The Los Angeles Lakers’ 2014 offseason is still faced with the prominent question of what head coach will be hired to replace Mike D’Antoni. While that decision from general manager Mitch Kupchak has yet to be decided, management can bide its time by scouting key prospects during the NBA draft combine.
This summer’s draft will be huge for the Lakers’ future. They’re coming off the worst finish in franchise history (27-55) since the organization first moved to Los Angeles for the 1960-61 campaign.
Additionally, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash managed to play just 21 games combined in 2013-14 due to debilitating injuries. Those aging stars are two major pieces still under contract for next season. They’ll need to return to form for Lakerland to have any chance at competing for a playoff berth in the loaded Western Conference.
Finding a coach and building a new roster through free agency clouds L.A.’s basketball future, but its 2014 lottery pick remains the brightest silver lining.
The Lakers could easily find a difference-maker within the top 10 selections, but only if the front office does its homework and finds the right fit.
Dante Exum, PG, Australia
Australian prospect Dante Exum has been tied to the Lakers for quite some time leading up to the actual draft process.
According to B/R’s Jared Zwerling, Exum said the following in February about the prospect of playing for purple and gold:
Definitely L.A. is one option. I’ve been to L.A. many times and I love the city, and it is a great city. If I get the opportunity to go to L.A. and play for the Lakers, I know I’ll have love for the city. And their fans are loyal and they have the rivalry with the Clippers.
But just to be in an environment where you have a great player like Kobe, where you have a mentor in a way as a rookie, I think that would be the best option.
The 18-year-old has also spent time working out in Los Angeles, attending a collection of Lakers games and is represented by Rob Pelinka (the same agent as Bryant), per the Los Angeles Times’ Eric Pincus:
Dante Exum is a Rob Pelinka client - he's preparing for the draft in LA & while I don't know if he's taken in a Clippers game - his 3rd LAL— Eric Pincus (@EricPincus) March 26, 2014
While Exum’s skills on the court have rocketed his draft stock over the past few months, his measurements at the combine also managed to raise eyebrows. Per Jonathan Givony of Draft Express:
Dante Exum measured a full 6-6 in shoes, with a 6-9 1/4 wingspan and weighed 196 pounds. Pretty solid for a SG, let alone a PG.— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) May 15, 2014
At 6’6”, Exum could easily be seen as a shooting guard (or tweener guard). That would be an issue for the Lakers, since they already have Bryant in place at 2-guard on a two-year, $48.5 million extension.
Exum, however, considers himself a floor general. Per The Sacramento Bee’s Jason Jones:
Dante Exum sees himself as a PG: "playing the one is what got me here."— Jason Jones (@mr_jasonjones) May 15, 2014
If the Aussie is able to play point from Day 1, his value on the Lakers is higher than it would be otherwise. Nash isn’t the player he once was (putting it lightly), so Exum could learn on the fly under two future Hall of Fame guards and instill some youthful exuberance.
Ultimately, his interest in joining the Lakers means very little if L.A. isn’t put in position to draft him. With the sixth-worst record, it’s logical to think that L.A. would need to vault up to the top four in the lottery for a shot at the self-proclaimed point guard.
According to Comcast SportsNet’s A. Sherrod Blakely, the Boston Celtics are very interested in Exum.
Drafting behind Boston may put Exum out of reach for Lakerland. Still, he’s a big-time talent who’s young enough to make a difference for many years.
Noah Vonleh, PF, Indiana
When fans think of the best big men in this year’s draft class, two names that come to mind are Kansas’ Joel Embiid and Kentucky’s Julius Randle.
The former showed flashes of huge potential before a back injury prematurely ended his season. The latter helped lead the Wildcats to the NCAA championship before John Calipari’s freshmen-laden roster fell to Connecticut.
One underrated interior force, however, is Indiana’s Noah Vonleh.
In a March article, B/R’s Jonathan Wasserman wrote, “When you consider where he’s at in his development, the tools he has to work with and the room he has to grow, I’d say Vonleh might be the most underappreciated prospect in the class.”
Vonleh opened his only collegiate season with four straight double-doubles (finishing with 10 all told). Playing for a mediocre Hoosiers team didn’t help him build his draft stock. However, the 18-year-old displayed a solid offensive game despite youth and inexperience working against him.
Also, according to the Orlando Sentinel’s Josh Robbins, the lanky prospect has already interviewed with the Lakers.
Noah Vonleh interviewed with the T-Wolves, Bucks, Lakers and Blazers on Wednesday. Tonight: the Magic, Celtics and 76ers.— Josh Robbins (@JoshuaBRobbins) May 15, 2014
There’s a distinct lack of depth at power forward and center positions in this year’s draft. The Lakers will likely be trying to replace unrestricted free agent Pau Gasol, so drafting in that direction wouldn’t be a bad idea—especially if they can land a guy with as much upside as Vonleh.
Aaron Gordon, SF/PF, Arizona
Arizona freshman standout Aaron Gordon has drawn comparisons to NBA veteran Shawn Marion—an assessment that makes a lot of sense.
While Gordon is a putrid free-throw shooter—due to a mental block rather than poor form—and has a lackluster outside touch, he excels in different areas of the game.
His biggest strength is on the defensive end of the court, where he uses his physical frame and absurd athletic ability to stay in front of defenders and block shots.
Offensively, Gordon is at his best when he’s running the open floor, finishing in transition or gliding into the paint for easy floaters—much like Marion during his early years on the Phoenix Suns.
Marion became a difference-maker immediately in the desert because coaches didn’t need to call plays for him. He could get garbage points via tip-slams and fast-break run outs, which endeared him to the fan base.
Gordon could make that same underrated impact on the offensive end while bringing Arizona head coach Sean Miller’s defensive mentality to a team in desperate need of a turnaround on that end.
The Wildcat saw his draft stock fluctuate throughout the season, but his sheer athletic ability and dedication on the defensive end make him a solid choice, regardless of the question marks.
Whoever the Lakers decide to draft in June will need to fit a specific system. Provided that Kupchak and Co. have yet to tab a new head coach, their draft targets are still somewhat of a mystery.
Nevertheless, guys like Exum, Vonleh and Gordon would make an instant impact for the Lakers in a variety of different ways. After posting the worst record in more than 50 years, it’s clear that Lakerland needs a complete overhaul.