Two seasons ago, Luol Deng was in the final year of his contract with the Miami Heat and made it to the second round of the NBA playoffs. That year, he played 66.6 percent of the time at small forward but as the season progressed, and in the playoffs, he was at the power forward position most of the time where his statistics, and the team’s performance, noticeably improved.
The Lakers needed Deng to play small forward last year, but the results were not good. He struggled all season before being shut down entirely to allow more playing time for the youth on the roster. Deng is back, and he will earn nearly $18 million this next season, but in the twilight of his career it is clear to almost everyone that whatever Deng can still contribute will be at the power forward position.
The only problem is, power forward is a spot already occupied by young mainstays Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. Oh, and the team also has a rookie by the name of Kyle Kuzma who looked pretty good in Summer League – that is, if you like a big man who can run the floor like a gazelle, shoot 51 percent overall and 48 percent from three point range, crash the boards, pass well, and was MVP in the championship game while leading the Lakers to victory when Lonzo Ball was unable to play.
How will the coaching staff juggle these four players? Here is the competition Deng faces in his quest for playing time at power forward this next season.
1. Julius Randle
The 22 year old Randle has played two full seasons after missing his entire rookie year with an injury. On the positive side, although his rebounds per game dipped a bit, Randle improved significantly in several areas playing virtually the same number of minutes as the previous season. His scoring went from 11.3 to 13.2 points per game; his shooting percentage from 42.9 percent to 48.9; and his assists rose from 1.8 to 3.6 per game.
He also learned to finish much better at the rim and registered three triple-doubles. Yet, there is still a perception that Randle did not make the giant leap people were hoping for.
When he was good he was very good, but too often he was a non-factor and seemed invisible on the court. He struggled defensively from what appeared to be a lack of focus and effort. His offense was limited due to an inability to stretch the floor as a shooter and his struggles doing anything with his right hand.
The front office did Randle a favor by signing Brook Lopez, who can compensate for some of his weaknesses by stretching the floor from the center position.
Randle’s rookie deal will expire at the end of next season. There is speculation that it may cost as much as $18 million a year to keep him around.
It is unknown whether Randle will be worth that kind of money, especially on a Lakers team that will still have Deng’s contract on the books, hopes to sign two max free agents next summer, and will have to decide whether to re-sign two other highly compensated players on expiring contracts in Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Randle was the subject of intense trade rumors this summer, even as Magic Johnson continued to praise how hard he has been working and his improved physical conditioning. At this point, it looks like he is sticking around, and it would be a shock if he was not in the starting line-up when the season begins.
Still, whether he remains on the team beyond next season will largely depend on whether he shows the consistency that has been lacking, his defense improves dramatically, and he finally becomes an effective mid-range (if not long-range) shooter.
2. Larry Nance, Jr.
Nance is 24 and heading into his third NBA season with the Lakers. In a nutshell, he is the team’s smartest and most mature young player and leader. He rebounds well, plays strong defense, and has a knack for making timely steals, blocks, and soaring dunks.
It is often said that every successful team needs at least one Larry Nance Jr., someone who contributes solid play on both ends of the court and provides all the intangibles. Nance struggles on offense, however, where he has not proven to be much of a scorer.
His statistics were improved across the board last season in 23 minutes of playing time per game, but they were still modest at best. He has lacked any semblance of a mid-range or long-range shooting game, and too often he has been hesitant to shoot at all. While he can run the court on the fast break with the best of them, he does not get into the paint and create his own shots at the rim.
Nance is equal to or better than Randle in most categories, but like Randle, he must become more of a shooter to take his game to the next level.
There is reason for cautious optimism: Towards the end of last season, for the first time in his professional career, he was taking shots with more confidence and connecting from mid and three-point range on a more consistent basis. He has continued to work hard on his shooting this summer and the results could show once the season begins.
Nance could potentially wrestle the starting gig away from Randle if the latter falters and Nance’s scoring significantly improves, however Nance has to show he can remain healthy. He has been bothered by knee issues in particular, which have limited him to 63 games only in each of his first two seasons. If he stays healthy, fans can count on Nance making another big contribution this year in whatever capacity he is asked to play.
3. Kyle Kuzma
There were some questioning whether the Lakers made the right choice in taking Kuzma with the 27th pick in the draft. If his play in Summer League is any indication at all of what Kuzma can do during the regular season, the team might have the steal of the draft.
Kuzma is so versatile and can do so many things well it is hard to know where to start. Despite his size, he can run the floor and beat his man down the court seemingly at will. He can rebound and works hard on defense. He can pass. He can dribble. He can drive to the rim and finish. He plays with remarkable poise and confidence for a 21 year old rookie.
Then, of course, there is his shooting. He has a quick release, good form, and shoots with confidence. Hitting 48 percent from deep is unsustainable, but he has shown he can be a huge threat from deep, something that can’t be said about the other power forwards. Not to mention he can score from the post or mid-range just as well. And if someone closes out on him he can dribble around the defender and get into the paint.
This month, Kuzma looked light years better than the more heralded Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell, and Julius Randle did when they were rookies in Summer League. He was not at all timid or hesitant playing before a sold out arena in Las Vegas and the largest number of television viewers in Summer League history. He wanted the ball in his hands with the game on the line, and he calmly delivered.
It is not clear exactly where Kuzma will fit into the rotation this fall, but this much is clear, the coaching staff must find a prominent place for him even if he has to slide over to the “3” position. If he can play anywhere near what he showed this month, he could one day become the team’s best all-around player which will provide a tremendous, unexpected boost to a Lakers team on the rise.
Yes, it is too early to make such bold predictions; and yes, it was “only Summer League.” But Kuzma sure looked like the real deal.
Fans should expect to see the Lakers play plenty of small ball this next year with some combination of Randle, Nance, and Kuzma on the floor, and maybe all three at the same time. As for Deng, it is hard to see where he could fit into this mix without a huge improvement.