The Los Angeles Lakers have been part of the NBA Draft lottery four years running. Julius Randle was chosen with the No. 7 pick in 2014, followed in order by D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, all of whom were No. 2 overall selections.
With any lottery pick, there is an expectation that he will make a big difference for his team right away. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. The one thing that Randle, Russell, and Ingram have in common is that none met expectations in their respective rookie seasons.
As for Ball, the jury is still out. Before becoming the youngest player in NBA history to register a triple-double, it did not appear that he was ready to set the NBA or the Lakers on fire in his first season.
On the positive side, the team has drafted two lesser-known players in recent years who were better prepared to make an immediate impact. Larry Nance, Jr. and Kyle Kuzma were projected to go in the second round but ended up as the 27th pick in their respective draft classes.
Both surprised almost everyone with their mature play which enabled them to become starters early in their rookie seasons. It is easy to forget that then-head coach Byron Scott quickly decided that Nance should be the starter at power forward in his first year.
He remained the starter until he was injured for an extended period. Two years later, coach Luke Walton made the same decision and started Nance to begin the 2017-18 season. Both times, Nance’s ascendency came at the expense of former lottery selection Randle.
In an even bigger surprise, Kuzma has, for the time being, supplanted both Nance and Randle as the starting power forward. Recently, when Nance was injured for the third year in a row, the coaching staff tapped Kuzma, not Randle, as the starter, and the rookie from Utah could continue as the starter even after Nance returns.
The question is, will Kuzma eventually relinquish the starting role, and perhaps more important, should he?
It is not as though Randle and Nance have played poorly. In fact, both are playing the best basketball of their careers. They each used the offseason to transform their bodies so they would not tire, especially on defense, and they worked hard at their craft.
Nance has improved in nearly every statistical category, going from a career average of 6.6 points per game to 10.6. His rebounds have increased from 5.5 to 7.5 and his overall shooting percentage has risen from 53.3 percent to 61.4 percent. His career PER average of 14.9 has jumped to 19.3.
Randle’s statistics are down, but that is only because he is playing far fewer minutes. In much less playing time, he is averaging only half-a-point per game less than his career average. His 58.1 shooting percentage is up from a career 46.4 percent, and his PER has gone from 15.2 to 19.3.
There is nothing that Randle and Nance have done wrong, but they share one big weakness that defines them: They are poor outside shooters and non-existent 3-point shooters. In today’s NBA, almost everyone is counted on to stretch the floor, and the top teams almost always excel from three point range.
Randle and Nance were said to have worked very hard on their outside shooting over the summer, but unfortunately, once the games started, their shot looked exactly the same as before.
Kuzma has maintained his high level of play which began over the summer. What stands out most is his confidence, his fearlessness, and his all-around skill set, a rare combination for a first-year player and especially for someone who very few people paid attention to before Summer League.
Kuzma thrived in the preseason, when he was the Lakers leading scorer averaging 17.2 points per game. Once the regular season started, he kept it up and NBA observers started to notice. Many have decided that he, not Ball, is the best rookie on the team.
Kuzma has compensated for the loss of Nance with better-than-expected rebounding and defense, where he can guard multiple positions. He has already registered four double-doubles and is averaging 14.9 points per game on 50 percent shooting.
The one area where Kuzma has struggled in the regular season is from 3-point range. He shot an astounding 48 percent from behind the arc in Summer League, and for most of the preseason he was shooting well until trailing off at the end. So far in the regular season he is making only 32.1 percent from long distance.
It is often said that the best way to tell if a player will become a good NBA shooter is to look at his free throw percentage. Ingram is shooting 63 percent from the charity stripe, Randle is at 68 percent, and Ball is shooting 50 percent. Kuzma, on the other hand, makes a very good 81 percent of his free throws.
Everyone agrees that Kuzma has outstanding shooting form. He is getting fewer open looks as defenses key on him more, and it does not help that he plays for a team which features little or no outside shooting from anyone else.
The best bet is that Kuzma will recover and finish with a solid 3-point shooting percentage by season’s end. Will he hold onto the starter’s role the rest of the year?
He probably should, but with Walton’s unusual rotations, it is more likely that Nance will become the starter when he returns, unless Kuzma really explodes in the interim.
Even when he was coming off the bench, Kuzma was finishing every game and playing very big minutes overall, showing that Walton has great confidence in him.
The Lakers are formidable at the power forward position with Randle, Nance and Kuzma. It would be great if a meaningful spot could be found for all three of them. Despite lacking size in the middle, Randle is playing more at center these days as there are nights when Brook Lopez is not clicking or Walton wants to go with a smaller, faster line up.
Kuzma could play small forward, but the Lakers are still committed to Ingram at that position despite his inconsistency from game to game.
As for Randle, he may not be keen to accept a reduced role for much longer. Still only 22, Randle presumably views himself as a starter and a future NBA star.
That would suggest he’s unlikely to become content with coming off the bench and playing 18 minutes a game. There is nothing he can do about it for now so he plays hard to maximize league-wide interest in him after the season when he will be a restricted free agent.
Randle has a bright future in the NBA but probably not on the Lakers. Whether right or wrong, the coaching staff seems to prefer Nance and Kuzma, no matter how well Randle plays.
If Randle does have to go, one would hope the Lakers can get a good young shooter in return who can fill a need, but that is not the likely scenario that will unfold. The issue with Luol Deng, who has been inactive since the first game of the season despite his enormous salary, cannot go on indefinitely.
Randle could become a key starter on the right team, and the Lakers will not give him the big contract he can get from another team next summer to come off the bench to play 18 minutes. Thus, despite the fact that he is a very good player with a bright future, it seems inevitable that Randle will be packaged with Deng in a trade, another casualty of the disastrous Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak free agency signings in 2016.
Should this occur, the Lakers will still be strong at the power forward position with Kuzma, Nance, and even Thomas Bryant, who is off to a great start in the G-League and size-wise is more of a power forward than a center.
As for who will be the starter the rest of the season, the best guess is it will be Nance if and when he returns from injury, unless Kuzma makes a huge statement in his absence.
Either way, the position will eventually be Kuzma’s, and until then, he is going to play 30 minutes a game (or more) at both forward positions.