Los Angeles Lakers: 5 Biggest Questions Entering Training Camp

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2017

Los Angeles Lakers: 5 Biggest Questions Entering Training Camp

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    Excitement and exposure won't be lacking with the 2017-18 Los Angeles Lakers.

    Not with Magic Johnson at the helm, Lonzo Ball behind the wheel, LaVar Ball on every mic and 35 national broadcasts on the docket.

    But that's where the certainties stop for the new-look Lakers. Their roster was reworked through the draft and free agency, their front office got a face-lift late last season and their head coach—Luke Waltonis only entering his second year on the job.

    Questions abound regarding both the present and future of this franchise. With training camp approaching, we have broken down the five biggest inquiries around the team this season and ordered them by significance.

5. How Many Keepers Are on the Roster?

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

    L.A.'s rebuild revolves around the future, whether its player potential or financial flexibility. That doesn't say a lot for the present, other than the fact there are probably a lot of placeholders on the roster.

    The Lakers' two highest-paid players, Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, will be free agents at season's end. Their No. 3 salary belongs to Luol Deng, who is so overpriced he would need packaging with a valuable sweetener to be traded. Jordan Clarkson, the other eight-figure earner, never strays too far from the trade rumor mill.

    Right now, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram have been locked away for safe keeping. Everyone else is potentially up for grabs. L.A. surely has more players it would like to keep around, but with astronomic ambitions—LeBron James and more—nothing will prevent this organization from pursuing multiple elites.

    "We need two superstar players to come here, to join this platform and join our core group of great players we now have," Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said, per Mark Medina, then with the Los Angeles Daily News (h/t the Orange County Register). "That's our plan and we're going to put all of our energy and all of our hard work toward that."

    Even if the Lakers snag multiple stars, they'll need more bodies to flesh out their ranks. Auditions to fill those roles start in training camp. The power forward spot looks particularly congested with Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma all deserving of minutes there. And don't rule out either Caldwell-Pope (more likely) or Lopez (not as much) playing his way into a permanent position.

4. Is Julius Randle on Cusp of Breakout?

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    Throw out Julius Randle's actual rookie year. He broke his leg during his debut and never returned.

    Treat him as a two-year player, and look what you have. His functional freshman campaign featured a nightly double-double average. His follow-up saw him become one of seven players to average at least 13.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.5 blocks.

    And all of that could be an appetizer for what awaits. The deck seems stacked in Randle's favor for another significant step forward.

    The former No. 7 pick has reworked his body and now sports a chiseled frame. He's also playing for his next pact, as Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler reports the Lakers will not extend Randle and will instead allow him to become a restricted free agent next summer.

    Oh, and the southpaw has apparently added range to his previously shaky jumper.

    "His jump shot has improved drastically," Randle's trainer, Amoila Cesar, told the Laker Film Room podcast (h/t Silver Screen & Roll's Harrison Faigen).

    None of the above guarantees Randle will finally find consistency. If he doesn't, it's not outlandish to imagine Nance or Kuzma coming for his starting spot. Even if Randle plays well, the Lakers could deal him before getting entangled in a restricted free-agency mess.

    But he's always possessed a unique size-skill combo, and he could be worthy of keeper status if he starts putting everything together.

3. Can Brandon Ingram Build Off Late-Season Surge?

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Ingram's freshman effort looks like a throwaway. While he was one of the Association's 109 players to log at least 2,000 minutes, he had the group's worst true shooting percentage (47.4) and second-lowest player efficiency rating (8.5).

    Yet, 2016's No. 2 pick did what all young players hope to achieve—he got better as the year went along. It wasn't quite a tale of two seasons, but his pre- and post-All-Star splits provided concrete evidence of his growth—from 8.0 points per game on 36.3 percent shooting before to 13.2 on 47.5 after.

    The Lakers need him to use that second half as a stepping stone to further development, and there's reason to think he can. He spent his offseason working on his rail-thin frame and inconsistent jump shot. He has the organization's full backing, and L.A. hopes to accelerate his maturation by exposing him to more high-pressure situations.

    "He's gonna be our end of the game playmaker," Pelinka told NBA TV (h/t Lakers Nation's Daniel Starkand). "He's gonna have to step up and make big plays on both sides of the ball. ... Because of Brandon's versatility, Luke Walton will play him at the 1, the 2, the 3 and really call on him night in, night out to make those big plays in key moments."

    Ingram still possess the physical tools that seem forged in a basketball laboratory. He's impossibly long, and when he's rolling, he can make the game appear effortless.

    Provided his summer studies have him prepared for the regular season's toughest exams, he should look more like the building block the Lakers need him to be.

2. Is Lonzo Ready to Lead?

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    How much Lonzo is too much Lonzo? If you're exhausted by the media saturation surrounding his family, you probably think we've reached that point long before his professional debut.

    But inside the lines, there's no such thing as too much Lonzo. Not when his selflessness, quick thinking in transition and preternatural court vision are all essential components of the Lakers' preferred pace-and-space style.

    "Ball is a perfect fit for their offense," according to Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. "He's a perfect fit for Luke Walton's system. He's an imperfect player who needs to work on his shot and his defense, but he has the sort of court awareness and basketball IQ that just cannot be taught."

    In other words, Ball isn't a Laker because his father is some sort of hoops clairvoyant. He's wearing purple and gold because his game matches what they hope to become.

    But he needs to be more than L.A.'s gas pedal. The super-sized expectations placed upon him necessitate organizational leadership. Not to mention, he's probably the best on-court recruiting tool the Lakers have to court superstar free agents.

    That's a heavy burden for any 19-year-old to carry, let alone a hometown product preordained the next great hope for his major-market club. But the Lakers have already placed their eggs in the Big Baller basket, and the prospect's pedigree—McDonald's All-American, consensus first-team collegiate All-American, NBA Summer League MVP—suggests he just might be up for the challenge.

1. What Would Make This Season a Success?

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    In the NBA, it's best to win big or lose bigger. But the Lakers are long shots to do the former and have no incentive to do the latter, since their 2018 first-round pick is headed to either Boston or Philadelphia.

    If you listen closely, you can hear bubbles of optimism bursting over Tinseltown. That's because those in (or around) the organization are antsy to end its four-year postseason drought.

    Lonzo Ball went public with his playoff hopes. Caldwell-Pope did the same. LaVar Ball took things a step further—as he is wont to do—with a postseason guarantee.

    Granted, second-season goals are held by just about everyone at this point on the calendar. But here's where you know how little chance L.A. has of realizing them—Magic Johnson, whose words are often rooted in hyperbole, is the one pouring cold water on everyone's playoff plans.

    "It's going to be tough for us because the West is better," Johnson said on ESPN's First Take, "but I'm not gauging our team based on if we make the playoffs or not."

    He's right. The Lakers' 2017-18 campaign won't be defined by victories or defeats. It's all about Ball and Ingram and how they'll prepare this franchise for the future. Growing pains will be forgiven, while any and all signs of improvement will elicit exuberant responses.

    If other youngsters follow their lead, even better. If the win column grows larger than it's been, that should only add to this organization's appeal in free agency. But those would be added bonuses; the fate of the No. 2 picks will be the lasting takeaway.

             

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

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