The Los Angeles Lakers’ stellar performance in Summer League has energized a fan base that is anxiously awaiting the start of training camp next month. Winning the championship and having the team’s top two rookies earn league MVP and championship game MVP honors was very satisfying.
Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma were spectacular. Brandon Ingram shined in the one game he appeared, and second round pick Thomas Bryant showed infectious enthusiasm and more skill than expected. Vander Blue earned himself an invitation to training camp and Alex Caruso was rewarded with a “two-way” contract that guarantees he will be with the Lakers for at least part of the season.
The only negative was that rookie Josh Hart was injured in the second game, just as he was starting to assert himself, and missed the rest of the competition. For Hart, he lost a great opportunity to introduce himself to Lakers fans, impress the coaching staff, and get a jump start on his rookie season. He will be starting from scratch in training camp, but for a rookie he is in a good position.
Kuzma will be challenged to compete for playing time in a deep and experienced front court that includes Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Jr., Brandon Ingram, Luol Deng and Corey Brewer. Hart, in contrast, has an easier path as the Lakers’ backcourt is not nearly as deep or experienced.
For the moment, the entire back court consists of two rookies (Ball and Hart); two fringe rotation players (Tyler Ennis and Vander Blue); a one year rental (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) who can defend but has a career shooting average of only 40 percent; and a player who can score but is not much of a defender (Jordan Clarkson).
Ball and KCP are expected to start, with Clarkson getting plenty of minutes as a back-up for both. The team will need at least one more guard in the rotation, so Hart will compete with Ennis and (for the moment) Blue. There is every reason to believe that Hart will win that battle, if not at the start of the season then at some point during the year.
Ennis may have the inside track as he is the only true point guard on the roster other than Ball. But Clarkson probably will play point guard with the second unit a good deal of the time which leaves room for Hart to play the shooting guard.
In fact, one could argue that Clarkson and Hart fit together very well just as Ball and KCP seem to complement one another. KCP doesn’t need the ball in his hands and Ball does. By the same token, Clarkson likes the ball in his hands while Hart, in college, was a defensive stopper and three-point shooter much like KCP.
With very few exceptions, it is an imprecise science trying to predict which players entering the league will one day become bonafide NBA stars. There are plenty of lottery picks who fizzle and plenty of players chosen later in the draft who excel. This is especially true in the modern NBA as lottery picks tend to be 19 years old and only one year removed from high school. Hart is not that person.
For one thing, he is a champion. Winning a title is meaningful even at the collegiate level. Villanova compiled a 129-17 record in Hart’s four years there, winning four straight Big East titles and the 2016 National Championship. Needless to say Hart has plenty of experience in big games on big stages.
One promising thing about Hart is that he showed marked improvement each year during his collegiate career.
As a freshman, he was Big East freshman of the year but shot only 31% from three-point range. As a sophomore, he shot 47.3 percent from three-point range and won Big East Sixth Man of the Year as well as being named the Big East Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
In his junior year, Hart won Big East First Team honors and was a Third Team All-American while leading Villanova to an NCAA championship. As a senior, Hart received First Team All-American honors and was named Big East Player of the Year and Co-Defensive Player of the Year. He became a big-time scorer as a senior, finishing with 25 or more points in eight separate games. For his career, Villanova never lost a game in which Hart scored 20 or more points.
Critics will point out that college players who are any good almost always leave early to join the NBA; so, if Hart stayed in college the whole four years, he must not be that good. There is appeal to that argument, but any player can leave early to enter the draft and that doesn’t always mean it is the smart thing to do.
There is something to be gained from a longer stint in college to get more experience, hone your skills, and mature both physically and mentally.
Two years ago, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle (who was essentially a rookie after missing his entire first year with a broken leg) were the team’s highest draft picks in decades. They were hot-shots in college, “one and done” players, but they were shaky in Summer League and in the preseason and did not appear ready for the NBA.
They were nonetheless made the starters when the season began. Yet, twenty games later, Russell and Randle were relegated to the bench. Instead, an older, less heralded rookie with four years of college experience, Larry Nance, Jr., became a starter. He played very well and kept that role until he was injured.
No one is predicting that Josh Hart will start at any point this year, but Nance is proof that four-year college players are often more ready for the NBA than are 19-year old rookies. Fans should be intrigued with the idea of pairing Hart with Clarkson in the second unit. In fact, teaming Clarkson and Hart with Nance, Kuzma, and Ivica Zubac could make for a very exciting and formidable second unit.