Los Angeles Lakers rookie guard Josh Hart would have been excused for being a bit nervous Thursday night, when his first NBA start came against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers are title contenders, and the Lakers are not, and Hart had the added pressure of filling in for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as the team’s second-highest paid player missed the game while attending to a legal matter.
Despite all of those factors, nerves weren’t an issue at all. “People were saying, ‘Oh, it’s a big game.’ For me, it was just a regular game. That’s how I just try to approach every game,” Hart explained.
Hart played far better than a regular late-first-round rookie in the first start of his NBA career, scoring 11 points and grabbing 10 rebounds for the first double-double as a pro. The marks were also career highs.
It was just the latest strong game for Hart, who is one of two Lakers, along with Julius Randle, to play over 300 minutes this season that has a positive net rating — meaning the Lakers outscore their opponents while he is on the floor.
Whether off the bench for spot minutes or as an unexpected starter, Hart has been ready to play, something he credits to spending four years at Villanova. “You’ve grown from being a freshman and trying to fight for minutes, to being a senior and a starter,” he said.
“I’ve done all of that, so I know the mentality you have to take. I’m mature, I know to play my role, and if something happens, I need to step up. It felt good just to be able to get out there and get an opportunity to play big minutes. It was fun, obviously we miss KCP, but it felt good.”
The Lakers will be missing Caldwell-Pope for at least three more games as he’s not allowed to leave the state of California while in a 25-day program that restricts travel as a result of a misdemeanor charge from when he allowed someone to operate his vehicle under the influence last year.
There is no guarantee Hart will start all of those games, but his game against the Cavaliers was the latest evidence he deserves more minutes as part of the Lakers rotation, something he also said was a result of getting some minutes in the G League with the South Bay Lakers.
“Going down there, getting shots up, getting reps and experience. For a competitor, you want to play and get reps. I was able to have the opportunities there, and I came back up feeling good, feeling confident,” Hart said.
“I was confident and just happy. I was back to having fun, I was like a kid in a playground.”
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