It's been an exciting start to the season for the young new-look Lakers. This team features a roster that is tied for third youngest in the NBA, including four rookies. With two of the four already making big impacts, it's time to examine their progress so far.
Laker fans should be excited. Not only did General Manager Rob Pelinka and President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson bring in Lonzo Ball, they also arguably got the steal of the draft when they selected Kyle Kuzma out of Utah. After playing so well in the Summer League, Kuzma started to gain recognition as it became obvious he was more than just your typical late first round pick. With an athletic 6'9" build and surprising quickness, Kuzma is able to guard several different types of players. Unlike many rookies, Kuzma doesn't have to come off the court in certain matchups because of a defensive liability. His versatility and energy have allowed him to receive over 27 minutes per game so far this season. He has displayed impressive shooting ability and range, which only adds to his versatility and exciting potential.
Kuzma is already a fan favorite, with many people rooting for him to crack the starting lineup. So far Walton has opted to keep him on the bench, a move that is probably best for now. It's important for this young team to limit their ups and downs as much as possible. Having a strong bench unit led by Kuzma and Jordan Clarkson enables them to do just that. Julius Randle has played off the bench so far as well, but I expect him to replace Larry Nance Jr. in the starting lineup sooner than later. Hardly any team in the NBA will be able to say they have two forwards coming off the bench that are as athletic and exciting to watch as Nance and Kuzma.
Kuzma's best game so far came against the New Orleans Pelicans and their twin towers, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. In 30 minutes, Kuz dropped 20 points on 7-13 shooting from the field, including 2-6 from beyond the arc. He also contributed 6 rebounds and sprinkled in 2 assists and a steal. Even in the event that the Lakers trade for a superstar, don't expect Kuzma to be going anywhere. He has earned the trust and respect of not only his teammates and coaching staff, but the front office and fan base as well. The sky is the limit for the kid from Flint, Michigan.
Josh Hart & Thomas Bryant
The Lakers frontcourt is somewhat of a logjam for playing time these days, leaving Thomas Bryant relegated to a reserve role for now. Although he has yet to log any regular season action, the 6'10" rookie from Indiana remains ready on the bench, should he be called upon.
Josh Hart didn't see any action on opening night and only played two minutes in Phoenix. Since then, Hart has earned praise from Head Coach Luke Walton, and more playing time as well. In the Lakers third game against the Pelicans, the 6'5" guard led the team in plus-minus rating with a very impressive +21. Hart was a big reason the second unit was able to put together a furious comeback, before ultimately falling short 119-112. In college, Hart won a national title while playing for Villanova. He told ESPN Los Angeles' Allen Sliwa that he prides himself on his defense, which was evident if you watched him in college. This will probably be the most valuable trait that Hart can offer this season, as he grows into his new role.
Of course, we saved the best for last. Through four games, Lonzo Ball looks like a natural playmaker. He has operated as a true floor general while not forcing anything offensively. By leaning on his pass-first instincts and skill set, Lonzo can sharpen his skills while allowing other teammates like Brandon Ingram to flourish. In small sample sizes, both Ingram and Brook Lopez held higher usage rates than Ball did through four games.
As expected on opening night, Ball struggled against the Clippers. Facing off against a motivated Patrick Beverley was certainly not the best individual matchup for Ball, but game two would prove differently. The Lakers flew into Phoenix with a much more promising task, squaring up against the up-tempo Suns who were on the verge of the Eric Bledsoe crisis. Lonzo led the Lakers to a thrilling 132-130 victory, posting a 29-11-9 stat line that was one assist short of his first career triple-double. It was clear that the hype that surrounded Ball when he came out of UCLA was well deserved. Lonzo has a long way to go as he continues to hone his craft, but flashing potential like this is a fantastic sign moving forward.
Against New Orleans, Lonzo couldn't get his shot to fall as often as he liked. However, I remained extremely impressed with his play, as he netted 13 assists. This isn't common at all for any rookie to drop 13 assists, let alone in their third career game. Lonzo's below average shooting doesn't hold him back at all, as he can be extremely effective while not even scoring double digit points. He is a very smooth operator; you won't see him forcing his own shot or making a lot of typical rookie mistakes. Once his shooting ability catches up to other areas of his game, the rest of the league better watch out. Laker Nation is witnessing the birth of a star.
Coming into the showdown with Washington, Wizards big man Marcin Gortat offered bulletin board material with the remarks he made on Twitter regarding John Wall and Lonzo Ball. As usual, Lonzo remained calm, cool, and collected when asked about this. He doesn't ever seem to be bothered, nor does he get caught up in all the media hype and distracting storylines such as this one. This is an admirable trait from such a young man. While Wall did hold Lonzo scoreless when he guarded him individually, Lonzo was eventually able to get the upper hand. The Lakers escaped with a thrilling 102-99 overtime win, to move to 2-2 on the young season. Ball will surely face tough matchups against plenty of elite point guards throughout this season and throughout his career. When it comes to facing somebody as hyped as Lonzo Ball---with a Dad as publicly confident is Lavar Ball is---the Lakers can expect opposing guards to be highly motivated. While some may have thought the Gortat comments would damage the Lakers psyche, we saw quite the opposite effect. The young Lakers came together behind Lonzo and Luke Walton, using this as motivation and fuel to perform.
With team chemistry on the rise, the young core continues to develop. The Lakers hoped to carry the momentum from Wednesday's overtime win into Friday's showdown against Toronto, as Lonzo Ball celebrated his 20th birthday. Unfortunately, the Raptors came away with the win, sending the Lakers off to Utah. While it is unlikely that Ball will light up the scoreboard often during his rookie season, he should contribute a well-balanced stat line and continue to grow as the team's on-court leader. Lonzo and company will have to keep their foot on the gas as they face challenges night in and night out in the loaded Western Conference.
Thomas Bryant receives an incomplete grade as he hasn't seen regular season action yet.
Josh Hart checks in with a solid C+. I am interested in seeing more from him offensively, but that is sure to come. I was just as impressed with his defense and minutes off the bench in games three and four as Luke Walton was. He has been solid overall, and should be able to continue to build on the progress he has made.
Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma both receive an A-. Even with high expectations for these two, I didn't anticipate handing out such high grades after their first few games. Their grade isn't to say either player is necessarily playing at an elite level yet, as more consistency is needed. As far as rookie grades go, these two are light years ahead of many others in their class, with both appearing to be cornerstones of the franchise moving forward.
Laker fans should be absolutely ecstatic about this rookie class. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka won't be letting Lonzo Ball or Kyle Kuzma go anywhere, anytime soon. Expect great things to come from the young guns in purple and gold.