A decade from now, Lakers fans are going to look back to this year’s draft class as the best ever by the team, even better than the famous 1996 draft that produced championship legends like Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher.
The Lakers started the season with hopes for a budding big three with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle but ended it with visions of a future fab five as late first round rookies Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart played more like high lottery picks. While the Lakers will have the cap space to pursue two superstars this summer, you could argue they already have a future fab five in Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Julius Randle.
Give the Lakers’ front office and scouting department an A+ for the job they did in last summer’s NBA draft. While Lonzo was an easy pick at #2, stealing Kuzma at #27 and Hart at #30 were the kinds of moves to transform teams. While you can’t forget Julius Randle’s rollercoaster road to becoming team MVP or Brandon Ingram’s steady ascent to stardom, the Lakers’ future could easily depend on their rookie trio of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart.
So much for those who criticized the Lonzo Ball/Jason Kidd comparison as transcendent point guards because Lonzo didn’t play elite defense like Kidd. The irony is Lonzo turned out to be everything that Jason was as a rookie, a visionary culture-changing playmaker and elite defender who couldn’t shoot. While Lonzo struggled to match his shooting prowess in college, he surprised everybody by turning out to be an elite game-changer at the defensive end.
How good a defender is Lonzo Ball as a rookie? His DRPM is #2 among all point guards, ahead of veteran stalwarts like Chris Paul and Marcus Smart, and #37 among all NBA players. That’s impressive for a young player who was maligned for coming from a program that played mostly zone and lacked the lateral quickness to stay in front of quicker smaller guards in the league. Lonzo makes up for that with all-world smarts, anticipation, and instincts.
Lonzo’s and Jason’s rookie season stats were remarkably similar. Lonzo averaged 10.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 0.8 blocks, and 1.7 steals in 34.2 minutes per game while Jason averaged 11.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 7.7 assists, 0.3 blocks, and 1.9 steals in 33.8 minutes per game. Lonzo shot 36.0% from the field, 30.5% from deep, and 45.1% from the line while Jason shot 38.5% from the field, 27.2% from deep, and 69.8% from the line.
While Lonzo obviously needs to learn how to make a layup and shoot a free throw, there’s no question he’s going to be transcendent player in the league. His unique ability to control and accelerate the pace of the game and selfless style of play that transforms the team’s culture and chemistry is what makes Lonzo Ball so special. He’s the kind of player everybody wants to play with. What we saw from Lonzo this summer was very simply the next Jason Kidd.
If Lonzo Ball is the next Jason Kidd, what does that make Kyle Kuzma, who was arguably the Lakers’ best rookie this season, averaging 16.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.4 blocks, and 0.6 steals in 31.2 minutes per game? You could make a persuasive argument that Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma are the modern NBA versions of Magic Johnson and James Worthy but with the bonus benefit that they were drafted and will be able to develop together.
Kuzma is a lock to make the NBA All-Rookie first team along with Lonzo Ball. The two budding stars have already developed a strong bond and chemistry both on and off the court starting with the Las Vegas summer league and continuing throughout the 2017–18 season. Lonzo’s full court outlet passes to a streaking Kuzma became a staple of the Lakers transition offense that opposing teams struggled mightily to contain despite knowing it was coming.
A perfect fit for the modern NBA game, Kuzma possesses all of the mental and physical tools needed to become a future Lakers’ All-Star. At 6–10 with a wingspan just over 7 feet, Kuzma is probably the one player of the young core that possesses the Kobe gene. While Kuzma may never be the top defender Bryant was in his prime, he’s already has shown he’s capable of becoming the Lakers’ go-to scorer in the clutch, attacking the rim or shooting from deep.
After running into and then through the supposed rookie wall, Kyle Kuzma finished the season strong, taking over the closer role almost exclusively. One of the challenges the Lakers may face in the near future is Kuzma pushing for a starting role as Julius Randle currently has a lock as the Lakers’ starting power forward. At some point down the road, the Lakers may be forced to trade Kuzma or Randle but for now Kyle has become virtually untouchable.
The third member of the Lakers’ talented trio of first round picks was Josh Hart, a 6–5 shooting guard whom the team has fondly compared to the Hulk and Charles Barkley for his physical strength and bowling ball style of play. After a slow start due to injuries, Josh turned the tables around and took full advantage of opportunities to start at the 2 and 3 replacing KCP when he was out facing legal issues and Brandon Ingram when he was out with injuries.
Josh finished the season averaging 7.9 point, 4.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.3 blocks, and 0.7 steals in 23.2 minutes per game. He shot 46.9% from the field, 39.6% from deep, and 70.2% from the line while guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player. Projected as a 3&D player, Josh has shown his upside exceeds that. With his 30-point game from last night, Josh became just the fourth NBA player this year to post four consecutive 20-point games.
Josh’s outstanding play at both ends of the court has earned him membership in the Lakers’ young core and invites questions about his ceiling as a player. Specifically, could Hart be the Lakers’ answer at shooting guard and should that affect whom the team pursues in free agency? You can make a strong argument that the Lakers’ first priority in free agency should be a superstar center since Josh Hart checks off all the boxes as our future shooting guard.
That, of course, doesn’t mean the Lakers won’t pursue Paul George to be their starting shooting guard next season. But it does means they already have a great backup in Josh Hart should PG decide not to come this summer. It also likely increases the Lakers’ interest in center DeMarcus Cousins this summer, especially if the Lakers receive word LeBron is unlikely to sign with the team. Josh Hart takes the pressure off signing PG or keeping KCP in free agency.
Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart may be the best Lakers’ rookie class ever. And we’re not even talking about second round center Thomas Bryant, about whom everybody raves. Their emergence, along with the development of Ingram and Randle, has changed the dynamic so the Lakers don’t need to score big in free agency to continue to grow and get better as a team. They’re already a playoff team next season without signing a superstar free agent.
Everybody in the league has seen how good Lonzo, Kyle, and Josh already are and can see how high their upsides are. They’ve taken the pressure off having to sign two superstars and made the Lakers a desirable home for free agents.
Sign two, one, or no superstars, the Lakers’ best draft ever has left them in a win-win situation with a future fab five and the cap space to get even better.