The Los Angeles Lakers have undergone a transformation in the wake of star guard Kobe Bryant’s retirement. Roughly half of the roster is new; fresh faces to go along with the start of the next era. Head Coach Byron Scott was shown the door, replaced by the likable Luke Walton. Even longtime athletic trainer Gary Vitti has taken his final bow, opting to retire alongside Bryant.
Yet, in the midst of all of the change, new opportunities are created. With Walton’s recent announcement that Brandon Ingram would start the season on the bench, the Lakers starting five is largely set with the exception of the power forward spot, which will be fought over by Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr.
However, for the reserves, minutes and roles are very much up in the air. For many of these players, whether or not they can carve out a steady job will be the difference between receiving a multi-million dollar contract and potentially finding themselves out of the league in a year.
One particularly interesting battle will be waged for the minutes available at center behind Timofey Mozgov. The potential candidates include Tarik Black, Yi Jianlian, and Ivica Zubac, who must not only outlast each other, but they also must prove that they are more valuable on the floor than a small lineup with Nance or Randle at center would be.
Black found himself glued to Scott’s bench for much of last season, which was a surprise given how well he performed during his rookie campaign the previous year. The prevailing sentiment was that, for whatever reason, Scott simply wasn’t utilizing Black correctly, and apparently Lakers management agreed since they gave Black a two-year, $12 million deal this summer.
That doesn’t mean that the heat is entirely off Black, though, as the second year of his deal is non-guaranteed, which means if he doesn’t perform he could easily find himself out in the cold next year, especially if his desirable contract is used as a trade chip with a team looking to clear salary.
Fortunately, Black has a strong relationship with new head-honcho Walton stemming from their time in Memphis together while Black was playing college ball. Walton has promised Black a fair chance, and as such, he will be given every opportunity to become Timofey Mozgov’s backup.
On the surface, Black appears to be an excellent fit for the Lakers. He sets solid screens and is bouncy enough around the rim to finish with authority, making him an ideal partner for pick-and-roll maestros like D’Angelo Russell, Marcelo Huertas, and Jose Calderon.
On the defensive side of the ball, Black isn’t much of a deterrent at the rim, but he is competent enough to occasionally come up with a timely block. While it isn’t saying much, his rim protection numbers bested those put up by Roy Hibbert last season, lowering opponent’s average field goal shooting by 2.5 percent around the basket. Where Black really shows his value on that end is with his mobility, which allows him to be somewhat effective at challenging the pick and roll and rotating as a help defender. He is a plus defender both in the paint and on the perimeter, which is no small feat.
Black isn’t without his downside, though. At 6’9” he is undersized as a center, and that can make things difficult for him when it comes to defending true seven-footers. His offense is also almost entirely limited to catching and dunking the ball, with 93 percent of his shots coming in the paint and 74 percent of his baskets being set up by teammates.
This may not be a huge issue on a pick-and-roll team like the Lakers, but it does limit Black’s ability to play alongside other poor shooters, most notably Randle.
The Lakers signed Chinese star Yi Jianlian this summer, inking him to a one-year deal that could be worth up to $8 million but could also be an attractive trade chip due to its many incentive tiers based on games played. During his previous stint in the NBA from 2007-2012, Yi spent most of his time at power forward, but with the NBA trending smaller, the thought is that Walton will primarily use him at center on the Lakers.
In many ways, Yi is the opposite of Black. He’s a true seven-footer with a 7’4” wingspan, and he hit 37 percent of his threes in the Chinese Basketball Association last season. He has also flashed an impressive ability to slash to the basket and draw fouls, even putting the ball on the floor and attacking off the dribble if need be. That combination of length and versatility would appear to make Yi an excellent fit in Walton’s Golden State Warriors-inspired offense, but he doesn’t come without a few red flags.
Yi had a reputation for being easy to push around when he last played in the league, and while he has bulked up considerably since then, he will still become rag doll against power centers like DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond. Additionally, Yi isn’t the quickest player laterally, and while his length helps him make up for it somewhat, he won’t be as successful at challenging perimeter players as Black is.
If Black and Yi could somehow combine talents, the Lakers would have one heck of a backup center, but as is, they offer Walton two very different options to utilize.
The youngest Lakers post player is also, as expected, the biggest wild card. The team reportedly had him ranked 16th on their draft board, so they were thrilled when the 19-year-old center fell to them at 32.
Zubac excelled at the Las Vegas Summer League with his rim protection and soft touch around the basket. His considerable skills, combined with his enthusiasm to be a Laker, have made him an instant fan favorite.
His skill set is eerily similar to a young Marc Gasol, who Zubac freely admits to patterning his game after. He can pass out of the post, rebound in traffic, protect the rim, drain free throws (9 out of 11 this summer), and even step out and shoot a nice 20-foot jumper. While his lateral quickness needs some work, his overall skill set is exactly what modern NBA teams are looking for in a center. As if there aren’t already enough reasons to be excited about him, Zubac is even learning Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook.
The only question is whether or not Zubac is truly ready. It may be a bit early to ask him to take on significant minutes, even as a reserve. His skill set is excellent, but patience will be needed for him to adapt to the speed and physicality of the NBA.
The bottom line is that the Lakers have three excellent options to take on the backup center position, with each one offering a completely different skill set for Walton to call upon. While it doesn’t make establishing a rotation easy, having options is a good problem to have, should make for an exciting battle in training camp and preseason.