Most Improved LA Lakers This Season
The Los Angeles Lakers may very well finish this season with their worst record in franchise history. Yet, beneath the embarrassment of a 22-46 record is a handful of players who've shown enough improvement in their games to warrant a return to the roster next fall.
Despite a never-ending, mind-numbing, disproportionate array of injuries, the undermanned Lakers under coach Mike D'Antoni have mostly fought hard, played hard and flashed occasional, brilliant displays of ball movement, aggressiveness and athleticism.
While key starters (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Steve Blake) went down like so many pins on a bowling alley, Laker reserves made the most of their opportunity to show management and the rest of the league what they could do. Adversity often breeds opportunity.
Heading into Sunday night's game with the Orlando Magic, the Lakers have a dismal winning percentage of .324, good for last place in the Pacific Division. Only the Utah Jazz (.319), Magic (.271), Philadelphia 76ers (.217) and Milwaukee Bucks (.188) have worse records.
There will be debate over the players left off this list of most improved Lakers. Nick Young and Kendall Marshall have contributed great scoring and passing this year when healthy, but their individual games remain one dimensional. Both could be gone to free agency this summer.
The Lakers' starting five of most improved are all players the team should make every attempt to keep on the roster as the team continues its transition from an also-ran to a rebuilding contender.
Kent Bazemore: A Much-Needed Shot of Energy for a Team in Disarray
Maybe the biggest surprise of the season for the Lakers, Kent Bazemore was considered a "throw-in" when the team traded Steve Blake midseason to the Golden State Warriors. Kent who?
Remembered more for his exuberant cheerleading from the Golden State sidelines than for any actual playing time, Bazemore has proven to be a rare find of athleticism, energy and outside shooting ability all rolled into one. Not to mention lightning speed.
In 14 games since coming to Los Angeles, Bazemore has seen his minutes increase from six at Golden State to 28 for the Lakers. And though his shooting has tailed off a bit, Bazemore is still averaging 13.4 points on 44 percent shooting, including 39 percent from beyond the arc.
As Bazemore’s sample size of games played grows with the Lakers, it’s becoming harder and harder to deny that the Lakers found themselves a deal in the Steve Blake trade. While Blake’s toughness and steady play has been missed by the Lakers’ veterans in the locker room, the point guard was set to become a free agent this summer. Rather than potentially see him walk, L.A. traded for an asset in Bazemore while saving $4 million in salary and luxury tax implications in the process. In Bazemore’s first eight games with the Lakers the Old Dominion product is averaging 16.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game while shooting 46.4 percent from the field and an eye-popping 43.6 percent from 3.
Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding also thinks highly of Bazemore and feels the Lakers may have uncovered a small diamond in the rough. "This (Bazemore) is what the Lakers needed now and going forward."
Wesley Johnson: Finally Showing Signs of Playing Like a No. 1 Pick
When the Lakers win, and that isn't often, Wesley Johnson averages 10.3 points on 48 percent shooting with five rebounds, two assists and almost two blocks a game. And when L.A. loses, and that's happened 46 times, Johnson's average dips to 8.7 on only 41 percent shooting.
The 26-year-old, fourth-year forward is still trying to prove the pundits wrong who said the Minnesota Timberwolves should never have made him the fourth overall pick of the 2010 NBA draft. But his improvement this year over his first three seasons has been nothing short of remarkable, given where he has been in the past.
Johnson's numbers this year are all career bests: 28.5 minutes, 9.2 points on 44 percent shooting, 37 percent from long distance, 77 percent from the line, 4.1 rebounds and 1.4 assists.
A highlight for Johnson came on the night the Lakers beat Portland on the road. Johnson took All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge to school on an alley-oop from a pass by Kent Bazemore with 6.9 seconds left as the Lakers edged Portland 107-106.
Said Bazemore of his new teammate (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLA.com):
Wes is probably one of the fastest guys in the league, baseline to baseline. Every time we watch film, we always see him sprinting in the middle of the floor [and drawing the defense’s attention] and then we can get anything we want.
From Mike D'Antoni following the game (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLA.com):
I know there’s some controversy out there and you guys [the media] have y’all’s opinion, but I don’t think they’re right and I think Wesley is doing an unbelievable job of guarding and he can run the floor. Just watch how many times he runs the floor. It opens it up for everybody. And when you do that, it’s easier to play the game.
Wes Johnson has long had untapped potential to the point where his critics were starting to use the word bust. That is no longer the case.
The Lakers would be wise to keep him around. Johnson's ceiling seems as high as his 37" vertical leap.
Ryan Kelly: Late 2nd-Round Rookie Turning Heads with Hustle
Ryan Kelly was an afterthought in last year's draft, the 48th overall pick late in the second round by the Lakers. And, had it not been for a rash of injuries, Kelly might have either stayed in the D-League or been cut before his Lakers career ever got started.
The 6'11" former Duke power forward finally got his opportunity in January, and he continues to pleasantly surprise Lakers coaches and fans with his end-to-end hustle, shot-blocking prowess and consistent shooting from long range.
"He's been a huge bright spot," said former coach Dave Miller, now an analyst on Time Warner Cable SportsNet, the official TV home of the Lakers. Miller loves the all-out hustle and energy that Kelly brings when he enters the game.
Kelly got his first start for the Lakers against the Toronto Raptors on January 19. He responded with a 17-point game in that Lakers victory and poured in a career-best 26 points on February 5 in a 119-108 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Known in college for his spot-up shooting ability, Kelly has seen his three-point percentage soar over the past three months—from 29 percent in January to 39 percent in February and 48 percent in March.
In his last 10 games, Kelly is averaging 10 points on 49 percent shooting, five rebounds, two assists and one block in 25 minutes per game.
The Lakers drafted Kelly to be exactly what he's become on the pro level: a stretch 4, who can knock down shots, run the floor and defend. This should be a no-brainer for management.
Jordan Farmar: A Leader Emerges
The injury bug pounced on Lakers point guard Jordan Farmar, but when he's healthy he's in the top third at his position in the league.
Out again after suffering a groin injury last Monday in practice, Farmar hopes to get back on the court in about a week. When he's been in uniform, Farmar has exhibited leadership qualities that come from being on two championship teams and playing a year overseas.
Now 27, the seventh-year pro has matured both on and off the court. Before he left to play in Turkey, Farmar had a strong season with the New Jersey Nets, hitting on 44 percent of his attempts from three-point range. In 36 games with the Lakers this year, Farmar upped that to 46 percent, a career best.
Until his recent setback, Farmar was a model of consistency in March, hitting on 46 percent of his shots and scoring 20 or more points twice. He scored a season-high 30 against the Sacramento Kings—a win—on February 28.
Farmar left a lot of money on the table in Turkey to come home and play with his hometown team and Kobe Bryant again. It was a desire to get another championship and do it with the team that drafted him out of UCLA.
Speaking last fall about Bryant, Farmar told Bleacher Report's Josh Martin:
He (Bryant) was very influential on me early in my career. To be around someone like that every day is really a blessing for someone like me.
Farmar should be back with the Lakers next season and could be the starting point guard alongside his colleague and friend when the new season opens. His best basketball years are still ahead of him.
Jodie Meeks: He's Become a 2-Way Player in His Contract Year
Don't tell Jodie Meeks he can't do something on a basketball court. He'll go out of his way to prove you wrong.
More than any other Laker this season, Meeks has improved his game exponentially on both ends of the court. The former Kentucky star was known as a streaky, long-distance shooter (and not much else) when he came to the Lakers in 2012. That all changed this year.
Meeks averaged 7.9 points in 21 minutes last season for the Lakers. This year, those numbers are 15.3 points and almost 33 minutes per game. He's also seen his shooting percentage jump seven points, from 39 percent to 46 percent, a career high.
The streaky outside shooter has become a more dependable shooter, but he's also learned to dribble and take the ball to the rim. And finish. With authority.
Meeks, who is averaging over 19 points per game this month, took his game to another level on March 9 at Staples Center, when he scored 42 in a four-point upset win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Meeks made all 14 of his free throws and had four steals while often defending Thunder PG Russell Westbrook, a perennial All-Star.
D'Antoni singled out Meeks and his consistency when he spoke after the win against the Thunder. Via Joe Resnick (The Associated Press):
He (Meeks) got on fire. He has really improved his game. Defensively, he was out of sight on Russell Westbrook the whole time. He put out a lot of energy in this game, but he has been doing that on a pretty consistent basis. Jodie has been our most consistent performer. It's really fun to watch someone get better.
Meeks might easily command $3-4 million on the open market this summer. But, based on his performance in Los Angeles this year, the Lakers should make re-signing him a top priority.