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NBA Daily: Bigs the Lakers Could Target

After all the moves they made, the Lakers still need a proven center. They can get one if they make the most out of one particular asset they have.

Matt John

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The Lakers won this off-season.

When you acquire an all-time great still reasonably in his prime, you are deemed the winner. It doesn’t matter what place you’re in, or what else you add in the off-season. Adding LeBron James is the ultimate trump card. No pun intended.

As for the other moves the Lakers have made, well, it’s complicated. Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson have wisely given the other players they’ve added this summer one-year deals to not interfere with their cap flexibility next season. But, with all the players they added besides LeBron this summer, their roster makeup can be summarized in one word: Unorthodox.

There are going to be a lot of questions surrounding the Lakers roster this season. Who is going to be in the starting five? Who will they play in crunch time? How will Luke Walton manage so many big egos in that locker room?

Among the many questions that they already have, there is one that may need to be resolved as quickly as possible for the Lakeshow: What are they going to do about their current center situation?

The Lakers have an intriguing collection of talent in positions 1-4, but at the 5, the Lakers are quite shallow. They currently have three players that can play the 5 position at the moment but all come with a red flag. The red flag is either he’s a rookie (Moe Wagner), he’s largely unproven (Ivica Zubac) or he’s JaVale freakin’ McGee (JaVale McGee), which could spell a lot of trouble if they don’t resolve this.

Unfortunately, the open market has almost completely dried up. With Trevor Booker now off the market, the Lakers’ best remaining options are Greg Monroe, David West, and Brandan Wright.

Those aren’t the worst backup bigs, but they aren’t any better than what the Lakers already have. Hope is not lost for the Lakers, however, because they have an ace in the hole named Luol Deng.

I’m dead serious. Kind of.

Deng has little value as a player. Since joining LA, Deng’s numbers have gone down the toilet. His decline, combined with him slated to make 18 million dollars this season, makes his contract an albatross.

Trading him would be tough, but it is doable now that Deng has only two years left on his deal. If they play their cards right, the Lakers can trade Deng for a big who could at least be an upgrade over what they have now. They can do this in two different ways.

The first option for the Lakers would be to trade their horribly overpaid wing for a horribly overpaid center. They wouldn’t get out of Deng’s contract, but at least they’d be overpaying for someone who fills a need, which Deng does not.

Who could that be? Well, let’s take a look at the albatrosses the Lakers could target.

Overpaid but productive centers

Tristan Thompson: Thompson has had his issues, but he is at the very least a proven commodity. The reason why the Lakers might look to trade for him is his familiarity with LeBron. When motivated, Thompson provides a good presence on the interior, as his rebounding and defense can come in quite handy for a team that has LeBron James, as evidenced by their success together in Cleveland.

This would be all contingent on Cleveland blowing their roster up, which they haven’t done yet. Don’t expect Thompson to go anywhere if Cleveland is still trying to win post-LeBron, but if they decide to rebuild, then Thompson would be something to look at if they trade Deng for him.

Bismack Biyombo: Biyombo is a quality shot-blocker and rebounder given the minutes he’s played. Averaging 5.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks all while shooting 52 percent from the field isn’t too shabby for a guy who played 18 minutes a game last year.

Biyombo is also in the middle of a logjam at the five in Charlotte. They have him, Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, and Willy Hernangomez to split time at center, which could make Biz the odd man out in that group. If the Lakers were to trade for him, he wouldn’t have the same problem and his role would be pretty similar to the one he had in Toronto: Rebound and block shots.

John Henson: In 26 minutes a game this season, Henson was adequate, averaging 8.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 14 blocks while shooting 57% from the field. He’s not grossly overpaid like the previous two mentioned, but he’s not likely to play as many minutes given the Bucks’ current roster.

By adding Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova and developing Thon Maker, the Bucks are clearly emphasizing that they want shooting in their frontcourt, which means that Henson is likely to be phased out. Acquiring Henson is an upgrade and could save the Lakers money, but it would also potentially mean they’d have to give up a little more to get him. Deng’s skill set would fit what the Bucks are trying to do, but they’d be more hesitant to swallow his contract.

Those are not exactly the best names, but they fill a need and the Lakers wouldn’t have to give up much besides Deng for them.

There is another option for the Lakers. If they really are desperate to get off Deng’s contract, they could throw in some value to trade Deng for a center who has a large expiring contract. That would most definitely require throwing in a first-round pick(s), but since 2019’s free agency is going to be loaded with talent, that might be a risk worth taking. It’d be killing two birds with one stone. Also, since the following centers will be playing for the next contract, the effort won’t be a problem.

“Two Birds With One Stone” Centers

Robin Lopez: With Wendell Carter added to a rebuilding team that values shooting, Robin Lopez doesn’t appear to be part of the Bulls’ future plans past this season. Trading Deng to Chicago would be a tad awkward given the rocky end between the two of them during Deng’s first tenure, but if they stretched his contact, it’d be no skin off anyone’s nose.

Though his rebounding numbers dwindled, Lopez is a solid defender for his size and he averaged a career-high 11.8 points a game last season. His role would be more defined on the Lakers, plus, how many teams can say that they employed both the Lopez twins at one point in their careers?

Nikola Vucevic: Vuc is also likely to see reduced minutes this season to make room for Orlando’s newest young center, Mo Bamba. By drafting Bamba, it’s clear that Vucevic’s days in Orlando are numbered. Since Orlando is bound for even more rebuilding, they may be willing to absorb Deng for Vuc if it means getting another asset.

Vucevic does not have the same reputation as some of the others listed defensively, but he is the best offensive option on this list. Vucevic has a great arsenal of moves on the offensive side of the ball, as he averaged 16.5 points and 9.2 rebounds on 47.5 percent shooting. His half-decent three-point shot – shot 31 percent from three – could also help fill the void that Brook Lopez left. Vucevic for Deng does not work straight up, but adding Jerian Grant or D.J. Augustin would do the trick.

Dewayne Dedmon: Unlike the other teams mentioned on this list, Atlanta has made deals both to take in and relinquish long-term contracts to aid their rebuild, so they would be a realistic destination.

Dedmon’s skill set would fit in well with what the Lakers are doing. He’s an athletic 5 who can rebound and shoot from distance. He has proved in the past how useful he can be when he is playing for a good team, so the Lakers would be foolish to not look into him. Deng for Dedmon does not work straight up, but if the Lakers would be down for a Jeremy Lin reunion, then a deal could be struck.

Now if the Lakers think they are fine the way they are, then who am I to argue? Luke Walton has so far proven that he knows what he’s doing, so he could get creative with who else they play at center. With all the versatility they added, they might try playing LeBron or Brandon Ingram at the 5 in small-ball groups. Those hypothetical lineups could very well prove successful, but small-ball shouldn’t be played throughout the entire game.

And hey, if all else fails, Timofey Mozgov is probably available…

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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