Have the Lakers’ young core regressed?
Should the Los Angeles Lakers be concerned that Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma have yet to break out?
The Lakers knew going in their young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma were probably not going to be good enough soon enough to help LeBron James win an NBA championship but hoped they were wrong.
At the quarter pole, the Lakers are still hoping their young core will break out but signs show that’s not likely to happen any time soon. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma are still struggling to put up the numbers, have the impact they did last season, and figure out how to play with LeBron James. While the season’s still young, you could make a credible argument that the Lakers trio of young stars has not only not broken out but actually regressed.
Nobody’s arguing Ball, Ingram, or Kuzma still don’t have superstar upside. The concern is whether they’re capable of making a big enough leap soon enough to be part of the championship team surrounding LeBron James. With LeBron in the first year of a four-year deal with a player option in the last year, the Lakers are in a win-now made where every year they don’t compete for a championship is basically a wasted year and opportunity.
The big unknown is whether the struggles Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma have encountered this season are simply what’s to be expected from young players learning to play with Lebron or represent a regression. Why that matters is the Lakers’ ability to make the playoffs this season, attract a second superstar next summer, and trade for Anthony Davis is dependent on their young core developing into elite players and coveted trading chips.
While we won’t know the final answer to that question until later this season, I think the eye test has made it clear Lonzo, Brandon, and Kyle have struggled this year versus last year. So let’s take a closer look at what the stats say:
What jumps out first from these numbers is that all three of the Lakers’ young core posted fewer minutes, points, rebounds, and assists this season than last season, with the exception of Kyle Kuzma’s scoring, which went up slightly. Lonzo’s stats showed the biggest decreases simply because his minutes were limited by Luke as he was still recovering from his off-season knee surgery. Bottom line, nothing we would not expect as a result of playing with LeBron.
But while it’s still early, I am concerned with the shooting woes of the Lakers’ young core. While Lonzo’s shooting has improved a little, he still has a long way to go to be a capable shooter at point guard. While Ingram and Kuzma have shot well from the field, they’re both struggling to shoot efficiently from beyond the arc. Ingram is shooting just 33.3% on threes versus 39.0% last year while Kuzma’s just shooting 29.4% this year versus 36.6% last season.
Unfortunately, the ability to stretch the floor and spread the defense remains one of the critical skills the Lakers need from the players surrounding LeBron. If Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma want to earn a long term role on the Lakers, they will have to prove first that they can shoot the rock. The Lakers can talk about surrounding LeBron with savvy playmakers and tough defenders but ultimately they need elite shooters to truly unleash LeBron.
I don’t think the Lakers need to be very concerned that Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma have yet to break out but they should be worried whether they’re the right fits with or will be ready in time for LeBron James. The Lakers’ problem is they’re on the clock with James and will have big decisions to make this summer when they hope to sign a second superstar in free agency and possibly trade part of their young core for a third superstar.
There’s no secret Magic Johnson’s ultimate goal is a Superstar Big Three. The only question is whether that will include any of the Lakers’ young core. Will Lonzo Ball prove he’s the Lakers’ point guard of the future or be replaced by Kemba Walker or Damian Lillard? Will Brandon Ingram figure out how to co-exist with LeBron and make the leap to be one of the three superstars? Will Kyle Kuzma make a superstar leap and end up becoming a trading chip?
The Lakers’ young core will have the rest of the season to turn things around. Magic’s not going to make any roster move that would reduce the $38 million in cap space they’ll have next summer or his portfolio of young trading chips.