One of the biggest debates amongst fans this past summer was if or when during the season Josh Hart should supplant Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as the start shooting guard. Hart had a strong finish to his rookie year, capped off by a 30-point performance in the finale against the Clippers.
He followed up by winning MVP honors at Las Vegas Summer League. Caldwell-Pope did indeed begin the season with the starting unit, but his shot was not falling at all and he even looked out of sorts on defense. It was so bad that Hart became a starter after just a few games.
Then fate intervened. Brandon Ingram was suspended for five games, opening the door for Kyle Kuzma, who was also supposed to come off the bench this season. Kuzma was inserted into the starting lineup, scored 37 points against the San Antonio Spurs, and never relinquished his starting role.
The team played noticeably better during Ingram’s absence, so much so that there was speculation he might come off the bench when he returned. Ingram, however, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, would have none of it.
When asked by reporters who would be a starter when he returned, Ingram made it clear that he didn’t know about anyone else but that one of the starters would for sure be him. As it turned out, Ingram was right. Hart is the one who returned to the bench.
Hart played well as a reserve, but his minutes were often uneven and his role undefined. It was a struggle at times, and some thought he deserved better. Things grew more confusing when Caldwell-Pope’s game started to come around and Hart found himself competing, not for the starting shooting guard position, but for minutes as the back-up.
Still, Hart emerged early in the season as the team’s best three point shooter. He was averaging an astounding 48 percent from three-point range at one point, before going through a rough patch.
He has since found his touch again and for the year is making a very good 39 percent from deep. Fate intervened again this past week when Ingram suffered an ankle injury that is going to sideline him through at least this week.
Hart was inserted back into the starting lineup and was a major contributor to two Lakers victories. The first, a 121-113 defeat of the Spurs, was a very unusual one for Hart.
He picked up three quick fouls early and had to sit out most of the first half. Ingram was injured in the first quarter so Hart started the second half but soon found himself with five fouls and back on the bench.
He was only able to play 13 minutes in the entire game. But fortunately for the Lakers, Hart was on the court when it mattered at the end. Although LeBron James was having a 20-point fourth quarter, the outcome was still undecided late when Hart stepped up and knocked down two clutch 3-pointers to help seal the win.
To end the week, the Lakers played one of their best games of the season on the road in Memphis in a 107-88 victory over the Grizzles. In holding their opponent to well under 100 points, it was obviously a strong defensive performance.
Hart, who is one of the team’s best defenders, did his part. But on this night, the Lakers held a rare 23-point lead at half time and Hart was largely responsible for the success on offense. He scored 16 points in the half, 14 in the second quarter alone, when he made four 3-pointers as the Lakers broke the game open.
Hart brings intangibles to any game that help the team win, regardless of the stat sheet. Many of his teammates are known for their finesse, but Hart brings a certain toughness that is needed.
He is able to guard any position, including players who are much taller, and he relishes the chance to do so. He is the kind of player who makes big plays at the end of games, whether it is a key steal, a big block, or a clutch shot.
On an individual level, this season has not quite unfolded as Hart and his fans anticipated. In addition to his uneven minutes and undefined role, he had to play through an ankle injury that might have sidelined other players.
As the season progresses, if he stays healthy, look for Hart to play a more prominent role and contribute more and more especially as a closer at the end of games.
The Lakers are very fortunate that they had the foresight to draft Hart with the 30th pick in 2017. Hart is a winner and a very valuable member of the team. For his solid contributions to two big victories this week, he is a worthy recipient of Player of the Week honors.