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Where the Young Lakers Have Grown This Season
It has been a season of considerable growth for a young Lakers team that — with 25 games remaining — has only three fewer wins than all of last year.
The key to the Lakers’ success has largely been the development of returning young players and fast contributions from the rookie class.
Here is a look at specific areas where the young core has made strides this season.
Brandon Ingram: Playmaking
No Laker has made a greater leap this year than Brandon Ingram, who has taken the next step in just about every category.
He is the Lakers’ scoring leader (16.2), having nearly doubled his average from last year (9.4). His 3-point clip has surged almost 10 percent (38.0). He is getting to the foul line twice as often (5.0 free throw attempts).
But the biggest change in Ingram’s game has been his ability to make plays for others.
The Lakers tried starting Ingram as their point forward at times last season, but the then-rookie had little success. This year, the 20-year-old has thrived in that role.
Ingram has shown much more composure running point this season, averaging 5.6 assists since inheriting the role seven games ago. During this stretch, he has just one outing with fewer than five dimes.
The natural small forward loves to find shooters and cutters on drive-and-kicks. He has also shown a knack for drawing two defenders in pick-and-rolls, then finding his man diving to the basket or popping out for a 3-pointer.
Julius Randle: Posting up
Like Ingram, there are several categories that highlight Randle’s improvement.
Perhaps most importantly, he has become one of the best defenders on the team, capable of battling down low and switching onto guards. He has also shown more positional flexibility, able to do damage both at his natural power forward and as a small-ball center.
But Randle’s biggest recent development has been his post play over the last two weeks.
During this stretch, Randle has absolutely bulldozed every opposing big in his path, averaging 20.7 points on 58.8 percent shooting.
From Carmelo Anthony to Anthony Davis to Karl-Anthony Towns, nobody has figured a way to keep Randle from using his physicality to force his way to a bucket.
He’s also handed out a bunch of assists and drawn a ton of fouls in the post.
On the season, Randle is averaging 0.94 points per possession on post ups, which places him in the NBA’s 69th percentile. It’s been a huge leap in terms of leveraging his strength down low, as he ranked in the 15th percentile last year and 18th in his de-facto rookie season.
Kyle Kuzma: 3-point shooting
It can be difficult for rookies to make progress in their game when playing their first year in the world’s best league. But Kuzma has found no problem adjusting to the NBA 3-point line.
An NBA triple is about four feet farther back than in the NCAA, but Kuzma likes that the added distance makes him put more of his legs in each shot.
That has been evident in his clip. At Utah, he shot 30.2 percent on 3’s in his career and 32.1 in his final season. As an NBA rookie, that mark has already swelled to 35.8. His 3-point makes have also gone up from 0.9 per game as a senior to 1.9 as a Laker.
Kuzma has been well-served by his quick release and feel for relocating to the correct spot around the arc. The Lakers haven’t run a ton of off-ball plays for him, but he has done plenty of damage by knocking down pick-and-pop treys.
Josh Hart: Finishing at the rim
Coming out of college, one of the questions about Hart’s game was whether he would be able to get to the cup against NBA length and strength.
So far, the answer has been yes. Hart is shooting a whopping 66.7 percent in the restricted area (58-of-87), and much of that damage has been off driving layups.
Hart has been the team’s most accurate 3-point shooter this season (39.7 percent), but has also done a nice job of putting pressure down low.
Now, Hart is rarely the focal point of the Lakers’ attack, but he’s an opportunistic scorer and has shown a knack for navigating around rim protectors at the cup.
The rookie is at his best when attacking and unsettled defense in transition, and he’s flashed a bit of ability coming downhill off screens as well.
Lonzo Ball: Defense
Rookies are rarely even average defenders, particularly at the most loaded position in the NBA.
But Ball has held his own against the league’s point guards, and has been a big part of a Lakers defense that went from four straight years of bottom-three efficiency to 13th this season (despite missing him the past month).
While defensive statistics are not as reliable as the offensive numbers, they do favor Ball, who ranks in the NBA’s 66th percentile when guarding in isolation and 61st defending pick-and-rolls. His 102.1 defensive rating is also best on the team.
More importantly, Ball aces the eye test.
He is reliably engaged off the ball, constantly hunting for steals and flying in for weak-side blocks.
His on-ball defense has also been far above the average rookie’s. He fights over screens, stays in front of his man and uses his 6-foot-9 wingspan to hold his own against some of the league’s best point guards.