The Lakers' Youngsters Are Taking a Step in the Right Direction

Michael Shapiro
The Lakers' Youngsters Are Taking a Step in the Right Direction
The Lakers' Youngsters Are Taking a Step in the Right Direction

Adjusting to LeBron James can be a tall task for even the most grizzled of veterans, so it’s little surprise the Lakers’ kids have gotten out to a slow start this season. The wing duo of Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram entered Wednesday night as inconsistent and increasingly inefficient second and third scoring options, while Lonzo Ball showed his passing brilliance only in spurts, too often sandwiched in lineups alongside Rajon Rondo. The youngster who fit in best early on is the least heralded of the quartet, former Villanova guard Josh Hart, who began the evening shooting 41.7% from three. James stressed patience with his inexperienced cast before the season. But would there be a point when his patience runs out?

Los Angeles’ 114-110 win over Minnesota on Wednesday will quiet those questions for now. Behind a 24-point, nine-assist effort from James at the Staples Center was a supporting cast eager and able to help shoulder the load. Kuzma and Ingram poured in 21 and 20 points, respectively, on a combined 6-10 from beyond the arc. Hart added in 21 points on seven shots. Ball’s stat line was more modest, yet he stuffed the stat sheet and provided the highlight of the night on a third-quarter alley-oop. Wednesday was the young foursome’s best night of the LeBron era.

The roster presently constructed around James is far different than the ones he inherited in 2010 and 2014. The only former All-Star on the roster is Tyson Chandler, and the prominent co-stars are in their second or third season. JaVale McGee holds the most playoff success on the roster outside of James. That could change in the coming months. Perhaps the Lakers go star-shopping at the trade deadline, looking to bring in another proven All-Star for a playoff run. But after opting not to ship young assets for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, it’s more likely James rides out the season with largely the same supporting cast, shopping for a co-star this summer.

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Don’t expect this to be a punted year, though. The young pieces alongside James are talented, confident and largely suited to succeed next to the King. James is playing faster than he has in a decade, feeding off the energy of his young teammates. Ingram’s tantalizing wingspan and canny midrange game hold the frame of a potential All-Star. Kuzma’s is decisive off the bounce, and he’s a better three-point shooter than he’s shown thus far. The kids aren’t just alright, they’re downright impressive.

They have time to improve, too. Barring an impatient James or Magic Johnson, the Lakers’ young core will have four months before playoff time to adjust to LeBron and find their collective footing. The start to 2018-19 has been quite similar to year one of James’ return to Cleveland and his debut season in Miami. A rocky beginning is nothing new. While a blazing start would have been preferred, the feeling-out process was expected, and wins like Wednesday are a definite step in the right direction.

The non-LeBron additions to the Lakers’ roster drew significant chatter this offseason, with many debating the potential impact of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee. But aside from McGee’s stellar start, the trio of guards have shown to be secondary pieces. Expect that to be the case as the year continues. LeBron will likely carry the Lakers into the West playoffs, and just how far they go in the postseason may depend on the performance of their inexperienced core. With more efforts like Wednesday night, Los Angeles can become one of the toughest outs in the West.

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