Grading Each Position Going into LA Lakers 2014 Training Camp

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistSeptember 24, 2014

Grading Each Position Going into LA Lakers 2014 Training Camp

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    In the era of mandated testing and “no basketball player left behind,” we are seeing earlier and more frequent evaluations in the NBA.

    In fact, sometimes we have to grade by position for teams, such as the Los Angeles Lakers, before players even head into training camp.

    Some, such as Carlos Boozer, have yet to play with their new team, while rookies such as Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson are eagerly awaiting their NBA debuts.

    There is also the matter of determining depth at each position, predicting how players will fit in with new Lakers head coach Byron Scott and perhaps just a touch of hoping there won’t be the same stupefying number of injuries this time around.

    So boldly we go to the crystal ball of judging before the fact.

Center

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Projected starter: Jordan Hill

    Backup: Ed Davis, Robert Sacre

    Jordan Hill, a high-energy 6’10” combo center/power forward, had his best year yet in the NBA last season, averaging 9.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 0.9 blocks while playing just 20.8 minutes per game.

    He also has a legitimate talent for crashing the boards with a rate of 12.8 boards per 36 minutes.

    Hill was rewarded for his efforts with a surprisingly lucrative two-year deal worth $18 million. However, the second year is a team option.

    What is surprising is how well he performed without a consistent role under former coach Mike D’Antoni—the 27-year-old big man was asked to start one night and sit for the entire game the next.

    He’ll appeal more to Byron Scott’s traditionalist approach. As Kevin Ding for Bleacher Report wrote: “Scott puts a premium on defense and rebounding, and he believes Hill was underutilized as a Laker because of D’Antoni. Bear in mind how fantastic a newly acquired Hill was for Mike Brown in the Lakers’ two-round 2012 playoff run.”

    If the Lakers are paying Hill a premium to be their starting center, they got a steal when they signed free-agent big man Ed Davis this summer.

    The 25-year-old signed a two-year, $2 million contract with Los Angeles just a year after reportedly turning down a reported $20 million contract extension from the Memphis Grizzlies, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN LA.

    The 6’10” lefty has spent the majority of his four seasons in the NBA as a power forward but will likely be asked to shore up the center position behind Hill. Davis is a good rim protector with a solid work ethic and could pay huge dividends in Los Angeles.

    Robert Sacre, the Lakers’ No. 60 pick in the 2012 draft, is a classic lunch-bucket utility big man. The 7-footer got unexpected minutes last season under D’Antoni, based on attitude and willingness to develop. It’s doubtful he’ll play as much this season in a loaded frontcourt, but he offers size and overall toughness.

    Grade: B-

Power Forward

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Projected starter: Carlos Boozer

    Backup: Julius Randle, Ryan Kelly

    There’s a good chance Carlos Boozer will start for the Lakers this season, just as he has for most of his 12 years in the league. This comes from Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, who reports that Scott is tentatively penciling in the veteran over Julius Randle in the power forward depth chart.

    The 32-year-old is clearly past his prime, however; Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls increasingly placed his trust in Taj Gibson instead of Boozer last season during crunch time. 

    The Lakers picked Boozer up off amnesty waivers this summer, and though they’ll take his easy buckets and cherry-picked rebounds, he won’t be the star of their future.

    That distinction will belong to Randle—the team’s No. 7 pick in this year’s draft. The 6’10” freshman from Kentucky has an NBA-ready body and a penchant for playing hard in the paint. A left-handed scorer, he can create off the dribble, hit baby hook shots or use his 250 pounds to clear space inside.

    The rookie needs to develop a more rounded game, admittedly, and Scott is cognizant of this, telling Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, “Julius will get plenty of chances to play a lot of minutes. We know he’s a rookie and needs to develop, and a lot of that will come in training camp and in practice. I think he’ll do just that.”

    While Randle’s potential tends to bring the grade up at the power forward position, Boozer brings it back down.

    And then there’s last season’s No. 48 draft pick for the Lakers. Ryan Kelly got a healthy amount of playing time as a rookie stretch 4, starting 25 out of 59 games and averaging eight points in 22 minutes.

    But while his court vision and high basketball IQ are intriguing, Kelly’s playing time will probably drop off given the potential of Randle as a future franchise cornerstone.

    Grade: B-

Small Forward

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Projected starter: Wesley Johnson

    Backup: Nick Young

    The Lakers weren’t able to sign a top-shelf small forward during the offseason and wound up re-signing Wesley Johnson to another one-year low-rent deal.

    And then there’s Nick “Swaggy P” Young—a free-spirited gunner who was the team’s leading scorer with 17.9 points per game last season, despite coming off the bench. He also showed some unexpected intestinal fortitude on the defensive end of the court and was rewarded for his all-around effort with a new four-year deal.

    Who will be the starting small forward this season?

    During an interview with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, Scott said the following of Johnson: "I think Wesley has not played to his potential at all. He's shown signs, but I think the kid is so talented, I'm really hoping it can be a breakout year for him. Now, obviously, he has to come to camp and win that spot, and that's on him."

    Later in the interview he said, “I do love Swaggy coming off the bench,” followed by “He will play together with Kobe as well, but I do love his energy and firepower being able to score the ball off the bench.”

    Reading the tea leaves, that sounds like a duo of Johnson and Young at the small forward position.

    Johnson was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves as the No. 4 pick in the 2010 draft and was traded to the Phoenix Suns two years later. Last season he signed a one-year minimum-salary deal with the Lakers and then again this summer.

    And while his 9.1 points and 4.4 rebounds while starting in 62 out of 79 games last season was technically the best season of his career, that distinction is razor thin. He averaged nine points and three boards per game during his rookie season while starting 63 out of 79 games.

    Sounds like not much has changed over four seasons.

    While Johnson is a better-than-average defender, he has yet to show the overall consistency needed to stand out in the NBA. He can be great one night and disappear into the woodwork the next.

    The Swaggy One can never be accused of blending into walls—he’s firepower and braggadocio and will bring instant offense off the bench.

    It will also be interesting to see how Young operates within Scott’s off-ball Princeton offense. It may not be as entertaining but could ultimately be more productive—the effervescent swingman is actually more efficient in catch-and-shoot situations than when trying to create for himself.

    Grade: C+

Shooting Guard

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Projected starter: Kobe Bryant

    Backup: Xavier Henry, Wayne Ellington

    Kobe Bryant is heading into the twilight of his career and coming off two serious back-to-back injuries.

    Xavier Henry is still young but is also coming off multiple surgeries, while new arrival Wayne Ellington has had a fairly undistinguished career.

    Nonetheless, we’re still looking at a depth chart headed by one of the all-time great shooting guards. Reciting a litany of all Bryant’s accomplishments shouldn’t be necessary at this point. The larger question is, What will he do for the team this year?

    If any current Laker deserves the benefit of the doubt, it’s the last remaining vestige of a championship era—a player who has been relentlessly, perhaps pathologically, driven throughout his career.

    Heading into a two-year contract extension that will extend through his 20th season in Los Angeles, Bryant at age 36 is increasingly aware of his basketball mortality.

    Yet, he views the end game through the eyes of recalibration, telling Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated, “I’ll be sharper. Much sharper. Much more efficient in areas. I’ll be limited in terms of what you see me do, versus a couple years ago. But very, very methodical, very, very purposeful.”

    A more efficient, purposeful Mamba is a scary thought.

    Bryant’s tag team partners will likely be Henry and Ellington.

    Henry is coming off his best season after averaging 10 points and 2.7 boards in 43 games with the Lakers, primarily off the bench. However, he has also been plagued by injuries throughout his young career—he needed right knee and left wrist surgery this past April, adding to previous multiple right knee issues.

    When healthy, he’s a solid defender and a slashing scorer who possesses a talent for getting to the rim and picking up free-throw attempts along the way. The downside of that particular talent is his abysmal .638 career free=throw percentage. 

    The Lakers also just signed Ellington, according to their team site, adding some insurance at the position. Ellington has averaged 6.4 points per game over five seasons, but what’s particularly interesting is a 38-game stretch with the Cleveland Cavaliers after being traded from the Memphis Grizzlies in January 2013.

    Ellington saw a significant spike during that period, averaging 10.4 points in 25.9 minutes per game.

    Who was his coach with the Cavs? None other than Byron Scott.

    Grade: A-

Point Guard

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Projected starter: Steve Nash

    Backup: Jeremy Lin, Jordan Clarkson

    The Lakers’ point guard platoon could be very good this season, or it could be a disaster.

    Their starter may well be Steve Nash, who is older than Methuselah and played just 15 games last season, with a chronically bad back and the residual aftereffects of a fractured leg. The two-time MVP, who will turn 41 in February, is in the third and final year of his contract with the Lakers.

    The guy who many observers think should start instead is Jeremy Lin, who recently turned 26 and has played a total of 217 games of basketball in his four-year NBA career—the apex of which was the 35-game “Linsanity” era with the New York Knicks in 2012.

    Lin was acquired in a trade from the Houston Rockets this summer, and like Nash, he is also in the final year of his contract.

    Rounding out the bunch is Jordan Clarkson, a 6’5” ball-handling combo guard with blow-by speed who could wind up being one of the true steals of this year’s draft—the Lakers selected him at No. 45 after buying the pick from the Washington Wizards.

    Nine of this year’s top 10 draft picks subsequently appeared in summer-league action—the exception being Joel Embiid due to foot surgery—and Clarkson outscored them all at 15.8 points per game.

    Yet despite one player’s future Hall of Fame status, another’s tantalizing moment in the NBA’s sun and a second-round draft pick’s potential to be a sleeper hit, none of these guards would be considered a current Grade A player.

    Any one of the three could succeed beyond expectations this season. But just as easily, Nash’s back could flare up, Lin could be inconsistent and Clarkson could show why he wound up in the draft’s second round instead of the first.

    Grade: C