Larry Nance Jr. wasn’t supposed to be a good NBA player. In fact, most ridiculed the Los Angeles Lakers’ decision to select the Wyoming senior with the 27th pick in the 2015 Draft. Mock drafts had him landing somewhere near the end of the second round, which means that there was a legitimate chance that he wouldn’t be drafted at all.
In the midst of a breakout junior season in college, Nance suffered a devastating ACL tear that would require a long recovery process. It also meant that a jump to the NBA would have to wait one more year and that he would enter the draft as a senior, which is considered a bad thing in the NBA, where upside rules.
With a serious knee injury on the record and with his status as an “old man” at 22, it was easy to see why many NBA teams would pass on him.
The Lakers, however, saw value. Nance jumped so high at his pre-draft workout with the Lakers in 2015 that they thought something was wrong with the measuring equipment, so he proved that there was no malfunction by touching the rim on a regulation-height basket…with his head.
In addition to his leaping ability, Nance also displayed surprising agility for a player his size, giving hope that he could eventually become a plus defender at the next level.
Nance didn’t just lean on the athletic gifts that he was handed down from his dunk-champion father, though. Instead, he out-hustled his competition in workouts, displaying a work-ethic that would serve him well in the pros.
Despite his pre-draft ranking, and the fact that they already had a young power forward on the roster named Julius Randle, the Lakers were determined to draft Nance. They had the 27th and 34th picks to target him with, ultimately selecting Nance with the earlier of the two, not wanting to take the risk that someone else would grab him before it was their turn to pick again.
Eyebrows were raised, but it turned out to be an inspired decision.
Nance quickly earned fan-favorite status during his rookie year, thrilling the Lakers faithful with his vicious dunks and scrappy play. For a time, he even supplanted Randle as the team’s starter. Knee soreness did cost him some games, but ACL injuries can be tricky to recover from, and take time.
With the Lakers season over in April, Nance has had plenty of time to work on his game before the start of the Las Vegas Summer League, and the results have been impressive.
The trade mark dunks are still there, as is the tenacious defense, but several intriguing new wrinkles have emerged. Now, when Nance grabs a defensive rebound, he takes off down the court with the ball, igniting a one-man fast break.
Last season we saw Randle have this privilege, but it appears that new Coach Luke Walton has extended the green light to Nance as well, hoping to get the young team off and running more frequently.
On one such play against the Philadelphia 76ers, Nance was able to dribble the length of the floor and finish with a picture-perfect Statue of Liberty slam. It was a breathtaking display of skill and athleticism, and one the Philadelphia defense wouldn’t forget.
Just minutes later, Nance again seized the opportunity to run, only this time, the blue-shirted defenders collapsed into the paint, determined to not be put on another highlight reel. Seeing that the lane was clogged, Nance got one foot into the paint to suck the defense in a little further and then fired a pass out to a wide-open Brandon Ingram. Splash.
Those two plays were a perfect illustration of why Nance has earned the right to push the ball on his own: he has the ability to finish, but can also make the right read and hit the open man when the situation calls for it.
Nance was also rumored to be working on his outside shot, and so far it has paid dividends. When he sets a high screen for the Lakers’ guard (usually D’Angelo Russell), Nance now occasionally pops out behind the three point line, where his improved stroke has made him a dangerous weapon. Of course, he can still roll to the rim and finish strong, making it tough for defenses to know what’s coming on any given play.
We have even seen Nance collect the ball in the high post out of Horns sets, where he is empowered to make the high-low pass into the post, find a shooter on the wing, or attack and make a play. These aren’t things that anyone envisioned Nance, who projected to be a hustle player, doing in the NBA. In Walton’s Warriors-inspired offense, however, he’s thriving as a modern playmaking four, which is the same role given to Draymond Green.
While it’s unlikely Nance ever hits that level of versatility, it’s still great to see new elements of his offensive game emerging.
On the defensive end, Nance has been a beast on the boards, and his active hands and quick feet have allowed him to wrack up an impressive number of steals. Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons threw a number of incredible passes, but as the game went on Nance began to read him, resulting in several key turnovers.
Of course, Summer League success doesn’t always translate to the regular season (known as the Tskitishvili effect), but Nance’s improvement is still a very welcome development. D’Angelo Russell has stolen the show in the big moments, but there is a real case to be made that Nance has actually been the Lakers’ best player this summer. No one would have predicted that one year ago.
In fact, Nance has been so good that whispers have circulated among the Lakers fan base that perhaps he will usurp Randle once again and reclaim the starting role. It’s certainly premature at best to speculate on such a change at this point, but the fact that it’s happening is an indicator of just how well Nance is playing.
For the Lakers, however, this isn’t a concern, as much as fans may wring their hands over who gets the nod to be the starter. If having two starting-caliber power forwards is a problem, it’s one that every team in the league would love to have.
If anything, assuming Nance’s impressive play continues, it gives Walton more opportunity to play small, using his own version of Warriors’ vaunted “Death Lineup” with either Nance or Randle sliding down to center so the team can run, run, run.
During the 2015 Draft, taking Nance with the 27th pick left many scratching their heads. Now, it’s time to eat some crow: the Lakers knew what they were doing, and they got it absolutely right.