For the last several years, who is a member of the Los Angeles Lakers’ young core has been a nebulous concept. For a while it was Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle. Then D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr. joined that group.
Soon, it evolved to include Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac (the latter of whom has mostly left that discussion). Then it was followed by the Lakers trading Russell to make way for Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma. Clarkson and Nance have since been cast off.
Even when he was drafted, Josh Hart wasn’t immediately added to that catch-all term for the Lakers’ younger players. But he’s excited that he’s now thought of that way after a strong rookie season.
“It’s funny because before my name was mentioned in that, there was an article that talked about the ‘young core.’ It was Brandon, Lonzo, B.I.,” Hart said during Lakers exit interviews. “Then a month or month-and-a-half later, someone showed me almost the identical article and my name was in there.
“That’s kind of cool, but that year is over with now. It’s just about getting better this offseason and taking it from there.”
What Hart will be looking to build upon is a particularly impressive rookie campaign that saw him fight his way into the Lakers’ rotation. Hart did so by using his ability to shoot from the perimeter (knocking down a team-high 39.6 percent of his threes) and guarding several positions on defense.
“That’s just always how I’ve been. I want to be on the court and I want to win. I know if you play defense, if you can rebound, if you can knock down shots and play-make, most of the time you’re always going to be on the court,” Hart said.
“When you’re able to guard three or four positions, rebound and play within yourself on the offensive end, a lot of times you’re going to find yourself on the court. I just tried to be spectacular in those aspects. Luckily, minutes came with that.”
Hart also finished the year on a scoring tear, with four of the five games he scored at least 20 points in coming down the stretch. Hart said this was part of an effort to show the full depth of his skills.
“I don’t want to put a limit or ceiling on what I think I can be,” Hart said of being labeled a 3-and-D player. “I can do that, but I think I can do so much more than that.
“That’s one of the biggest things (Villanova head coach Jay) Wright talked about going into the draft. ‘Don’t let anyone put a label on you. Don’t let guys call you a 3-and-D guy because you can do more than that.’
“I think I showed that I can create a little bit with the ball in my hands, grab rebounds to start transition breaks, finish at the rim and things of that nature. In four or five years, I don’t really know what I can be.”
For Hart to reach his full potential, he knows he’ll have to work, something Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson revealed he’ll get to do when he suits up for NBA Summer League in Las Vegas in July.
“I think Summer League would be a great chance to showcase what you’ve been working on the whole offseason,” Hart said.
He mentioned wanting to improve ball-handling during the offseason, something he’ll surely get to do on a Summer League roster that won’t have Lonzo Ball or Kyle Kuzma.
Hart and the rest of the young core he’s now a part of will all have to focus on improving their games if they want to take the Lakers back to contention. But the team will also be looking to improve by adding big names like Paul George or LeBron James in free agency this summer.
If players like that come, Hart would be excited to grow alongside them. But he’s preparing as if they won’t, and implored the rest of his teammates to do the same.
“Our job as players is to work like we’re not going to, work as if nobody is going to come here in free agency. To work as hard as we can to get to the next level. If we take that mindset into the offseason, work our butts off, do those things to get better, and we’re able to add some great players in free agency, it makes this team that much more dangerous,” Hart said.