Projecting Los Angeles Lakers' 2017-18 Depth Chart

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 16, 2017

Projecting Los Angeles Lakers' 2017-18 Depth Chart

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    For a club coming off four consecutive 50-loss seasons, the Los Angeles Lakers don't have as many rotation questions as one would think.

    The biggest reason is that a lot of the 2017-18 Lakers don't have the stains of those dreadful seasons on their hands. There should be three new starters in the mix, each a high-profile addition in his own right: The No. 2 pick and two veterans who will collect more than $40 million combined.

    Youth is this roster's primary theme, as it should be with L.A. still finding its way out of Kobe Bryant's shadow. No projected starters are even 30 years old, and only one is over 25. The bench is comprised of either more prospects honing their crafts or dead-money vets who appear stuck on the books until proved otherwise.

    The Lakers look set to enter training camp with 14 players holding guaranteed contracts, not including the youngster who snagged one of the Association's new two-way deals. Another four hold partial guarantees with the chance to compete for an official spot: Vander Blue, Briante Weber, V.J. Beachem and Stephen Zimmerman.

    Using what we know about last year's squad and all the new additions, we have mapped out the likely marching orders for the 2017-18 depth chart, including making a prediction for that 15th and final opening.

Point Guard

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    Starter: Lonzo Ball

    The Lakers haven't won more than 27 games in the last four seasons, but they're still slated for 35 nationally televised contests during the upcoming campaign. No one has more to do with exposure increase than the slick-passing point guard (and his carnival-barking father).

    People may question whether such a spotlight is deserved, but so far Ball has delivered when called upon.

    During his lone season of collegiate hoops, he earned first-team All-America honors while pacing the nation in assists (7.6 per game) and quarterbacking the second-most efficient offense, per kenpom.com. He was then named summer-league MVP after again setting the high bar with 9.3 helpers per contest and triple-doubling twice in six outings.

    "[Ball is] already one of the best passers I've seen at this level. [Those are] kind of big words, but he can really pass the ball," Lakers summer-league skipper Jud Buechler said, per The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor. "He just gets the ball, looks up and has that incredible natural ability to put that ball right on the money."

    Ball radiates everything the Lakers hope to be. He plays the pace-and-space game preferred by head coach Luke Walton and routinely displays the flair favored by team president Magic Johnson during his own playing days. Ball is nothing less than a load-bearing piece of L.A.'s rebuilding project.

                 

    Backup No. 1: Tyler Ennis

    Unless the Lakers stumble upon a veteran mentor for Ball, Ennis' name should be the second listed at lead guard. Whether he'll get the floor time typical of a second-stringer could be a different discussion, depending on where and how combo guard Jordan Clarkson is deployed.

    Still, Ennis will factor into the rotation after returning on a two-year deal for the minimum (second year is a team option). The 6'3" guard, who arrived in L.A. at last season's deadline, averaged 7.7 points on 45.1 percent shooting (38.9 from three) and 2.4 assists over 22 games with the Lakers.

    Drafted 18th overall in 2014, Ennis is already on his fourth NBA team. But if he continues shooting at above-average clips, his playmaking and defense will help him find stability.

                 

    Backup No. 2: Alex Caruso

    It took Caruso just four summer-league outings to score the Lakers' first two-way contract. The 6'5" point guard's signature moment was an 18-point, nine-assist effort in place of an injured Ball.

    Caruso's deal only allows for up to 45 days with the varsity squad, meaning any NBA minutes he gets will likely be of the mop-up variety. But this could be another valuable developmental year for the former Texas A&M standout who led the G-League with 108 steals and shot 40.1 percent from three last season with the Oklahoma City Blue.

Shooting Guard

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    Starter: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

    The Lakers entered free agency in dire need of three-point shooting and defense. But there were stipulations regarding who could provide them. The ideal player needed to be young enough to fit the nucleus' time line and willing to accept a one-year deal so as not to spoil next summer's superstar search.

    The wish list seemed impossible until Caldwell-Pope unexpectedly reached unrestricted free agency late in the game. Shortly thereafter, he was Hollywood-bound on a bloated single-season salary.

    The Lakers were counting their blessings, as general manager Rob Pelinka likened the signing to "Israelites wandering from desert and then bread came down from heaven," per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News.

    Caldwell-Pope can defend both guard spots, an ideal trait for any backcourt mate of Ball. And although consistency has been an issue, Caldwell-Pope did set personal bests last season in three-point makes (2.0 per game) and percentage (35.0).

    Throw in the fact KCP shares an agent, Rich Paul, with presumed 2018 free-agency target LeBron James, and it's hard to picture anything less than all the minutes he can handle.

                

    Backup No. 1: Jordan Clarkson

    Clarkson spent the end of last season the same way he'd spent at least portions of the previous two: as a Lakers starter. But the arrivals of Ball and Caldwell-Pope mean it's back to the bench for Clarkson, who could have a more dramatic move ahead of him.

    "One person within the organization who isn't permitted to speak publicly on the subject told Bleacher Report the team is confident it can move Clarkson if needed to open space," Eric Pincus wrote.

    Clarkson was a steal as the 46th pick in 2014, but his fit keeps growing less certain. He's neither the spacer (career 33.4 three-point percentage) nor the stopper Ball needs alongside him, and he's older than KCP with a contract that runs through 2019-20.

    But even if Clarkson isn't a long-term keeper, he should be the first guard off the bench and the second team's offensive focal point as long as he's wearing purple and gold.

               

    Backup No. 2: Josh Hart

    An ankle injury ended Hart's summer-league run during his second outing, but the Lakers should already have a good feel for his game. The 22-year-old played 146 games over his four-year career at Villanova, leading the 2015-16 national champs in scoring as a junior and being named a first-team All-American a year later.

    Hart's ceiling is limited by average physical tools, but his instincts and competitiveness give him the high floor needed to be a year-one contributor. He'll be a support piece in the rotation, with his minutes hinging on his readiness, Ennis' play and Clarkson's usage.

Small Forward

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    Starter: Brandon Ingram

    Among the 109 players to clear 2,000 minutes last season, Ingram ranked 108th in player efficiency rating (8.5) and 109th in true shooting percentage (47.4). The numbers were jarring, even while acknowledging the need for maturity in his body and his game.

    But those who looked past the stats found signs of encouragement.

    "He never forced the action or sped out of control," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "He's a good passer, he cuts, and he can run a workable pick-and-roll. He tries on defense, and his long arms can be a real deterrent."

    More positives surfaced in Sin City, where Ingram dazzled for one game (26 points on 9-of-17 shooting) before being shut down by leg cramps.

    All signs are pointing to another step forward for last summer's No. 2 pick, who won't celebrate his 20th birthday until September. He won't be consistent or particularly clean on the stat sheet, but he'll be force-fed developmental minutes as one of the organization's primary building blocks.

                   

    Backup No. 1: Luol Deng

    Perhaps the best assessment of Deng's four-year, $72 million contract came before he signed it last summer. It was from his former coach, Miami Heat head honcho Erik Spoelstra, who laughed after telling Deng he'd be crazy not to take the money, per Medina.

    Deng wasn't worth that kind of coin then and surely isn't now. His 2016-17 was littered with personal lows, including 38.7 percent shooting, 7.6 points per game and a 10.1 PER. He's clearly in decline, a process accelerated by the Lakers' inability to find him more minutes at power forward.

    But as long as his deal is on the books, he'll have a shot at fairly significant playing time. Deng still provides value on the defensive end, and his understanding of offensive spacing will play well next to Ball. The Lakers may experiment with some of their younger guards sliding over to the 3 and would help Deng by getting him more run at the 4, but he'll enter the year as Ingram's nominal understudy.

               

    Backup No. 2: V.J. Beachem

    This could be considered an upset, since Weber and Zimmerman were on NBA rosters and Blue was the G-League MVP last season. But Beachem looks like the biggest need-filler of the four, both for his position and his three-point stroke (40.2 percent over his final two seasons at Notre Dame).

    There'd be risk involved in rostering him, as he's limited as an offensive creator and not always engaged on the defensive end. But there's a best-case scenario where he becomes a three-and-D wing with the versatility to guard multiple positions, a skill set every roster needs more ofespecially this one.

                 

    Backup No. 3: Corey Brewer

    Brewer's biggest contribution to the Lakers last season was lining up the salaries that allowed them to fetch a first-rounder for Lou Williams at the trade deadline. This year, it will be Brewer's 10 years of NBA intel to L.A.'s next generation of wings.

    While Brewer is a theoretical fit with Ball as a transition attacker, the former's career 28.3 three-point percentage would be a half-court space-killer. Any floor time that could come his way would be better spent as developmental minutes for the youngsters.

Power Forward

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    Starter: Julius Randle

    Even with all eyes on Ball, and with KCP's one-year commitment, Randle could be the Laker with the most to prove in 2017-18. He seems likely of reaching restricted free agency next summer, and it's still uncertain where he fits in the franchise's future.

    "Randle's one of the larger pieces of that puzzle the franchise has to figure out over the next year," Silver Screen & Roll's Drew Garrison wrote. "It's great that the Lakers have control of the contract through the qualifying offer, but if they're to maneuver to find cap space to land players like Paul George and LeBron James, where does the salary for Randle fit?"

    Beyond the finances, there are basketball questions at play. Like, can today's league still accommodate bigs who don't bring floor spacing or rim protection to the table? And are players capable of correcting their own issues with consistency and focus?

    The 22-year-old will have a chance to answer them. Because even with his flaws, he's an intriguing prospect.

    Last season—effectively his second, since his rookie year ended 14 minutes after it started—he was one of only eight players with at least three triple-doubles and one of only six to average at least 13 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists.

                  

    Backup No. 1: Larry Nance Jr.

    Hoops intelligence, hustle and hops have made Nance an effective glue guy only two years into his pro career. His strengths as a high-flyer and rim-runner stand to be enhanced the most by Ball's arrival.

    His limitations as a shot-creator and jump-shooter33.6 percent as a rookie, 41.2 last season—can make him a half-court liability, particularly when he's not playing as a small-ball 5. While that's likely to prevent him from logging major minutes, he can make a two-way impact as a reliable bench big.

                  

    Backup No. 2: Kyle Kuzma

    Was Kuzma's scorching summer-league run revelatory or illusory?

    Let's just say he wasn't the same player who suited up at Utah the previous three seasons. There, he averaged 10.1 points and shot 30.2 percent outside. In Vegas, he went for 21.9 points a night and striped an absurd 24-of-50 from three and looked every bit the part of a modern, multifunctional forward.

    "He runs the floor like a guard, he's tough to stop with a head of steam, he understands how to play off teammates and he was competent on the other end," Sports Illustrated's Jeremy Woo wrote. "It looks like he's a real part of the rebuild."

    The issue is Randle and Nance are part of the rebuild, too. And so is Ingram, who spent 14 percent of his rookie minutes at the 4. That won't keep Kuzma off the floor altogether, but he might need a surge like his summer sprint to get more than sporadic minutes.

Center

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    Starter: Brook Lopez

    Lopez's expiring $22.6 million salary brought him to L.A. in the deal that shipped out D'Angelo Russell and wiped Timofey Mozgov's oversized contract off the books. But Lopez, a 20-plus-points-per-game scorer in three of the last four seasons, is more than a source of financial relief.

    "Brook Lopez is exactly the type of individual and NBA player that we targeted to be a core part of what we're trying to build here," Pelinka said, per Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times.

    Lopez's interior defense alone makes him a major upgrade. The 7-footer has the sixth-most blocks since entering the league, and L.A.'s last-ranked defense has been desperate for a competent anchor.

    His seemingly overnight addition of a three ball exponentially increased his appeal. After only attempting 31 triples through his first eight seasons—and misfiring on all but three—he led all centers with 387, which he converted at a 34.6 percent clip.

    If he remains a shooting threat, he'll open more passing lanes for Ball and make it easier to utilize non-shooters Randle and Nance at the 4.

                

    Backup No. 1: Ivica Zubac

    Last summer, Zubac was a little-known second-rounder who seemed destined for heavy G-League service. By March, he was the Lakers' regular starting center, opening 10 consecutive contests during which he averaged 11.1 points (on 58.3 percent shooting), 5.4 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in only 21.2 minutes.

    Now, he's locked in as Lopez's main backup and a fixture in the future plans. Zubac's defense will determine his work load, but his deep bag of offensive tricks will cement his spot in the regular rotation.

                

    Backup No. 2: Thomas Bryant

    Most pro hoopers are larger than life, but Bryant is nevertheless a physical marvel among his peers. The 6'11" center boasts a gargantuan 9'4.5" standing reach courtesy of his hawkish 7'6" wingspan, all of which is boosted by an always-revved motor.

    Based on what he showed over two seasons at Indiana, there's an outside chance he becomes a shot-blocking, three-splashing center. But there's a lot of work needed to reach that point, which is why most of his rookie campaign will likely be split between being a featured player in the G-League and a late-game custodian in Hollywood.

                

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball-Reference or NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.