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.