After an entertaining and event-filled offseason for the Los Angeles Lakers, the start of training camp is three weeks away. Most fans think they know precisely who will start and the rotation off the bench that will follow. It may turn out that way, but there was intrigue this past week when head coach Luke Walton announced that nothing is for certain, no one should assume anything, and the outcome will be determined entirely by competition among the players in training camp.
Walton could just be saying that to motivate everyone on the roster. Still, regardless of what happens in training camp, most observers believe the front office did not make Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov among the highest paid Lakers of all time to sit on the bench. On the other hand, if Walton meant what he said, and the players believe it, this is likely to be an entertaining training camp.
One would hope the coaching staff will ultimately decide to feature the best players – or the best combination that plays well together – and not just those who make the most money. The Lakers have assembled an interesting roster with interchangeable parts, and there are a number of ways the line-ups could be mixed and matched. Hopefully, the Lakers will use training camp to explore the possibilities and show some creativity, something which has been sorely missed the last few years.
One intriguing contest will be between Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. It is unfortunate that they play the same position because both have talent and a potentially high ceiling that will develop over the next three years. It is presumed that Randle will be the starter, but what happens if he comes to camp and his mid-range jumper and defense are not improved, while Nance shows that his summer league performance was not a fluke, that he has a solid mid-range shot and has become a tenacious defender and shot blocker?
Nance may have talent but does he have the ambition to challenge Randle for the starter’s role at power forward? He comes across as such a nice guy and so laid back. Does he visualize himself as a starter, or in his own mind is he resigned to being a reserve? If Nance is passionate to be a starter and believes he has a real opportunity in training camp to earn the role, there should be vigorous competition.
Another contest of note is Deng versus Brandon Ingram. Deng is a solid veteran and the highest paid player on the team. He is not the player he was five years ago but is still capable of putting up good numbers. While Ingram had mixed results in the Summer League, when he looked good he looked very good – and on both ends of the court. It has been reported that in the past two months Ingram worked very hard, made great progress, and is feeling much more confident now. His peers recently voted him the rookie who is most likely to have the best NBA career.
The pundits expect Deng to be the starter, but behind his calm exterior, Ingram is said to be a fierce competitor who will not give in without a fight. When specifically asked about Deng and Ingram, Walton recently said no decisions have been made on who would start.
The Lakers will enter training camp with four centers on the roster, which is highly unusual. Everyone expects Mozgov to start, but it is unclear how the remaining minutes will be allocated between Tarik Black, Yi Jianlian, and Ivica Zubac. Further, Mozgov, who recently injured his groin while playing abroad, has suffered injuries to his knee and shoulder the past couple of years which has seen his playing time diminish, along, so it is said, with some of his quickness. Even assuming he stays healthy, it may be unrealistic to expect Mozgov to play 30 minutes a night on a consistent basis. There should still be plenty of minutes at center for someone else on the roster, and even more if Mozgov is hurt.
Black is not likely to be a starter because he is undersized, but he is an energy player who tends to make things happen when he’s on the court much like Nance. Black can move like lightening to the rim and throw down some monster dunks. The question with Black, as it is with Nance, is whether he has a starter’s mindset and is willing to fight hard for a starter’s spot, or whether he sees himself as a role player and is content to accept that fate. It is likely that Black’s minutes will come off the bench in a small-ball lineup.
Jianlian, who is said to be either 28 or 32-years-old depending on who you believe, was a high NBA Draft choice who never came close to meeting his perceived potential. He resurrected his career playing the past few years in China, but no one knows how that will translate to the NBA, if at all. He is said to have a nice touch from the outside which can be a valuable skill for a big man. Like Anthony Brown, If he makes his outside shots consistently he will get some minutes, if he doesn’t, he will see little playing time.
Then there is Zubac. People thought it was a joke when he became a high second round draft pick. They chuckled at his broken English and were charmed by his child-like wonder and naivety when he was interviewed. But on the court, Zubac was no laughing matter. In modest minutes, he averaged 10.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks during Summer League. He connected on 64 percent of his shots, and they were not all dunks; he displayed a variety of shots from different places on the floor. He also made 82 percent of his free throws, which is unusual for a big man.
People still discount Zubac, saying he will play in the D-League this year or will be buried on the bench behind the veterans at his position. He may be only 19, but he is a solid 7’1,” 265 pounds, and the more he showcases his ability this summer at the Lakers training facility the more whispers there are that this kid will be really good and perhaps sooner rather than later. He also brings a refreshing joy for the game and for the Lakers organization, which is contagious even among his teammates. Anyone who thinks Zubac will not contribute this next year may be proven very wrong.
Finally, the competition between Marcelo Huertas and Jose Calderon for the backup point guard position could become important. There is no excitement surrounding either player, but the point guard position – even the backup – is of unmistaken significance. Huertas, at 33, is a playmaker, which is good, but he brings little else to the court. Calderon, who was once a feared shooter, will turn 35 later this month and may be nearly through as a player as evidenced by the fact he barely played for the Spanish national team in the recent Olympics.
Huertas and Calderon will get their chance in training camp, but no matter what, it is hard to envision either man playing more than a few minutes a game. The Lakers want to feature D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson together in the backcourt, but the team may have to improvise. Clarkson could end up splitting his time between the two guard positions, and when he plays point guard, he could be paired with Lou Williams, Brandon Ingram or even Anthony Brown. Signing both Huertas and Calderon as the only true backup point guards was a questionable move by the front office, and hopefully, it will not be an Achilles heel for the team all year.
When training camp starts later this month it is possible that what fans expected all along for the rotation will indeed unfold, but there are enough intriguing pieces on the roster that there could be some surprises especially if players like Ingram, Nance, Black, and Zubac don’t defer to the expected starters at their respective positions and really believe they have a chance to earn a starter’s role (or at least more playing time than projected). When Walton says he has an open mind, hopefully, the players will believe him, and that that will lead to vigorous competition in training camp for significant minutes in the regular season.