Assuming the Los Angeles Lakers keep their top-five draft pick this June, the decision on whom to select may come down to availability.
Although no one is a sure thing in the NBA, there are at least five top-tier college players who could step in immediately and be a nice complementary piece to last year’s first-round lottery pick, forward Julius Randle.
The Lakers have holes virtually everywhere on the court, so this high first-round selection is crucial for them as they start their slow ascension back to prominence. In fact, each and every pick the Lakers have (could be four) will ultimately help shape their 2015-16 roster and have an impact on what free agents to pursue in July.
Several scenarios await the 20-55 Lakers as they prepare for their final seven games, starting with a home-and-away series against the playoff-bound Los Angeles Clippers and ending April 15 at home against the Sacramento Kings.
In all likelihood, the Lakers finish with the fourth-worst record in the NBA, which would give them an 11.9 percent change of obtaining the top pick in the June 25 draft.
It's happened to other teams before, though the chances are remote for L.A.
Envision a minor miracle: Lakers end up with first pick
If the Lakers are lucky enough to capture the first pick when the lottery positions are determined May 19, logic would dictate they select one of the top big men in Jahlil Okafor of Duke or Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky. Both are seen as potential game-changers for a franchise.
The 6'11", 270-pound Okafor has been seen as the No. 1 pick for most of his freshman season. Towns, however, has been gaining ground all year and could supplant the Duke prodigy as the first player taken. Experts are split, per Sports Illustrated.
Towns is a tremendous shot-blocker—he had 87 during the regular season for the Wildcats—while Okafor has offensive moves that are the envy of point guards. He averaged 17.5 points on 67 percent shooting and grabbed 8.7 rebounds per game for the Blue Devils.
Randle, who was lost for the season with a broken leg suffered in the Lakers' first game, would benefit greatly from having Okafor or Towns playing alongside him. Towns might be the better defender and rebounder, while Okafor has an offensive game unlike any big man playing today—in college or the pros.
More Likely: Lakers get the fourth or fifth pick
If the Lakers finish fourth from the bottom (their current position with seven games left), they have an 82.8 percent chance of keeping it, according to the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus. Finishing with the fifth worst record would drop that probability down to 55.3 percent.
If L.A. finishes outside the bottom five, it would lose that pick to the Philadelphia 76ers as part of the ill-fated Steve Nash trade.
Realistically speaking, the Lakers will finish fourth or even fifth and keep that protected pick. With Okafor and Towns most likely off the board by then to the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers or Minnesota Timberwolves, the Lakers can still go big and select someone like 7’0” center Willie Cauley-Stein of Kentucky or 6’11” power forward Kristaps Porzingis from Latvia.
A long shot with high marks, the 220-pound Porzingis currently plays in the Spanish League for Sevilla. He is a prospect that the scouts seem to really like.
He is not going to gobble up rebounds like Stein or Towns, but he has all the tools to be a fluid scorer and defender.
Porzingis continues to draw praise from both NBA and international scouts who insist he's one of the best young international prospects to come along in a while. He has got size, athleticism and can both stretch the floor and protect the rim. Several respected international GMs and scouts swear he is the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki. The more cautious ones think he's a more athletic version of the Bulls' Nikola Mirotic. Either way, he should be a top-five pick. His lack of strength and definitive position are both knocks, but there are few players with his size, skill and athleticism in the NBA.
Another player who is rapidly climbing the draft charts is Duke small forward Justise Winslow. Should the Lakers end up with the fifth pick, the 6'6", 225-pound Winslow could be their man.
Winslow's stock has risen dramatically during the NCAA tournament. He went for 21 points and 10 rebounds in Duke's Sweet 16 win over Utah and followed up with 16 points in the Elite Eight victory over Gonzaga. On Saturday, he had 19 points (5-of-7 from the field), nine rebounds and two steals in the semifinal win over Michigan State.
With the enigmatic, inconsistent Wesley Johnson the current starter at small forward, L.A. could fill a big hole by plugging in Winslow. He's more likely to be the Lakers' pick at No. 5 rather than No. 4.
D'Angelo Russell could be the right pick if available
As much as the Lakers need big men, they would be hard-pressed to pass on either of the two elite guards in the draft. D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State) and Emmanuel Mudiay (Congo via China) are both 6’5” and have a commanding presence that will translate well at the NBA level.
While Russell has been a tremendous shooter for the Buckeyes (41 percent from three-point range), he is equally at home playing the point and being a facilitator (five assists and five rebounds per game).
Mudiay is a legitimate point guard with tremendous strength (200 pounds), agility and quickness, but he's a bit of a mystery who chose to play in China this year rather than attend SMU and suit up for coach Larry Brown.
Mudiay injured his ankle in China back in November and only played 12 games. He looks to be more of a gamble than Russell, but his court skills and confidence suggest he could be a superior, athletic 1 in the NBA.
What adds to the intrigue of selecting Russell or Mudiay is the ever-improving play of first-year Lakers point guard Jordan Clarkson. The 46th player selected in the draft got his chance to start in late January and has been one of the league's top rookies since. He was named Western Conference NBA Rookie of the Month in March.
Clarkson averaged 15.8 points (45 percent shooting), five rebounds and five assists per game last month. He's learning quickly how to be an effective point guard but can just as easily move to the 2. The area he needs to improve on is his long-distance shooting (32 percent), but that will come in time.
Imagine Clarkson and Russell or Clarkson and Mudiay in the same backcourt. Bleacher Report NBA Lead Writer Jonathan Wasserman is also of the opinion that one of the guards would be the right move for the Lakers.
Wasserman especially likes Russell, a consensus All-American and finalist for the John R. Wooden Award. He wrote, "Russell flashed it all at Ohio State, from point guard vision and takeover scoring ability to leadership and killer instinct. And, at 6'5", you can stick him at either backcourt position, which should give the Lakers a little more flexibility when it comes to building the rest of their roster."
Lakers' second first-round pick is very important
Not to be overlooked is the Lakers' other first-round selection. Having obtained the pick from the Houston Rockets in the Jeremy Lin trade last summer, the Lakers will likely end up drafting around the 28th position.
When you realize that Clarkson was the 46th player selected, you begin to see how this pick is a critical one.
After Mudiay and Russell, the quality of guards drops off, so expect L.A. to look for another big man.
According to ESPN Insider Chad Ford, several outstanding power forwards might be available at No. 28. Among them are Montrezl Harrell of Louisville, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson of Arizona, Nigel Hayes of Wisconsin, Christian Wood of UNLV and Cliff Alexander of Kansas.
Although undersized at 6'7", the 243-pound Harrell has tremendous attributes for a power forward including a 7'3" wingspan. He is physical and an excellent rebounder. In Louisville's 10-point win over North Carolina State in the Sweet 16 last month, Harrell exploded for 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting, along with seven rebounds and four assists.
One power forward who would be a true steal that deep into the first round is Wisconsin power forward Sam Dekker. The 6’9”, 230-pound Dekker has really made a case for himself during March Madness, showing tremendous shooting range and a sense of confidence that will carry over into the pros.
If anything, Dekker has moved up in the draft order and likely will go in the middle of the first round. Chad Ford of ESPN.com wrote, prior to Saturday game against Kentucky:
No one has helped himself in the tournament more than Dekker. He's been doing everything for the Badgers, but what really has scouts excited is his shooting: He's shot 13-for-27 from 3-point range in the tournament. When Dekker is nailing jump shots and playing with the swagger he has this tournament, he looks like a lottery pick.”
Second round: Two picks could help solidify a porous Lakers bench
The Lakers may have two picks in the second round and another opportunity to strengthen and build for the future. Choosing the best athlete with strong upside will be the goal, and that could translate into a number of possibilities.
The Lakers looked brilliant last year in the second round. General manager Mitch Kupchak deserves credit for swinging the deal last summer that paid the Washington Wizards $1.8 million for the draft rights to Jordan Clarkson. He was the 46th player taken, but he's played like a lottery pick the second half of this year and could end up being the steal of the 2014 NBA draft.
One player who stands out as a "tweener" and may slide all the way into the second round is senior Norman Powell from UCLA. The smallish (6'4") Powell is a freakishly outstanding athlete who has improved his shooting, ball-handling and defense since coming to Westwood four years ago.
Here's Chad Ford on Powell: "He's a terrific athlete, an elite defender, and he has been much more aggressive scoring, but his jump shot and decision-making are still shaky. He's likely a second-rounder, but the days of being mentioned as a first-rounder seem to be over."
Other names who may peak the Lakers' interest in the second round, per DraftExpress.com, include 6'7" shooting guard Timothe Luwawu from France, point guard George Lucas from Brazil and 6'6" shooting guard Rashad Vaughn from UNLV, who averaged 18 points as a freshman.
Assuming he is healthy, Randle will provide the Lakers with a big, mobile forward who handles the ball well, makes good passing decisions and shoots with a nice soft touch from mid-range.
Where the Lakers finish the regular season will go a long way in determining how they approach the upcoming draft.
And, though Byron Scott and his players consistently say they don't think about tanking in order to get a top-five pick, the reality is that to lose it would put another dent into what already looks like the team's worst campaign in franchise history.
With Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Ryan Kelly and Randle as the only Lakers with guaranteed contracts next year, the club needs every draft choice it can get. Being able to pair Randle with one of the country's top draft picks is just one more step in its long climb back to the top of the basketball heap.
Howard Ruben has also written for UPI, L.A. Times, Los Angeles magazine, Adweek, and Ad Age.