Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant working out with young Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum caused enough of a stir on its own, but it didn’t stop there. Bryant was said to have asked why the Lakers didn’t select Tatum instead of Lonzo Ball in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Bryant’s comments weren’t passed along as being critical in nature. But rather a bit tongue-in-cheek because of similarities Tatum has to him. However, it was interpreted by many as a slight.
Particularly LaVar Ball, who claimed Bryant won’t fully accept his son because of Lonzo’s open appreciation of new teammate LeBron James.
Leading up to the 2017 Draft, it was evident that the first three picks in the draft would be Marquelle Fultz, Ball, and Tatum, although the order was not clear. As it turned out, the Lakers’ choice would be between Ball and Tatum.
Ball had an uneven rookie season which was marred by injuries. Tatum earned First Team All-Rookie honors and helped lead the Celtics the Eastern Conference finals. Tatum’s performance has caused pundits to question whether the Lakers should have drafted him.
It is important to hold this debate in the proper perspective. Tatum had the luxury of playing on a team that was far superior to the Lakers and certainly his game was elevated by the players around him.
For most of the season, Tatum did not have the pressure of being the main focus of the team since the Celtics had an All-Star in Kyrie Irving and strong supporting cast. Gordon Hayward also was due to alleviate the pressure, but he was lost for the season in the first game.
The irony is, he plays the same position as Tatum, and if Hayward hadn’t been injured, Tatum would have played far fewer minutes and his season might have gone very differently. Who says luck is unimportant?
Tatum had a very good regular season but it was hardly transcendent. In nearly 31 minutes of playing time he averaged 13.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game. By comparison, Kyle Kuzma played approximately the same number of minutes and games while finishing with better stats in all of these categories.
Where Tatum really shined was from three-point range where he connected on an outstanding 43.4 percent of his attempts, and from the free throw line where he shot 82.6 percent.
Ball had no one on his team to elevate his level of play. He entered the league with unrealistic expectations and played in a glaring spotlight every second he was on the court.
Ball didn’t try to be a scorer but still managed to average 10.2 points per game, which is more than Brandon Ingram averaged in his rookie season. Ball also averaged 6.9 rebounds and 7.1 assists, which is the focus of his game rather than the scoring.
Ball played better and more consistent defense than Tatum during the regular season. There wasn’t huge sentiment at the end of the regular season that the Lakers should have drafted Tatum instead of Ball.
Tatum is a small forward, and the Lakers already have one of those in Ingram. They needed a point guard, and they got one in Ball.
Tatum, however, played 19 playoff games and it was there that he became a star. With Irving out, Tatum was the leader of the team and carried the Celtics on his back at times. His scoring soared to 18.5 points per game and was very efficient overall, except that his three-point shooting slumped to 32 percent.
It is hard to evaluate Ball’s season because he missed so much of it. He played in only 52 games so he missed nearly 40 percent of the year. If he had played 25 more regular season games he would have improved with the experience.
If Ball had a chance to play in 19 playoff games like Tatum did, who knows what we might have said about his season once it was over.
In the end, the Lakers need a point guard much more than they need a small forward. Ingram, who is still only 20, the same age as Tatum and Ball, is projected to be an All-Star in the not-too-distant future.
If that doesn’t pan out, or even if it does, there is always the specter of Kawhi Leonard joining the Lakers next summer, and he too is a small forward. Incidentally, at the time of the 2017 draft, the Lakers knew that Paul George (another small forward) would be an unrestricted free agent the following summer.
Ball brings a lot to the team, although his critics refuse to see it mostly for non-basketball related reasons. He must improve his shooting, which was dreadful last year.
He is never going to be a prolific scorer but he should be able to average 14 or 15 points a game and shoot 70 percent from the free throw line in another couple of seasons, which is all the Lakers need from him given his other talents.
Tatum is going to be a great player but it is premature to say that the Lakers should have drafted him over Ball. There is one caveat, however. Talent means nothing if the player can’t stay healthy.
Ball’s short NBA career has been riddled with injuries. But he certainly deserves another season or two before one can rationally decide if Tatum would have been the better choice.
Ball showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie, he has talent, and in the mind of most the only questions are whether he can stay on the court and improve his shooting.