Youngsters struggling to shine in Lakers' new, star-powered spotlight

Quartet of 20-somethings deliver mixed results as LeBron James' cohorts

It was LeBron James who “felt a pop” on Christmas Day and suffered an agonizing groin injury and hasn’t played since. But really now, who’s dealing with pain — him or his teammates?

The Lakers are 4-7 without James, and lost at home to the likes of the bottom-feeding New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers. They have appeared foggy at times while shooting poorly at others, yet because LeBron does so much for them, maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Or should it?

While waiting for LeBron to get the medical green light to suit up — he’s skipping this current road trip to Oklahoma City and Houston — there are two very evident Lakers issues that a healthy LeBron covered up for the season’s first two months:

1. They didn’t add all the necessary pieces to this team besides LeBron last offseason.

2. Their young core hasn’t developed as much as projections.

The first factor is the least important. When they remodeled the team last summer, the Lakers had one priority besides signing LeBron: maintaining future salary-cap flexibility. That meant one-year contracts for any free agents and no trades for players whose contracts would extend multiple years for big dollars. Refuting either would potentially crimp the Lakers’ chances of attacking marquee free agents in 2019, when Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard (among others) hit the market.

This philosophy was sound, then and now. They would’ve bent this rule for Paul George last summer, but he stayed in Oklahoma City. Why would the Lakers lock themselves into players who could limit their odds of adding one or maybe two A-list names this July?

The downside for this budget-minded approach was the Lakers were forced to load up on marginal veterans riding out their sunset years. JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Tyson Chandler and Michael Beasley came cheap and can easily be discarded next summer if better options come along. This group as a whole, though, has produced fairly well — or as solid as expected (especially Rondo and McGee).

Notice, though, that there isn’t a shooter in the group to help fix the Lakers’ biggest weakness (they rank 28th in 3-point field goal percentage). Yet, this is the failing of team president Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka … to an extent anyway.

Before laying the criticism too thick on the Lakers’ braintrust, understand that Johnson and Pelinka weren’t working with much last summer on the market. Perhaps the only established free-agent shooter who would possibly meet the Lakers’ guidelines was Marco Belinelli, who signed with the San Antonio Spurs instead.

The more alarming problem here in LeBron’s absence is the lack of player development. Except for Kyle Kuzma, what young Laker is good enough to ride shotgun with LeBron?

In the 11 games without an injured LeBron, the Lakers’ youngsters have collectively looked uninspired. Good stretches and good moments are quickly followed by lapses and mistakes. Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart are all 23 and under and with that comes inconsistency. Yet when you add LeBron and invite championship talk in the very near future, the developmental clock — fair or not — runs faster. The Lakers are still waiting for someone to have a breakout season.

“I believe in this group,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, and yet there are concerns as well.

Here’s a look at how each youngster is fairing …

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Lonzo Ball: Playing point guard next to LeBron might be the NBA’s toughest position, as you are no longer the best option with the ball. It’s even more of a challenge for Ball because he can’t shoot. He’s not, for example, Mario Chalmers, who could play off the ball and therefore made it work with LeBron on the Miami Heat.

Ball is often left standing on the perimeter, where he’s not a threat, while LeBron runs the offense. When he does have the ball, Ball rarely attacks the rim and draws contact, which is probably just as well, because he’s shooting 42 percent from the free throw line, by far the lowest among NBA guards.

His court vision remains sharp, he ranks No. 8 among guards in rebounds per game (5.4), and is on pace to demolish his steals total from last season (88).

Brandon Ingram: Of all the young players, the Lakers have more riding on Ingram if only because he’s a year beyond the others and therefore is extension-eligible this summer. The Lakers need to see growth and know what they have in Ingram to make a smart money decision come July.

The returns on Ingram after two-plus months is mixed. He’s wiser with the ball around the basket, but his 3-point shooting (30 percent) has fallen off after a career-best 39 percent last season. Walton singled out Ingram (and Ball) last week about his lack of intensity. Overall, Ingram remains a puzzle.

Is he a keeper who can be an important piece for a contender, or someone to be dealt before the deadline? Another scenario has the Lakers extending Ingram this summer and then including him in a package to the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis should he turn down the a super-max extension this summer.

Josh Hart: At times this season, Hart was the best shooter among the young bunch. He has started 20 games this season, but his stats have cooled after a solid October (11.9 ppg, 40.5 3-point percentage) to 7.8 ppg and 17.5 3-point percentage this month. The Lakers value his toughness, and he’s shooting 34.6 percent this season on 3-pointers. In terms of his ceiling, Hart appears to be a very good role player and an asset off the bench.

Kyle Kuzma: His 41 points against the Pistons last week was not only the most impactful non-LeBron game by any Laker, but one of the most efficient in the NBA this season. Kuzma chopped up the Pistons in 29 minutes, going 16-for-24 … and then went 4-for-18 in a loss to the Utah Jazz.

He’s young and inconsistent, but at least Kuzma’s lapses aren’t as vast. When LeBron is healthy, Kuzma found a useful role finishing plays and saw shots caused by double-teams on LeBron. He’s averaging 18.7 ppg and has averaged 20.8 ppg since Christmas.

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LeBron’s longest extended absence due to injury came in 2014-15, when he missed eight games due to back and knee aches. James is 34 now and his latest absence could be a sign of what may be a new normal for him as he ages — no matter how much injury-prevention training he does.

That makes it more urgent for Kuzma, Ball and Ingram to step forward. Even if the Lakers land another star this summer to become a more serious title threat, they’re on the clock with LeBron.

And it won’t restart until at least two more games, if not more.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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