EL SEGUNDO, California — Zach LaVine came into the Lakers’ gym and nearly jumped out of it.
LaVine measured 46” with his vertical leap at the Los Angeles Lakers’ predraft workout Wednesday. (For comparison’s sake, no one has ever jumped higher on Draft Express’ all-time ledger that includes Nate Robinson at 43.5”, Vince Carter at 43” and Victor Oladipo at 42.5”.) The leap captured in photo by Lakers.com’s Ty Nowell—an image that is is taking the Internet by storm—actually isn’t even LaVine’s highest one.
LaVine was allowed a four-step lead-up, which helped, but he also explained: “I think I was pumped a little bit—ya know, the Lakers.”
LaVine, 19, later spoke with a level of articulation that had reporters privately praising his poise afterward: “I know everything about the Lakers. Me and my whole family are Laker fans.”
And to top it off, in honor of his “idol,” LaVine did it all wearing a pair of low-top Nike Kobe sneakers.
Ah, this is the kind of dreamy stuff that Lakers fans have been longing to arise from the Lakers’ highest lottery pick since James Worthy in 1982 and when Magic Johnson went No. 1 overall in 1979. The idea that the Lakers can pluck a future superstar with the seventh overall pick on June 26, someone who will be the next Lakers incarnation of both must-see activity and flat-out winning in warmly accepting the torch from Kobe Bryant.
Well, that’s a dream worth having.
And for the moment, everyone should just indulge it.
Lakers fans two years ago endured massive disappointment from unmet expectations, and then this season suffered enough nightly hardship to wind up in the draft lottery. Losing teams don’t have one-step solutions, even if you have heritage like the Lakers, so fans have to hold out hope for good news around every corner.
Wednesday was that kind of day at the Los Angeles training facility.
One of the reasons the Lakers made the unprecedented move of opening up some of their predraft workouts to the media was to generate further excitement over their lottery pick, a rare kind of buzz for a franchise accustomed to still playing games in June.
So there was Lakers player development coach Mark Madsen gathering the guys after the morning session that included two strong candidates for that No. 7 overall pick, Indiana power forward Noah Vonleh and Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart. Madsen brought the youngsters into a huddle and specifically urged them to “say it loud!” when telling them to break the huddle with “Lakers!” on three.
A hopeful energy pervaded the gym as Vonleh did his workout in the high-top version of Kobe’s sneakers, as did Arizona forward Aaron Gordon in the afternoon session of six more draft candidates. Gordon acknowledged that he noticed the row of NBA championship trophies overlooking the practice court from club president Jeanie Buss’ office and had wondered aloud to someone: “Are they real?”
Gordon also offered this nod to Bryant: “Kobe’s psychotic about basketball, and I am, too.”
The motor and work ethic that go with Gordon’s own unique athleticism—he told the Lakers brass he envisions himself as eventually a point forward in the NBA—have him expecting to be chosen between picks four and eight. Gordon proudly drew a comparison to Bryant’s workout diligence in saying about the 12:45 p.m. session: “This wasn’t my first workout of the day.”
That might’ve been youthful impetuousness, given how gassed Gordon was as he came up short on three-pointers at the end of the workout. Maybe he didn’t know the Lakers would have him guarding the nation’s leading scorer, Doug McDermott from Creighton, all afternoon for a true gauge of Gordon’s shutdown capability.
Both Gordon and McDermott walked away with visible damage from the session. Gordon scraped his right forearm and McDermott had red lines all down his right shoulder and upper arm.
How much a freakish athlete such as Gordon or LaVine—relative novices in basketball skill work—could help the Lakers immediately is probably not a topic to dwell on when you’re dreaming of future scenarios.
LaVine, a wannabe point guard from UCLA, is basically an athlete who can shoot. And even his effective three-point shot might have to be rebuilt because it is an unconventional two-handed form. The awe-inspiring vertical he showed Wednesday actually reveals weakness, too, because LaVine’s lack of explosive strength is why he does so much better with a run-up to his vertical than standing still.
I’m starting to rain on the parade here, but the truth is that LaVine, who recorded a 41.5” vertical at the NBA draft combine, had many, many attempts to get that 46” on the Lakers’ court. And in a comparison few will want to hear, D.J. Stephens out of the University of Memphis jumped 46” last year, went undrafted and is now playing in the Turkish Basketball League.
The defensive prowess of Gordon and Smart gives them more of a chance to contribute as rookies, and Vonleh on Wednesday showed more versatility than he is given credit for in posting up smaller defenders. But Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak was clear in his caution that fan dreams for these kids might be so lofty that they leave people feeling like they’re nightmares once the players first get exposed in the NBA.
“Some of the talent is young and goes out a couple of years,” said Kupchak, also referencing Bryant and Andrew Bynum as preps-to-pros projects with whom the Lakers exercised patience.
In reality, the Lakers will bring in other guys and bring back the guys they are most interested in for one more firsthand look before drawing any final conclusions. They were already thinking they like Vonleh, Gordon, Smart and Kentucky power forward Julius Randle, but they are open to increasing the pool.
All the while, the back-room possibility remains that the Lakers’ fastest track to improving would be to trade their pick (although it couldn’t be officially processed until July 1, unless the Lakers got a 2014 first-round pick back) for established talent.
For now, though, reality can be set aside as simple visions of LaVine’s lift or Vonleh’s massive hands or Smart’s intensity dance in fans’ heads. That’s what the draft is for: hope.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.