Walton, Lakers Using Preseason to Weigh Options at Center

This much is obvious: The Lakers want to run.

They have talked about it all summer, and they put it into practice in Sunday’s preseason opener, with a breakneck pace that yielded 112 possessions.

Now, preseason games tend to play out looser than the regular season, but that dwarfed the Lakers’ average pace from last year (102.6 possessions) — back when they ranked third-fastest in the NBA.

One element that could turbocharge the Lakers is the center position. A commitment to “positionless basketball” has coach Luke Walton trying several small-ball lineups, including putting Kyle Kuzma and Michael Beasley at the five position.

“Offensively, it would be great for us if Kuz could handle that,” Walton said at Monday’s practice. “We could get out and fly and run and space the floor. But we don’t know yet.”

Walton said that Kuzma was “all right” offensively against Denver, providing 15 points but on 13 shot attempts.

Meanwhile, he thought that Kuzma — who bulked up over the offseason, in part, to play center for the first time — put forward satisfactory defensive effort, though he also had some growing pains.

In particular, Walton highlighted a play where Kuzma bit on a fake handoff, as miscommunication left two players chasing the decoy.

“There were a few fundamental breakdowns of how we want to play the defense from that spot, but his effort was there,” Walton said. “He wants the challenge again, and we’re gonna give it to him again.”

Walton didn’t get to see much of Beasley at center, as he left the game after only six minutes due to a head laceration. In his short time, he hit a corner 3-pointer and swatted Nuggets center Mason Plumlee.

The Lakers’ other option for a small-ball five is, of course, LeBron James. Walton would not say whether LeBron will line up at center this preseason, though he did point out that the nature of the team’s switching defense leads to James covering different types of matchups.

“There’s times he’ll be guarding centers,” Walton said, “there’s times he’ll be guarding point guards and every other position out there.”

As for the traditional centers, Walton thought that starting five-man JaVale McGee “did his job very well,” as he led the Lakers with 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting, plus seven rebounds, against Denver. Though the 7-footer is no small-ball center, he is mobile enough to allow the Lakers’ to play at their lightning pace.

Six of McGee’s buckets were dunks, as the Nuggets couldn’t slow his rolls to the rim or his tendency to leak out in transition.

“He did a really nice job of attacking the rim,” Walton said. “I think [he provided] that constant pressure that we’re looking for with rollers and looking to get tip-outs on offensive rebounds, things like that. Defensively, I thought he did a good job, when we did ask him to switch, of keeping guys in front. He changed a couple shots.”

Meanwhile, with the Lakers wanting to check out Kuzma and Beasley at center, Ivica Zubac did not appear until the fourth quarter, playing only seven minutes. Walton did say that he still wants to see how Zubac looks among the second unit.

“We tell him he needs to be more aggressive,” Walton said. “We want him being physical, finding work and just going after it.”

While the Lakers’ center picture got just a bit clearer after finally seeing them in action against another team, there are still 17 days left until the regular-season opener, giving Walton much more time to figure out that part of the rotation.

Bron, Beas Ready to Go
LeBron James will make his STAPLES Center home debut on Tuesday, as Walton confirmed that L.A.’s superstar will play in its rematch with the Nuggets.

Meanwhile, Beasley is also available and practiced in full after tests for a concussion returned negative.

However, Lonzo Ball will not play on Tuesday. The point guard remains a full-contact participant at practice, but the Lakers are playing it cautious with his return from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in July.