Ranking the Los Angeles Lakers' Young Prospects Ahead of 2017-18 NBA Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 30, 2017

Ranking the Los Angeles Lakers' Young Prospects Ahead of 2017-18 NBA Season

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    The Los Angeles Lakers haven't so much as sniffed an NBA playoff berth since Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard awkwardly led the 2012-13 superteam-that-wasn't.

    That's bad news on every front except this: L.A.'s prospect collection is looking pretty strong.

    Four consecutive losing seasons and three top-10 picks can have that effect, but credit the Lakers for choosing wisely later in the draft and shifting their focus to player development. It's too early to tell what they have amassed, but quantity and quality appear as on-paper strengths.

    Since the Lakers are swimming in prospects—defined for our purposes as a player with three years of NBA experience or less—we thought it wise to assess their assemblage with a good, old-fashioned ranking. As up-and-comers are our focus, these rankings focused more on long-term potential than 2017-18 production.

10. Tyler Ennis

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    Something happened after the trade deadline last season. Either Tyler Ennis rerouted his career trajectory by pouncing on a prime opportunity or he inflated his stat line with volume production for a bad team.

    The 23-year-old donned four different jerseys over his first three NBA campaigns, compiling forgettable marks along the way. He has yet to establish himself as a shooter from the field (41.9 percent) or outside (34.2), and his 1.9 assists per game against 1.0 turnover grades out as average at best.

    His ceiling seems to be serviceable backup, while his floor is either the end of the bench or out of the league. The Lakers landed him in a salary dump by the Houston Rockets, and Ennis' value probably hasn't changed much since. Unless his late-season surge—7.7 points on 45.1 percent shooting, including 38.9 from three, and 2.4 assists in 17.8 minutes per game—proves to be more than a mirage.

    He's young, and point guard can be the slowest position to develop at this level. L.A. was wise to keep him around for minimal cost since it can afford to be patient with his progress.

9. Thomas Bryant

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    The idea of Thomas Bryant ranks a lot higher on this list than the real version.

    He's 6'10" with a 7'6" wingspan and a budding three ball (28 makes at a 37.3 percent clip in college). He's also surprisingly fast in transition, thanks in no small part to his consistently excellent energy.

    He was also just the 42nd player chosen in the 2017 draft—the Lakers acquired him from the Utah Jazz—which highlights how far he is from being the perfect prospect.

    His awareness leaves a lot to be desired, rearing its ugly head in the form of stone hands and slow reads. He's unpolished in the post and not powerful enough to overwhelm NBA bigs. He struggles defending in space and isn't the rim protector his 9'4.5" standing reach suggests he could be (1.9 blocks per 40 minutes).

    His limitations are concerning enough to keep him low on our list, but he has the potential to make this ranking look foolish. If his shot holds up, he could be a stretch 5 who isn't a one-trick spacing specialist. That's quite the asset, but again, that's not Bryant's reality at the moment.

8. Josh Hart

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    It seems wrong to label Josh Hart the typical four-year college prospect. Most four-year college players don't go 129-17 and win a national title in their career. Or use their senior season to garner conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors, plus be deemed a consensus first-team All-American.

    But under NBA standards, Hart draws a lot of the praises and criticisms common to four-year products.

    "He's a safe pick, a high-floor, lower-ceiling type player," a scout told Jeremy Woo of Sports Illustrated. "His shooting has gotten better but can he be a knockdown NBA three-point shooter? He's not too dynamic of an offensive player and lacks great ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays."

    Hart projects to be a jack of all trades. Whether that makes him a glue guy or a bench warmer who can't find his niche is unclear. His instincts and intelligence will ensure he never looks lost inside the lines, but his average length and athleticism could prove significant obstacles.

    It's hard to imagine him as a bust. But his underwhelming upside prevents him from climbing any higher.

7. Ivica Zubac

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    Ivica Zubac's stock shouldn't be this volatile.

    He was a relative unknown this time last summer, drafted 32nd overall and later deployed multiple times in the G League. But he was an NBA rotation regular by January and a starter by March, when he averaged 12.1 points and 6.0 rebounds over a nine-game stretch.

    Then summer league hit, and Zubac began backtracking. His production fell beneath the bar he set last summer—including a precipitous fall from 64.7 percent shooting to 47.1—and he failed to look the part of a potential building block. Rather, he seemed too slow for the Lakers' new breakneck style, which could prove costly going forward.

    "Zubac is far from guaranteed his own share of court time due to the evolving nature of the game," NBC Los Angeles' Shahan Ahmed wrote. "More than likely, [coach Luke] Walton will opt to go small with Zubac sacrificed."

    Zubac had already lost his starting spot once Brook Lopez joined the party in June. But even a reserve gig could be hard to hold with more athletic and versatile options on the roster set to push Zubac down the pecking order.

6. Jordan Clarkson

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    Jordan Clarkson is the oldest player in these rankings and, fittingly, the least mysterious.

    His identity is well-established at this point. Over three NBA seasons, he has always averaged between 17.1 and 18.1 points per 36 minutes and shot between 43.3 and 44.8 percent from the field. He's not a good defender or even an average outside shooter (career 33.4 percent), and he can't be asked for more than secondary playmaking.

    There are quite a few Clarkson types around the league. There's always value in self-sufficient scoring, and he can carry an attack when he's rolling (17 outings of 20 or more points last season).

    But his perimeter deficiencies have never been more problematic. Inside-the-arc gunners are becoming less valued by the day—just ask waived-and-still-looking-for-work Monta Ellis. Unless Clarkson experiences significant (and unexpected) development, he'll play a complementary role in either the franchise's future or perhaps a trade.

5. Larry Nance Jr.

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    For having just two NBA seasons under his belt, Larry Nance Jr. is impressively close to being an ideal role player.

    If there was a way to give basketball IQ exams, he'd be the favorite to score highest among these prospects. There's a distinct maturity in his play, which can be seen both in his excellent effort and willingness to stay within himself. He's active on the glass, tenacious at the defensive end and an acrobat above the rim.

    He's also incredibly limited offensively. He doesn't have a jump shot in his arsenal. He's 11-of-46 from three for his career (23.9 percent) and only hit 36.3 percent of his attempts from 10 feet and beyond last season. While he's absurdly explosive around the basket, he can't consistently create his own scoring chances.

    It's too early to say he's incapable of improving as an offensive threat. But the 24-year-old seems to have found his NBA calling as a pesky defender and rim-running big.

4. Kyle Kuzma

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    These are true statements about Kyle Kuzma:

    • He shot 30.2 percent from distance during his three-year college career.
    • His fellow rookies ranked him as tied for the fourth-best shooter in this class, per NBA.com's rookie survey.

    Chances are most NBA freshmen placed a heavy emphasis on Kuzma's scintillating summer league play: 21.9 points on 51.4 percent shooting, including 3.4 triples on 48.0 percent shooting. But maybe the more keen observers also noticed a trend before that: He made 38.6 percent of his long-range looks from Jan. 1 on.

    That's still a small sample, but it could be a critical development. Because if Kuzma has added three-point range to his arsenal, he might have everything clubs want in a contemporary forward.

    "Kuzma has the physical tools, fluidity and budding skill set to fit the role of a modern-day NBA power forward," DraftExpress' Julian Applebome wrote. "He is light on his feet, shows excellent speed in transition and has the athleticism to finish above the rim in space."

    Kuzma should have more upside than the typical 22-year-old because he was a late bloomer in college (he averaged 8.1 minutes per game as a redshirt freshman in 2014-15). Awareness and consistency remain puzzles he needs to solve, but he could potentially provide shooting, playmaking, transition scoring, rebounding and defensive versatility. Not bad for the 27th pick.

3. Julius Randle

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    This is where the prospects' pedigrees change, as Julius Randle is the first of three top-10 picks who round out the list. He's also the oldest (22) and lowest drafted (seventh in 2014) of those three, though he checks in behind them for different reasons.

    But first, let's examine why he's ahead of the seven others. Essentially, he's a skilled big with an intoxicating blend of talent and potential.

    "Randle still has the same combination of brawn, quickness and skill that had him pegged as a future NBA star when he was in high school," The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote. "There just aren't many guys his size who can move as well as he does and who are as capable of making plays."

    Give Randle a three ball, and he might be unguardable. He can already overpower smaller defenders in the post, and if bigger ones had to respect his range, he could race around them. Even without that advantage, he was one of only six players to average at least 13.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists last season.

    But the absence of a perimeter shot is a problem, especially since he's also not a rim protector. Given his athletic gifts, he should also be a better defender in space than he's been.

    It will be revealing how he handles the upcoming campaign. He'll be playing for his next contract and facing stiff competition for floor time. He should also benefit from playing alongside Brook Lopez, a spacer and shot-blocker who should cover up Randle's primary weaknesses.

2. Brandon Ingram

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    The Lakers have two pillars supporting their next era (three if you count cap space): Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, the No. 2 picks of the past two drafts.

    If both were entering their rookie years, it would be difficult to tab one over the other. By this time next year, they might share the top billing.

    But Ingram—who possesses a drool-worthy package of size and length—cedes the top spot, and it's not particularly close. It's impossible to nudge him past No. 2 after his frustrating freshman year. Among the 194 players who logged at least 1,500 minutes, Ingram had the third-worst true shooting percentage (47.4) and sixth-lowest player efficiency rating (8.5).

    Scouts knew he was raw, though, so his struggles weren't completely surprising. And they weren't so extreme all season. After the All-Star break, he added more than five points to his scoring average (13.2 from 8.0) and more than 11 to his field-goal percentage (47.5 from 36.3).

    He has a long hike ahead of him to come anywhere close to his ceiling. But his first-season stumbles didn't diminish his massive upside.

    "Every team is searching for players 6'8" or taller with the length of a center, the skill set of a guard and the potential to defend multiple positions," ESPN.com's Mike Schmitz wrote. "Although he struggled to show it consistently as a rookie, Ingram has all the ingredients that franchises look for in a young centerpiece."

1. Lonzo Ball

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    You're welcome, LaVar.

    Truth be told, there was no other way for these rankings to finish. Not when the Lakers have already anointed Lonzo Ball as their next franchise face.

    The expectations are outlandish—from Ball's father and his new employers—but they should be. The 6'6" floor general is that interesting of a prospect, from his preternatural passing to his ability to transform his team.

    "I think everybody understands playing with somebody with Lonzo's talent will make them better and also get them easier baskets," Lakers president Magic Johnson said, per ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes. "... Guys want to get out on that break and run hard because they know Lonzo will find them and not just give them a pass but a scoring pass."

    Ball was an across-the-board contributor during his one-and-done year at UCLA: 14.6 points, 7.6 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. Summer league followed the same script: 16.3 points, 9.3 assists, 7.7 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game.

    There are so many different areas in which he can shine, even if he always struggles defending and creating his own shot in the half court. He is the focal point of this rebuilding project and the purple and gold's best hope to lead them back to relevance.

        

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

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

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