Los Angeles Lakers fans across the world rejoiced when the purple and gold walked out of the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery with the second overall pick. Notoriously poker-faced general manager Mitch Kupchak even cracked a bit of a smile, relieved that the team had made it through another lottery unscathed.
At some point, the bill will come due for the gut-punching Steve Nash trade, and the Lakers will have to send a precious first round draft pick to the tank-tacular Philadelphia 76ers.
But it won’t be this year.
In a draft that most experts consider to be two players deep at the top, the Lakers will have the opportunity to add either Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram to their young roster on June 23rd.
During last year’s 2015 NBA draft the Lakers were the team to watch, as whether they took D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor, or Kristaps Porzingis with the second pick, they would start a domino effect that would alter the equation for every other team down the line.
This year it would appear the Lakers will avoid such a spotlight. They essentially have the easiest decision of the day, as all Kupchak has to do is kick back, relax, and select whichever of Simmons or Ingram Philadelphia passes on with the first pick.
Of course, that’s assuming that the Lakers agree with the popular sentiment that there is a drop-off between the top two and the rest of the field. As most see things, the duo of Simmons and Ingram are standing at the top of the superstar chasm, Spartan-kicking the rest of the field into a never-ending pit of role player free fall.
What if the Lakers don’t agree with that perception?
Consider this quote from Kupchak, via David Aldridge:
“One is always better than two. If you’re one, you can get anybody you want; if you’re two, you can get anybody you want — minus one. I’m not sure there’s as dramatic a cliff as people think between two and three. Any way you look at it, we feel we’ll get an excellent player at two.”
The pre-draft period tends to feature more misinformation than Nixon during Watergate, but still, Kupchak either believes–or wants people to believe he believes–that he doesn’t see a significant drop off between the second and third pick in the draft.
Suddenly, the most boring position in this year’s draft gets interesting.
Suppose, for a moment, that the Lakers went into the lottery hoping to get the first pick just as badly as Simmons’ shoe deal wanted them to have it. With the versatile Simmons now likely going to Philadelphia, the Lakers are left choosing between the lanky Ingram and…who? Jamal Murray, Buddy Hield, and Kris Dunn don’t make much sense with Russell and Jordan Clarkson already in Los Angeles. Bigs like Jakob Poeltl, Henry Ellenson, Skal Labissiere, and Marquese Chriss would all be major reaches with the second pick. Surely, there has to be an alternative that could match Ingram as a prospect.
Enter (the) Dragan Bender.
The 7’1”, 225 pound Bender has been playing professionally in Israel for Maccabi Tel Aviv, and could be exactly the kind of big the Lakers are looking for.
With Julius Randle occupying the power forward position, Los Angeles is badly in need of a post player that can make up for Randle’s weaknesses as a rim protector and outside shooter. Bender can do both of those things, though his limited playing time in Europe has somewhat suppressed his draft stock.
He has the versatility to switch onto some perimeter players, the length to bother shots at the rim and the outside shooting to make defenses pay when they sag into the paint to stop the penetration of Randle, Russell, or Clarkson.
Oh, and he won’t turn 19 until November, making him the youngest player in the draft and the guy with the most room to grow as a player.
That’s called upside, folks.
In a recent piece, ESPN draft expert Chad Ford and analytics guru Kevin Pelton broke down Bender’s NBA prospects and came away impressed with his abilities. Particularly, this line from Pelton would be of interest to new Lakers coach Luke Walton:
“Bender’s performance for Croatia in the 2014 FIBA U-18 European Championships is instructive. He averaged 4.9 assists, third among all players.”
Walton, whose Golden State Warriors-inspired offense will undoubtedly feature plenty of ball movement, would love to have a post player who can pass the ball the way Bender can. Contrast Bender’s dishing skills with those of Hassan Whiteside, a max-level free agent who only picks up assists by accident, and it’s easy to see where the Lakers may be inclined to consider the big Croatian as a real alternative.
The Lakers may well get more bang-for-their-buck by paying Bender a rookie contract and going after a wing like Nicolas Batum or DeMar DeRozan in free agency, rather than using their pick on Ingram and having to shell out big money for a talented-but-incomplete center like Whiteside, Bismack Biyombo, or Festus Ezeli.
Selecting Bender would be a gutsy, could-get-me-fired kind of move by Kupchak and Jim Buss, but if he pans out all would be forgiven. Besides, with their backs against the wall, with his infamous deadline approaching next summer, Buss may be inclined to swing for the fences in what could be his final NBA draft.
That doesn’t sound like a good thing for Lakers fans, but Pelton’s advanced stats suggest that Bender should be the second player off the board, not Ingram:
“I think there’s a case to be made that even No. 4 is too low for Bender…..Bender’s consensus projection is for 3.5 WARP — second in this year’s draft behind Ben Simmons. Nobody else is above 3.0, with Brandon Ingram at 2.9. Murray (2.6) and Dunn (2.3) are far below Bender.”
Finally, when looking at the Lakers’ options, we have to consider what happened during last year’s draft. The Lakers narrowly selected Russell, a guard who was somewhat unheralded out of high school and rose up the draft board during his lone college season, over a skilled-but-unproven international big man in Porzingis. Sound familiar?
The Lakers ultimately chose Russell due to the belief that he was ready to play right away while Porzingis would need a few seasons to get his feet under him. The opposite ended up being true, as Russell was up and down all season while Porzingis threw down vicious dunks on just about everyone, got a cool nickname (Godzingis), and had the fourth-best selling jersey in the league.
That’s not to say that Russell won’t eventually be a fantastic player, but after their rookie season, it’s tough to argue that the Lakers wouldn’t take Porzingis if they had it all to do over again.
Perhaps this time around they will give stronger consideration to the international man of mystery. It’s no coincidence that Mitch Kupchak made sure he was in Israel this past March to scout Bender.
No two drafts are alike, but the outcome of last year’s draft should at least give the Lakers pause this year. If Simmons, who can be Magic Johnson-esque if you squint, is available they will almost certainly take him, but if it’s between Ingram and Bender it could be a harder decision than most would think.
Brandon Ingram is still very much the most likely player to end up putting on a Lakers cap on draft night, but don’t count out the year of the Dragan arriving early in Los Angeles.