The Next Steps: Josh Hart

by Joey Ramirez
Digital Reporter

The MVP in Las Vegas could become a starter in El Segundo.

After a red-hot summer league, Josh Hart enters his sophomore training camp with a warning from President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson to his competition on the wing.

“Some guys better watch out, because he’s going to be pushing to start,” Johnson said during summer league.

Hart was clearly the best player in Vegas, where he led all players with 22.4 points per game, plus 4.7 rebounds, 3.0 made 3-pointers and his trademark defense.

Late in the regular season it was clear that Hart — who averaged 15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds after the All-Star break — was worthy of a spot in the rotation.

But he hinted at more by scoring 20-plus points in each of the final four games, and then confirmed that with his blistering summer performance, which saw him show off new tools to his game.

“I told him the one thing he was missing was that he just couldn’t dribble very, very well,” Johnson said. “But now you can see he can break the defense down off the dribble now, off the bounce. He already had a good 3-point shot; it’s better now.”

Indeed, Hart’s handle was on another level in Vegas, where he slashed open defenses for layups, scored and passed out of pick-and-rolls, and attacked in transition.

Hart was already a good finisher during his rookie season, shooting 64.9 percent in the restricted area. Adding a tighter handle will allow him to drive with even greater success.

It should also help open up his in-between game, which was one of his few unsuccessful areas, hitting just 31.0 percent from mid-range and 22.2 percent in the non-restricted area of the paint.

While Hart will have to prove himself in these zones, he has already shown to be a lethal 3-point shooter, hitting a team-leading 39.6 percent from downtown last season.

Hart was at his best shooting off the catch, as he averaged 1.15 points per possession on spot-up attempts — placing him in the NBA’s 84th percentile on such shots.

While Hart could have been content with feasting on catch-and-shoot opportunities, he focused much of his offseason on being able to strike off the dribble.

“That’s one of the biggest emphases … that I’m gonna work on this offseason,” Hart said at his exit interview. “Definitely getting more comfortable with the ball in my hands. Obviously I was able to show that a little bit later in the season. That’s something I feel like I can get a lot better in.”

The regular season saw him attempt only 28 shots out of pick-and-rolls (including 2’s and 3’s), and average just 0.67 ppp, landing in the NBA’s 23rd percentile. He also struggled in isolation situations, shooting just 3-of-12.

But in Las Vegas, he was able to pull up from anywhere on the floor, attacking defenders off of screens and out of iso.

He will find these shots much more difficult against NBA caliber defenders, but the way he was able to shake his way into quality shots (and hit the tougher ones, too) was promising for next season.

While Hart’s handle is undoubtedly his biggest development over the offseason, it isn’t the only area that he’s sought improvement.

Hart stuck out among last year’s rookie class thanks to his sizzling 3-point shooting and defensive prowess, but he does not consider being called a “3 and D player” a compliment.

“I don’t want to put a limit or a ceiling on what I think I can be,” Hart said. “When you hear ‘3 and D guy,’ you think of someone that can stand in the corner, make some jump shots when they need to and play defense. I think I can do that, but I think I can do so much more than that.”

Now, Hart can certainly hit corner 3’s (20-of-40 last year) and play defense. In fact, so much emphasis in today’s NBA is placed on those two areas that it wouldn’t be so bad if he simply focused on excelling at both.

But Hart has shown capable of doing so much more. He is a vital part of the Lakers’ fast-break attack (both starting and finishing), and has shown promise as a drive-and-kick playmaker.

And what makes him most distinct from others at his position is his ability to battle for rebounds against much bigger opponents.

“If we can have 20 of him (we would) — this guy is unbelievable,” Johnson said. “He’s a winner, he’s tough, plays on both ends of the court. I think he’s one of the best rebounding guards in the league. If you think about the guy in OKC, after him, I think Josh is second as a rebounding guard.”

Hart may not be a triple-double machine like Russell Westbrook (the player Johnson was alluding to), but on a team headlined by LeBron James that is not necessary.

With two skills that are highly coveted in the modern NBA — shooting and defense — as well as emerging talents for handling and rebounding, Hart could fit seamlessly onto any team.

We will see how he does for this club, as last year’s 30th-overall draft pick finds his role on a LeBron-led squad with suddenly soaring expectations.

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