Finding NBA starters outside of the lottery isn’t easy.
In fact, there are only 15 players taken outside of the top 14 in the last four drafts that have started at least three games this season:
2014: Jusuf Nurkic (16th pick, Portland), Gary Harris (19, DEN), Clint Capela (25, HOU), Bogdan Bogdanovic (27, IND), Rodney Hood (23, CLE), Joe Harris (33, BKN) and Nikola Jokic (41, DEN).
2015: Bobby Portis (22, CHI), Cedi Osman (31, CLE), Josh Richardson (40, MIA)
2016*: Caris LeVert (20, BKN), Pascal Siakam (27, TOR)
*Dejounte Murray (29, SAS) was set to start before tearing his ACL in preseason
2017*: Jarrett Allen (22), Kyle Kuzma (27), Josh Hart (30)
*Atlanta’s John Collins (19) is expected to start when returning from injury.
In other words, there are 46 draft positions each year outside the lottery, and an average of 3.75 starter per year has emerged of late. Six of the players are international athletes, where more limited exposure can sometimes push draft position down a few spots.
L.A.’s basketball operations department has hit on two of the 15 players to qualify.
“We targeted Kuz and Hart early in the draft process so it was exciting to be able to get the guys we wanted that late,” said Lakers Assistant GM/Director of Scouting Jesse Buss. “We are pleased with how they’ve performed and are excited to see their progression going forward.”
Though both Kuzma and Hart came off the bench in the first two games, they were inserted into Luke Walton’s starting line up in part due to the suspensions of Rajon Rondo (three games) and Brandon Ingram (four games). When Ingram returned in Minnesota on Monday, Hart went back to the bench, while Kuzma moved from the three to the four.
Kuzma’s performed far better as a starter, going for 21.3 points on 50.5 percent shooting and 34.3 percent from three with 5.5 boards in six games. Off the bench, he averaged 13.0 points on 35.7 percent shooting and 16.7 percent from three in five fewer minutes on average.
Hart, meanwhile, has been relatively consistent regardless of starting – his three starts were in the fourth, fifth and sixth games of the season. He was hot in his first four (55 percent FG’s, 52% 3’s) before cooling off in the last four (29 percent FG’s, 26 percent 3’s) towards overall averages of 11.9 points on 44.9 percent FG’s and 40.5 percent 3’s.
Regardless of the starting lineup and rotation, it’s clear that Luke Walton trusts these two 23-year-olds, since only LeBron James has averaged more minutes.
On Wednesday night, L.A.’s starting group played very well in the 114-113 victory over Dallas, in which the Lakers led by double digits for most of the game before a furious comeback in the final few minutes from the Mavs. Add in some minutes from Monday’s loss in Minnesota, and Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, LeBron, Kuzma and JaVale McGee have posted an offensive rating of 112.7 and defensive rating of 93.1 in 31 minutes of court time. That’s quite strong.
“They were really good (against Dallas),” said Walton. “They were locked in, they were getting stops, they were getting out and running, they were moving the ball. Again, this is the second game in a row that we have had a lot of assists in the first half then stalled out in the second. That will come with trust and getting to know each other more. I thought they did a really nice job of [playing] with that unit on the court.”
And while Hart is solidifying the bench right now, nobody would blink an eye if Walton either put him back into the starting line up, or simply played him big minutes off the bench.
On a macro level, the front office of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka has worked diligently to create flexibility to add major pieces moving forward.
To have players of Kuzma and Hart’s quality taken so late in the first round essentially means the Lakers outkicked their coverage, both in terms of expected productivity and finances, which is a major advantage they’ve created for themselves.