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Spotlighting and Breaking Down LA Lakers' SF Position

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Spotlighting and Breaking Down LA Lakers' SF Position
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Nick Young returns home to L.A. hoping to lift the Lakers.

Small forward was a problem position for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2013.

The Lakers' small forwards were outproduced by opposing threes, according to 82games.com. Only the Charlotte Bobcats gave up more points to opposing small forwards.

The only reason that the PER gap between L.A.'s crop of threes and their counterparts was so small was because Kobe Bryant was credited with playing a quarter of the Lakers' small forward minutes.

He had to play a lot at the 3 because the Purple and Gold only played one true small forward all year — Metta World Peace.

Known for his tough defense, World Peace still put in effort on that side of the floor, but his lock-down capabilities had long since disappeared. He allowed opposing threes to post a PER of 15.0 while sporting a putrid 11.7 PER himself when he lined up at small forward, per 82games.

In related news, World Peace was waived via the Lakers' amnesty provision this summer.

Replacing him on the depth chart will be Nick Young and Wesley Johnson, both of whom signed as free agents over the offseason

Let's break down how the new guys will fare in 2014.

 

Nick Young

If I were picking a team to play a game of pick-up basketball, Nick Young would probably be my first selection among "non-star" players.

The man straight up gets buckets.

But the NBA isn't the Drew League (where Young is affectionately known as "I Am Legend" because, of course).

Playing structured, organized team basketball is about more than just getting yours. That's what holds Swaggy P back as an NBA player.

He posted the best assist rate of his career in 2013—probably because he was forced into a surprising chunk of emergency point guard minutes for Philly last year—but still finished 45th out of 54 shooting guards, according to HoopData.com (minimum 15 minutes per game for 40 games) in that metric.

Young is best utilized as a spot-up shooter who can space the floor and make defenses pay by knocking down open threes. A role like that plays to his greatest strength (his shooting ability) while minimizing his most frustrating weakness (a terrible shot selection when working off the dribble).

The only concern is his disturbing shooting trends. 

According to Hoopdata.com, Young has connected on 40 percent of his threes in a season twice over his six-year career, but the last time was in 2010. His three-point percentage has declined each year since, dipping to a career-low 35.7 percent in 2013 — well below his career mark.

Last season also saw a steep drop-off in his accuracy on long two-pointers (16-23 feet). Young was actually one of the best long-two marksmen at his position in 2011 and 2012, shooting in the mid-40 percent range on a high volume of attempts, but only hit 34 percent of shots in that space last year, per Hoopdata.

Meanwhile his shooting percentages at the rim and in the 10-15 foot range were significantly above his career norms. If those marks regress to his previously established levels and the decline from long-range continues, Young's value will evaporate.

There is reason for optimism though. 

Young will have far better playmakers around him than he did in Philadelphia or in Washington before that. The only time we've seen him on a good team was a brief 22 game stint with the Clippers at the tail end of the 2012 season.

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Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant will get him looks that are much cleaner than what he's used to. And Mike D'Antoni has an established track record of making good shooters look great in his system.

Steve Blake's revitalized three-point stroke last year was a testament to that.

Overall, I'd project Young to play 25-28 minutes a night and score 11-12 points per game while hitting close to 40 percent of his threes.

 

Wesley Johnson

First off, I'm going to allow myself a little pat on the back for calling the Wes Johnson signing days before it happened.

It's a smart move for the Lakers to take a chance on a guy with a top-five draft pick pedigree even if it hasn't worked out for him in his previous stops. After all, it's hardly costing L.A. anything to find out if this guy has any of the game he flashed in college.

With better size and length, Johnson is more of a prototypical small forward than Young, but the Lakers will use him essentially in the same way.

However, Johnson has so far proven to be ill-suited to a catch-and-shoot role, because, well, he's not a good shooter.

Since he's already 26 years old, it seems like there's no upside with Johnson, but he's only been in the league for three years and shooting is the one skill that can improve massively with time and repetition.

And Johnson's shooting numbers are trending in the right direction.

His three-point accuracy last year was still an ugly 32 percent, but it was an improvement on his 2012 mark, and he took his long-two percentage from 33 percent to 41 percent. He attempted significantly more shots per minute from each of those ranges as well.

In fact, Johnson's long-two percentage was tied for 10th among small forwards, and the only guys ahead of him on that list who also averaged more attempts per game were named LeBron, Carmelo and Kevin (as in Durant).

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Wesley Johnson will try to live up to his potential with the Lakers.

Johnson also made a huge leap in free-throw shooting, connecting on 77 percent of his freebies after hovering right around 70 percent in his first two campaigns.

If he continues to make gains in his shooting accuracy, his offensive production should approach acceptable levels. He's certainly got the right coach and system in place to realize that growth.

Where the Lakers are really placing their hope, though, is in Johnson's defense.

He's a capable defender who guard either wing position. He's a solid rebounder for his size and blocks a surprising amount of shots. Last year he held opposing small forwards to a 12.4 PER, according to 82games.

Johnson will be tasked with checking the opponent's top perimeter scorer every night, so his effort on the defensive end will loom the largest in terms of determining his playing time.

I'd project him for 18-20 minutes a game with seven to eight points (and an uptick in shooting) and two to three rebounds a night.

Johnson's real contribution, though, will be solid defense against dangerous wing scorers.

 

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