Getty Images

How will Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, rest of young Lakers fit with LeBron James?

3 Comments

This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the young Lakers as the focus.

LeBron James changes everything.

His presence changes the trajectory of the Lakers. The team spent the past few years drafting and developing a young core of players, building a base the way most teams need to build, slowly and learning from mistakes while taking some lumps along the way.

Then the Lakers land LeBron.

It changes everything — especially for that young core.

“There’s who you expect to be and then who you are when you play with LeBron. It’s two different things,” Channing Frye said this summer about those young Lakers. “I don’t know if they truly understand what it’s like to play with him because there is no room for mistakes. Because in all actuality, he could do it himself. He could lead a team to 40 wins by himself. I think for all of them they’re going to have to have a reality check, not only them but the people around them. There’s going to say, not a growing period, but a humility.”

It’s maybe the biggest question for the Lakers this season: Will Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma be on the floor with LeBron to close games for Los Angeles this season? Or, will Luke Walton have to turn to Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and JaVale McGee?

How will each of the young Lakers fit and benefit from playing with LeBron? Let’s take a look at them.

Brandon Ingram

If one player from this Lakers’ youth movement is going to break out as an All-Star and top 20 NBA player it’s Ingram — which puts the most pressure on him to step up now. How good the Lakers are this season will start with how big a step forward Ingram takes. He needs to live up to being the No. 2 option on this team and show he can handle that role. He needs to establish himself — in his own mind and LeBron’s — so he remains the second or third best player on a potential contending team if/when the Lakers land another star next summer. (I think they will get someone, whether it’s the star they want is another question.)

Ingram impressed last season, growing into a role as a scorer and shot creator — in February he averaged 18.6 points per game with a 62.1 true shooting percentage (he strained his hip on March 1 and played just three games after, a reminder he needs to stay healthy, too). Last season, 53.8 percent of his used possessions (meaning he shot, passed or turned the ball over) came as the pick-and-roll ball handler or in isolation. He had the ball in his hands.

Ingram will have to adjust to having the ball less, LeBron will be the fulcrum of the offense most of the time, as he should be, plus this team is loaded with other players — Rondo, Ball, Stephenson, Beasley — who need touches. However, unlike much of last season, Ingram will no longer be the name at the top of opponent’s scouting reports. Ingram’s versatility should be on full display and make him especially dangerous next to LeBron. Ingram will need to draw defenders with plays off-the-ball — he was a very good spot-up shooter last season and hit 39 percent from three (although on less than two attempts per game, he needs to shoot it more) — but more importantly he needs to be the secondary scorer and guy attacking the rim with the ball when defenses are scrambling.

If the Lakers are going to thrive this season, Ingram will need to have a breakout season.

Lonzo Ball

Last season the Lakers learned that having him run a ton of pick-and-roll is not the best use of his talents. What is coming, with LeBron as the primary ball handler/shot creator could be a better fit — Lonzo will keep the ball moving and the pace up, he is a high IQ player who makes good cuts off the ball, and he and Kyle Kuzma can maybe get some second-unit time together to show their transition magic. Lonzo played off the ball a lot at UCLA (paired with Aaron Holiday, now of the Pacers) and his new role may be akin to that. Ball may be more comfortable in the Lakers’ new style.

However, Ball simply has to be a bigger scoring threat for this to work. Yes, that means his reworked jump shot needs to fall more, but Ball also shot just 49.4 percent in the restricted area — he has to finish better at the rim and in the paint.

He has to be a threat to score every time he touches the ball, or the impact of his brilliant passing is dampened. His defense and rebounding are good, better than expected, but it’s his offense that could hold him back. Beyond that, this season he needs to stay healthy, having played just 52 games last season. The fact he is going to training camp with his knee not yet fully healed from off-season meniscus surgery is not a good start.

Rondo is a Laker now, and Josh Hart has to get minutes and certainly can play the point. While the team will spin that as depth and insurance at the position, it’s also a message to Lonzo — “we’ve got your replacement right here if needed.” This is LeBron’s team now, and if Lonzo’s father or the circus around him becomes too big a distraction, well, the Lakers have a lot of depth at point guard and can jettison one of them. Same if the fit is not working on the court. There is no more growing into the role for Lonzo, he needs to step up this season.

Kyle Kuzma

The fit between LeBron and Kuzma seems like it could be natural. Kuzma thrived with Ball and Ingram as the creators by working off the ball, spacing the floor, finishing at the rim, and getting out in transition to the tune of 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, plus shooting 36.6 percent from three. With the passing of LeBron — and Ball, and Rondo, and most of this team — Kuzma could thrive in the role as a finisher.

It’s the other end of the floor that could hold Kuzma back — he has to defend better, well enough stay on the court. Kuzma’s defense was okay when his decision tree was small — close out on a spot up guy, switch onto and defend a big on a pick-and-roll — but he has to show more feel for the game and ability to read the play now. Experience should help with that, and LeBron can undoubtedly mentor Kuzma on the mental aspects of the game. This is where he needs to step up, if he doesn’t his role will shrink.

Josh Hart

While he can play the point, expect him to get time as a backup two guard behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. However you want to define his role, his MVP performance in Summer League showed it’s not going to be easy to keep him off the court. He can create shots for himself and finish, he shot 39.3 percent from three last season, and he’s getting better at creating some for others, too. With the plethora of ball handlers on this team roles will shift, Hart will not get to dominate the ball like in Summer League. He needs to show he can still make plays.

When Hart gets his windows, he needs to play so well it’s hard for Luke Walton to sub him out.

Svi Mykhailiuk

There are a lot of people both internally with the Lakers and around the team who think the Lakers could have a draft steal here. Maybe. He had a quality showing at Summer League — not only did he put up points, but he also showed some versatility and defense in his game — but that comes with the asterisk it’s Summer League. There is potential here, but I’m not sure how much run the rookie can really get on a win now team with a lot of veterans — vets on one-year contracts, so they want minutes and numbers — ahead of him. That said, being around the work ethic and game IQ of LeBron is going to help Mykhailiuk develop faster into whatever he will become.

Two rights trump one wrong for Pacers

AP Photo/Andres Kudacki
1 Comment

NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

If you recall my epically bad assessment of the Pacers’ 2017 offseason and stopped reading this year’s follow-up, I wouldn’t blame you. I gave Indiana an ‘F’ for trading Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis then constructing a roster that appeared doomed to miss the playoffs without landing a high draft pick. Of course, the Pacers had one of the NBA’s very best summers. Oladipo became a star and led Indiana to 48 wins. The Pacers even took the Cavaliers to seven games in their first-round series – the furthest an Eastern Conference team had pushed LeBron James in several years. I learned a lesson in overreacting.

But I once again see Indiana’s offseason as a tale of extremes.

The Pacers had two of the NBA’s best signings and one of its worst.

Evans is coming off a career year with the Grizzlies. Developing into a good 3-point shooter increases his value exponentially due to the off-ball threat. His playmaking will be particularly important in Indiana, as he could punish opponents for trapping Oladipo, a common Cleveland tactic in their playoff series.

O’Quinn is a savvy defender who strikes the right balance between protecting the rim and positioning himself for rebounds. He shoots well from mid-range and has become more comfortable as a passer.

And then there’s McDermott. He’s a very good spot-up shooter, but he’s pretty one-dimensional and a complete defensive liability. The 26-year-old should help this team. But at that cost? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Really, the question looming over the Pacers’ offseason was opportunity cost.

They also guaranteed hefty salaries for Bojan Bogdanovic ($10.5 million) and Darren Collison ($10 million) next season. Could that money have gone to better use? Or would waiving Bogdanovic and Collison and trying to re-sign them for less have just presented too much risk of them leaving?

Could Indiana have done better than Aaron Holiday with the No. 23 pick? He’s relatively established for a rookie after three years at UCLA, but higher-upside options were available.

The Pacers played it safe and emerged with an upgraded version of last year’s breakout squad. The only rotation players lost were Lance Stephenson and Trevor Booker. Evans and O’Quinn should be major upgrades. That makes McDermott just – very expensive – gravy.

Indiana is on track to enter next offseason with a massive amount of flexibility. Oladipo and McDermott are the only players guaranteed more than rookie-scale salaries, though Myles Turner could receive a contract extension this fall.

If the Pacers build on last season as they appear set to, they could be even more appealing to free agents next summer.

Offseason grade: B+

Has Lonzo Ball tweaked his shot? Video suggests he has, and that’s a good thing

Getty Images
5 Comments

The Lakers tried to force a square peg into a round hole last season.

Lonzo Ball came out of UCLA an unconventional point guard — he pushed the ball in transition, kept the ball moving in the half-court, worked well off the ball (with the Pacers’ Aaron Holiday) and shot the ball well in catch-and-shoot opportunities because he had time to get his feet set and get the shot off. The Lakers had Ball running the pick-and-roll (29.2 percent of his used possessions, meaning a shot, assist or turnover), which was never his biggest strength, and while 22.6 percent of his shots were spot up (according to NBA.com stats) he was not efficient at them shooting 35.5 percent, and he struggled when closed out upon.

With LeBron James and Rajon Rondo on the Lakers now, Ball will have fewer half-court playmaking duties, but he’s got to be a real threat to score off the ball to stay on the court. He’s a smart cutter off the ball (or was at UCLA) but the shot has to fall.

Which brings us to the video of his reworked shot.

He’s still a right-handed shooter who is left-eye dominant, so he has to bring the ball across himself to get it lined up correctly, but he’s tweaked his shot mechanics to do that in a much quicker and more fluid way.

Will that translate to better shooting numbers from three? We will have to wait for some game action to find out, but he can potentially develop into a fit on this roster, a player who can contribute to a contending team. If not… well Josh Hart was very impressive at Summer League. The Lakers are in win-now mode, if a player can’t contribute to that their role will shrink fast.

Rumor: Suns may target Patrick Beverley, Cory Joseph, Spencer Dinwiddie for trade

Getty Images
2 Comments

The Suns want to trade for a point guard, and this summer targeted for some big names (Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard, Terry Rozier) only to strike out.

That doesn’t mean they’re done trying. John Gambadoro of 98.7 FM in Phoenix, who is connected within the Suns, laid out a number more rumors, via the station’s website.

Among targets, the Suns have discussed the Los Angeles Clippers’ Patrick Beverley, Indiana’s Cory Joseph and the Nets’ Spencer Dinwiddie.

First things first, these are the teams internally that the Suns would like to target, that’s very different from having an actual trade conversation with a team that goes anywhere. This is a wish list for Phoenix (and if I were with the Suns I would leak something like this to show the fans how hard we’re working, even if it wasn’t likely to come to pass).

All three of those guys are players in the final year of their contracts who maybe become available around Christmas or after if their teams struggle to start the season, or other players on their teams make them more expendable. However, all three also would extract a pretty big price to get, then the Suns would have to re-sign them in free agency.

Beverley is in the final year of his $5 million contract (which is not fully guaranteed, but the Clippers aren’t cutting him), and he is coming off microfracture and meniscus surgery on his knee that sidelined him most of last season. He is a guy other teams are watching because if he is healthy, and if the Clippers fall back in the West, they could decide to move more into a rebuild mode and make guys available (that is not a sure thing. However, owner Steve Ballmer is trying to get a new arena constructed in Los Angeles and may not want to lose a lot while going through an approval process with plenty of opposition).

Joseph is in the final year of his $8 million contract, and the Pacers have high hopes of not only making the playoffs but doing some damage there, taking a step forward off last season. With that, they have Darren Collison and rookie Aaron Holiday at the point as well — if Collison can stay healthy and if Holiday can show he is ready to contribute at a backup level now then maybe the Pacers will listen to offers. But those are two big “ifs.”

Dinwiddie is in the final year of a steal of a contract at $1.7 million. The Nets like Dinwiddie a lot and have some real decisions to make about the future of their point guard spot this season, primarily how much do they like D'Angelo Russell and how much are they willing to pay him a year from now as a restricted free agent. Even if the Nets decide they want to spend to keep Russell, they love Dinwiddie and it’s hard to imagine them moving him without a lot coming back their way in the trade.

None of these trades are likely, but it’s something to watch as we slide into the season.

Victor Oladipo: ‘I play nothing safe now’ because ‘that really didn’t get me anywhere’

Getty Images
1 Comment

Victor Oladipo transformed last season.

Traded to the Pacers, he showed up to camp in better shape than he had ever been before, and with a new confidence in his handles and shot making. Coach Nate McMillan realized what he had, put the ball in Oladipo’s hands, and got out of the way. The result was a 48-win Pacers team where Oladipo was the league’s most improved player, made an All-NBA Team, the All-Defensive Team, and was an All-Star for the first time.

Oladipo, after going to the USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas, is back in a Miami gym with the same team of trainers and staff who transformed his body and game a year ago. In a fantastic profile by J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star, Oladipo talks about the mental transformation he has undergone as well.

“I push the envelope. I play nothing safe now,” Oladipo says. “I’m the guy if we’re down two, I’m pulling up for three. I work too hard to not push the envelope. I used to be conservative but that really didn’t get me anywhere.”

His trainer, Al Watson, talked about getting Oladipo better prepared for defenses that focus on him and late-game situations.

“Last year we started doing a lot of tightening up his ball-handling skills. This year we took it to another level because I watch a lot of film on him,” Watson says. “In the fourth quarter, he’s like the point guard. Wanted to focus on a lot of combination moves, working on traps. It’s no secret now. They’re going to be double-teaming him.

“You look at the great players, Kobe, they had to do a little bit of everything. His shot from the perimeter may be off so he’s got to learn, ‘Let me get myself going, get to the mid-post, get some fouls.’ He’s got to be able to attack with all different facets of the game. We do a lot of sprinting, getting to your spots. Got to get open. I touch everything with in-game situation stuff.”

Oladipo’s team includes an off-the-court group trying to better position himself to make money off his stardom. He doesn’t want to play it safe off-the-court, either.

Indiana is going to lean heavily on Oladipo again. They added some depth — Doug McDermott, drafting Aaron Holiday — and are counting on more from players such as Myles Turner. However, by and large, the Pacers are running it back, and they are sneaking up on nobody this season. Internal improvement will be their key.

Oladipo is ready. He’s not playing it safe anymore.