Final Report Card Grades for Every Los Angeles Lakers Player
Success, of course, is a relative term. Regardless how L.A.'s final two contests play out, this 34-46 team will fall well shy of .500, extending the unfortunate franchise-record streak of losing campaigns to five seasons.
But the triumphs this team did enjoy were mostly keyed by youngsters, at least a select few of whom will usher in the Purple and Gold's next chapter. Heading into a pivotal offseason, the organization has some intriguing recruiting chips to attract top-shelf free agents.
While those efforts are important to the Lakers' future, this is the perfect time to take stock of the past and assess the 16 players on hand. Like teachers anxious to start summer break, we're handing out final report card grades a couple days early and evaluating every player on how they fared in relation to expectations and the roles they were given.
16. Luol Deng, SF/PF
If we were grading contracts here, Deng would pull the dreaded F-minus. Even with 2016 being remembered as the summer of silly spending, his four-year, $72 million pact is still often cited among that offseason's greatest regrets.
But we're analyzing on-court performances, and Deng essentially never had any. He logged 13 minutes on opening night and hasn't been seen since. Assuming there's some possible resolution with his contract, a divorce looks best for all parties involved.
15. Thomas Bryant, PF/C
How does this sound for a freshman effort: 19.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, runner-up for Rookie of the Year. You're onboard so far, right?
Are Bryant's accomplishments as exciting once you realize he achieved them with the South Bay Lakers of the G League? Not exactly, especially when he never had the opportunity to showcase his skills at the varsity level. He still offers an interesting mix of size, shooting and shot-blocking, but he needs to be tested in the NBA before he can properly graded. Forty-six minutes in 13 games isn't enough of a sample size.
14. Gary Payton II, PG
The Lakers see something they like in Payton. They gave him a two-way contract in January and nine big-league looks since.
There hasn't been much to be excited about. He's had some nice moments in the G League, but they don't carry much macro meaning when he's already 25. He has yet to prove he can score consistency or shoot efficiently against NBA defenses, and he doesn't stand out enough in other areas to make up for his shortcomings.
13. Channing Frye, PF/C
Frye getting regular rotation time has been an interesting wrinkle to an otherwise forgettable final stretch. After rehabbing from a mid-February appendectomy, he has seemingly come out of nowhere to make six consecutive appearances, including a 19-point, three-triple, 8-of-9 shooting outburst.
He gets some credit for staying ready and patient as a veteran placeholder on a future-focused rebuilder. He hasn't done much other than shoot since coming back, but that was to be expected. His role is well-established at this point, and he will be much more useful once he latches on with a team closer to chasing a title.
12. Travis Wear, SF/PF
Without a rash of injuries striking the Lakers, Wear might not have ended his two-year hiatus from the NBA. But he was strong enough in the G League (16.7 points and 8.3 rebounds) to warrant a look, and he's made a good impression on head coach Luke Walton.
"He holds his own in the NBA," Walton said, per Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times. "With his shooting and the way that he sees the game, he's definitely a very capable NBA player."
Considering he stands 6'10", there's a lot to like about Wear's 37.2 three-point percentage. And his defense has clearly improved since his days as a UCLA Bruin. That's enough to put him clear of any reasonable expectations, although the true test will be whether the Lakers try to keep him around.
11. Alex Caruso, PG
Caruso's season peaked early. If you were going to pick a highlight, you'd draw generously from the NBA Summer League stint that earned him the organization's first two-way contract.
He's been a fringe contributor in L.A., but he hasn't appeared overmatched. His production comes and goes, but his ball control and defensive effort have both been consistent. Who knows if this will get him another NBA look—with the Lakers or someone else—but it should have helped him exceed hopes.
10. Ivica Zubac, C
It took half the season and a handful of personnel changes for Zubac to find a rotation spot. But he's been a regular since mid-February, putting a positive end on what had been a frustrating sophomore season.
He's a skilled scorer around the basket, an active presence on the glass and a willing passer out of the post. He doesn't have contemporary perimeter skills at either end, and that could make it hard to find consistent minutes like it was at the beginning of the season. This will go down as a step back from his rookie year, but the last two months kept him from falling off a cliff.
9. Tyler Ennis, PG
Of the 23 players to wear Purple and Gold this season, Ennis somehow ranked just 16th in average minutes per game. That should not have been possible given all the time Lonzo Ball missed and the fact the only other natural point guards were two-way contract guys (Caruso and Payton) and Isaiah Thomas, who was acquired near the middle of the season and was injured before the end of it.
This should have been the perfect year to play backup point guard for the Lakers. But Ennis couldn't make the most of his opportunities. His field-goal percentage sagged beneath his career rate (41.6), his three-point mark took a deep dive from last year (25.9 from 38.6) and his distributing was unremarkable (5.5 assists per 36 minutes).
8. Josh Hart, SG/SF
Credit Hart for not becoming the forgotten man in L.A.'s 2017 first-round draft haul. That wasn't easy given the attention paid to Ball and Kyle Kuzma, but Hart's steady play and consistent improvement were notable enough to keep him on the radar.
He made his biggest impact on defense, where he often drew the toughest perimeter assignment. He also buried 38.3 percent of his long-range looks, putting his three-and-D pedigree on full display. That's enough to make this season a success, but the best development might have been the occasional flashes suggesting Hart can do more than fill a complementary role (three outings with 20-plus points).
7. Brook Lopez, C
This could not have been an easy campaign for Lopez. Any excitement about heading home withered early as he played 17 minutes and 34 seconds in his third game as a Laker. That proved to be an ominous stage-setter, as the former All-Star saw his playing time plummet to a career-low 23.6 minutes.
Lopez deserves credit for not letting any frustrations impact his play. This was his least productive season overall, but he was close to his career average in points per 36 minutes (19.8), and there wasn't much difference from last year in his field-goal (46.5) and three-point (34.3) percentages. This was a slightly less effective version of himself, which actually feels like a minor triumph given his tough situation.
6. Isaiah Thomas, PG
So much for that Brinks truck payout. The hip injury that prematurely ended his 2017 playoffs did the same to his 2017-18 campaign, but not before wreaking havoc on his numbers. He finished with career worsts in field-goal (37.3) and three-point (29.3) percentages, although he had his best stretches with the Lakers and produced five 20-point outings over an eight-game run.
"I feel like I played pretty well," Thomas said of his stint in L.A., per Bill Oram of the Orange County Register. "I could always play better, but at the same time, I showed people that I can still play at a high level given the opportunity."
To be clear, Thomas didn't silence his doubters as a Laker. His shooting numbers were barely better than his marks in Cleveland, and his turnovers per 36 minutes were even worse (4.3). L.A. knew what it was getting, but it was disappointing nonetheless. Thomas will probably need to take a "prove it" contract this summer, which might actually interest the Lakers if their most ambitious free-agency plans fall flat.
5. Julius Randle, PF/C
Because of L.A.'s grandiose plans for free agency this year—or, if that doesn't work, the 2019 version—there was never a real chance of Julius Randle extending his contract last October. But if there had been, the price tag then would be considerably cheaper than it is now.
The restricted-free-agent-to-be had an ideal contract year. His points per game reached a career high (16.3). Same goes for his field-goal percentage (55.7), player efficiency rating (19.8), win shares (6.4) and box plus/minus (plus-0.8).
"He's taken a quantum leap this year with his overall play," Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after a 20-point, 10-rebound performance by Randle last month, per Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News. "I'm impressed."
Randle first began his breakout as a second-team, small-ball center. That made great use of his quickness and athleticism, but it also perhaps lowered his ceiling if he was shoehorned into a reserve role.
However, he's been a full-time starter since late December, and he's still steamrolling defenses. The Lakers haven't had a better scorer or rebounder since. He's also had a dozen outings with five or more assists, ninth-most among bigs.
It will be interesting to see how the market treats him since he doesn't block shots or protect the paint, and how the Lakers will react if he lands an offer sheet from someone else. But no one in the Lakers locker room helped themselves more this season.
4. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had two objectives for this season: stuff his pockets with a cool $18 million and boost his bank account ahead of re-entry into free agency.
It looks like the latter should come through. He hasn't changed dramatically as a player, but he's become a better version of himself.
"I built my career in the league playing defense and making shots," he said, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk, "and also making plays when I needed to. That's kind of my game and how I built my career."
Caldwell-Pope's list of career highs includes 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 2.2 threes per game. He's also never had a better PER (13.3) or true shooting percentage (56.6). He's only had seven games with five points or less, half as many as last season.
He remains a better defender by the eye test than the stat sheet, which indicates he allows opponents to shoot 3.4 points higher than they do on average. He also ranks just 118th out of 145 qualified guards with a 9.3 assist percentage, which is the second-highest of his five-year career.
He can leave fans wanting more—especially when he's trying and failing to shoot himself out of a funk—but he did what the Lakers asked of him. He should have earned himself some extra money this season, and he might be another fallback, short-term option for L.A. if it needs one.
3. Kyle Kuzma, PF
No rookie opened more eyes this season than Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th overall pick last summer—selected by Brooklyn, dealt to L.A. in the D'Angelo Russell/Lopez deal—and then the Western Conference's first Rookie of the Month.
Kuzma is heading toward top-five freshman finishes in points (16.1 per game, second) and rebounds (6.3, fifth). He's also second in total three-pointers (159) and second among that top five in accuracy (36.6 percent).
If Kuzma keeps himself above 16 points and six rebounds, he'll join Magic Johnson, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West as the only Lakers rookies to clear those marks. That statistical company doesn't get much better than that, and it speaks to how Kuzma was seemingly able to skip past any adjustment period.
"I'm just very confident at all times," Kuzma said, per Eric Woodyard of the Deseret News. "I've always been like that, no matter who's guarding me or who I'm on the court with. I just think I'm one of the best players out there."
Kuzma seemed to hit the rookie wall near the All-Star break, and his shooting numbers suffered for the better parts of January and February. And at this stage of his career, scoring efficiently is key because he's still developing his defense, handle and playmaking.
Even still, the highest hopes for Kuzma's rookie year fell short of the level he actually reached. He went from draft afterthought to building block almost immediately, and he established himself as one of the top players in a really good rookie class.
2. Lonzo Ball, PG
In a way, Lonzo Ball's rookie year may have both raised his ceiling and lowered his floor. It was a confusing campaign to say the least, which feels oddly right given the circus around him.
If you were worried about Ball's funky shooting form and lack of in-between game rendering him almost useless as a scorer, you heard alarm sirens blaring throughout the season. He proved an anemic shooter from all three levels (.360/.305/.451 slash line) and couldn't find a comfort zone anywhere. Among the 186 players to attempt at least 150 shots within five feet, Ball had the worst conversion rate at 46.0 percent.
But if you evaluated Ball for anything other than scoring, you probably came away impressed. He averaged more than seven assists and six rebounds per game, a feat previously accomplished by only two rookies—Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson.
"He makes us better on offense. We want to play fast, he makes us faster. We want to be selfless, he throws the ball around to everyone every time he touches it. He's gonna be a really consistent, good three-point shooter. He's shown stretches of that this year.
"Defensively, he is so much better ... than I thought he was gonna be. He's naturally a competitor and he uses his size and he has unbelievable anticipation. Just the way he passes and sees everything developing, he has that ability on defense and will just disrupt things for us when he's having his good games."
Shooting woes or not, the Lakers fared better with Ball (minus-0.6 net rating) than without (minus-2.4). He's 21st among point guards in real plus-minus, so he held his own as a starting floor general.
But L.A.'s hopes of long-term stardom for Ball are far from being realized. Elite players don't shoot the way he just did, and this doesn't seem like a quick-fix situation.
1. Brandon Ingram, SF
If you break Brandon Ingram's career into four portions—the pre- and post-All-Star segments of his rookie and sophomore seasons—you see improvements at every step.
The same player who produced a mere 8.0 points on 36.3 percent shooting in the first half of his freshman year just tallied 15.5 points on 55.9 percent the second half of this one. His yearlong stat sheet shows significant spikes in his conversion rates from the field (47.0 from 40.2), three (39.0 from 29.4) and the stripe (68.1 from 62.1).
His scoring average almost doubled (16.1 from 9.4). Ditto for his assists (3.9 from 2.1), and his PER was up too (13.8 from 8.5). He has managed the tricky balance of simultaneously boosting his aggressiveness and efficiency, all while tantalizing at times as a defender, shooter and jumbo-sized playmaker.
"The Kinston, North Carolina, native improved in every traditional metric and also popped out on the eye test when exploding to the basket," Shahan Ahmed wrote for NBC Los Angeles. "Ingram's improvement, skill level, length and overall talent are undeniable."
It might be telling that Ingram improved his shooting numbers by moving closer to the basket. His average shooting distance was nearly three feet shorter than last season (10.1 from 12.9). He also hasn't answered every question about his thin frame, which only held up for about 72 percent of the campaign.
There's still work to do and ways in which his season could have gone better. But it will be remembered as another promising step forward for perhaps the organization's most important player.