Lakers’ young core who’s the perfect catch-and-shoot player to excel playing with LeBron and, while we’ve seen glimpses of great chemistry between the two, Kuzma has struggled to find the offensive magic of his game from last season. He’s been frustratingly hesitant to let shots fly from deep and generally indecisive at both ends of the court. While the effort’s there, overall Kuz has regressed.
I don’t think Kuzma’s rookie season was an outlier but I also don’t think his ultimate ceiling as a player is much higher than we saw last season. Older players like Kuzma and Hart usually outshine younger players as rookies but often find themselves struggling to match their growth and development. I think we’ll find out this year if Kuzma was really the steal of the draft last year or just overrated. Ultimately, Kuz’s future as a Laker is on the line this year.
Josh Hart: B
TYR: 10.6points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.3 steals in 26.1 minutes
LYR: 7.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.7 steals in 23.2minutes
Shooting TYR: 45.3/41.9/70.0%. Shooting LYR: 46.9/39.6/70.2%
Josh Hart has actually been the most pleasant surprise and most consistent player of the Lakers’ four young core. His elite 3-point shooting and fervor for attacking the rim make him a perfect fit to play alongside LeBron James. Ironically, as the least publicized of the Lakers’ four budding stars, Josh may have the best opportunity to remain with the Lakers long term due his fit with LeBron and two-way skill set. The big question is whether Josh can start.
Right now, the Lakers need Josh’s 3-point shooting and defensive energy off the bench. He has an opportunity to carve a key role on the team as 6th man. Hart may have been overshadowed by the better known Laker rookies Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma but so far this season, he’s played the best of the three. Like Kyle Kuzma, Hart is three years older than Lonzo and Brandon so what we may see now may be close to what we see three of four years from now.
There’s no question learning how to play with LeBron has been a challenge for all four of the Lakers’ young core. Of the four, Kuzma and Hart are easily the better fits with LeBron and Ball and Ingram the more questionable fits. There’s also no question that they’ve only played a fifth of the season and that it’s entirely possible the Lakers’ young core will suddenly take another leap and catapult the Lakers into legitimate championship contention this year.
Finally, the Lakers seem to be figuring out how to win despite disappointing seasons so far from their four budding stars. Meanwhile, the expected powers in the West, namely the Warriors and Rockets, suddenly now appear to be vulnerable. So who’s to say that the Lakers with LeBron and their young core couldn’t surprise everybody and go all the way to the NBA Finals this season. Right now, that actually doesn’t sound as crazy and far fetched as it should.