Preseason will feature numerous roster spot battles

It’s September, which means the Los Angeles Lakers’ training camp isn’t too far away. The team will hold their training camp in Hawaii this year, and then start preseason games on October 4th. In the meantime, the Lakers have some roster things to sort out.

I wrote a couple weeks ago about the Lakers’ roster crunch, and how they’ll have to make a tough decision or two when cutting down to the league-required 15 player maximum.

The Lakers will have about eight players fighting for four spots. We can assume D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Kobe Bryant, Roy Hibbert, Julius Randle, Brandon Bass, Lou Williams, Anthony Brown, Larry Nance Jr, Tarik Black, and Nick Young will make the roster (or simply not get cut, Young could be traded). The others, Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly, Marcelo Huertas, Robert Sacre, Jabari Brown, Michael Frazier II, Robert Upshaw, and Jonathan Holmes will be fighting for roster spots.

I assumed a couple weeks ago that Jabari Brown would be a lock for the roster, but I think it would be a little too premature to carve that in stone with the recent signings of Michael Frazier and Marcelo Huertas. Brown is going to have to earn his spot in training camp and the preseason.

Which leads me to my next point: there will be a ton of competition in camp. Here is a brief look at some of the battles that we’ll see:

Robert Upshaw vs. Robert Sacre

Tarik Black has the backup center position locked down, but what about the third center? Well, that will be decided between Sacre and Upshaw. If this decision were in a vacuum, it’d be hard to pick Sacre over Upshaw. Upshaw, unlike Sacre, has the upside to become a valuable NBA player. He is actually elite at something. However, real life isn’t NBA 2K, where you just pick a player solely because of skill and upside. Upshaw has some serious health, conditioning, and character issues. It was reported that the Lakers were signing Upshaw to a two-year deal after training camp, but it appears that report jumped the gun a bit. He’ll still be in camp, but the Lakers have set some goals for Upshaw to accomplish before he makes the team. He’ll have to get in shape, stay out of trouble, and prove he can play at an NBA level.

Sacre, on the other hand, represents the polar opposite of Upshaw. He doesn’t have potential to be much more than a role player, and frankly, probably won’t improve to be much better than he currently is. However, the Lakers know what they’re getting with Sacre. He can hit a mid-range jumper, and is not a liability on defense. Sacre is also a consummate professional, and a great locker room presence — something that’s important with a team that is trying to re-establish a winning culture.

The decision between Upshaw and Sacre may seem like a no-brainer basketball-wise (YOU TAKE THE PLAYER WITH UPSIDE, DUH!), but the Lakers have a lot to consider when choosing between the two. I’m obviously rooting for Upshaw to win the competition, but he has quite a few hoops to jump through first.

Jabari Brown vs. Michael Frazier

This is probably the most intriguing training camp battle for me. With Huertas being added to the roster (and more than likely staying there), there is only one spot for Brown or Frazier. Brown was solid for the Lakers last year. He shot and scored the ball extremely well off the bench, and followed it up with a great performance in Summer League. So why would his roster spot be in jeopardy? Because he doesn’t do much else well besides score. He doesn’t create for others (he had a higher TO% than AST%), doesn’t rebound, and has a negative impact on the defensive end. He does not have the size or length to be a plus defender, and certainly doesn’t give the effort needed to make up for that.

Frazier is very similar to Brown. They are both excellent shooters, and have nearly the same measurements (seriously, go look at their DraftExpress profiles). The difference is that Frazier has the potential to be the better all-around player. Frazier is a better rebounder at his position, and despite the lack of size, has the tools (better lateral quickness, better motor, etc.) to be at least a respectable defender, or at worst, an upgrade over Brown at that end.

Still, choosing Brown over Frazier would be a considerable gamble. Sure Frazier may have more upside, but it’s also important to not overlook what Brown has PROVEN he can do at the NBA level. He made 23-62 (37.1%) of his three-point attempts, a great mark for a rookie, and had ten double-digit scoring games despite not joining the team until March. For the season, he averaged just over 12 points per game. Is cutting a player like that for a guy that could (but might not actually) become a slightly more well-rounded version of him worth it? I say no, unless Frazier can prove that he’s a substantially better defender than Brown. Otherwise, turning down proven offensive production that Brown offers doesn’t seem like a wise thing to do.

Well, why can’t they keep both?

Technically they could. But they’re too similar, and it would be too redundant to keep both on the roster. Especially with the Lakers needing help at other positions.

Ryan Kelly vs. Jonathan Holmes

Okay, I am Ryan Kelly was a big Ryan Kelly fan prior to this past season, but he flat out stunk this year. He couldn’t a hit a shot from anywhere, is a poor rebounder, and doesn’t make a big impact on the defensive end. You could say that a lot of his struggles came from playing the three instead of the four, but at this point I don’t think he’ll ever be a solid player. The only way he could positively impact an NBA team is if he perfected his role as a stretch four. To do that, he’d have to become an absolute marksman from behind the arc. However, he has only made about one-third of his three-point attempts as a Laker so far, and that is not going to cut it. Plus, his inability to play the three really hurts him, since this roster is already full of fours (Randle, Bass, Nance).

Jonathan Holmes will be the one trying to snatch Kelly’s roster spot. Holmes is not really similar to Kelly at all. He rebounds well for his position, and can guard both 3’s and 4’s. I mentioned this a couple weeks ago, but the key for Holmes will be developing some sort of offensive role. Most think that will have to come as a stretch four, something he worked to become at Texas last season. He hit just 33% of his threes, but has continually improved in that area. Also, with his ability to impact the game in other areas, he doesn’t have to be a complete knockdown shooter to be useful — kinda like an extremely poor man’s version of Draymond Green.

Unless Kelly shoots lights out in the preseason, Holmes’ better all-around game should prove to be more worthwhile for the Lakers.

Bottom line

In the end, I believe Jabari Brown, Robert Upshaw, Jonathan Holmes, and Marcelo Huertas* will be the ones earning the Lakers’ final four roster spots.

*I have Huertas listed here, but not in a position battle, because honestly he’s the only point guard in the group of eight players fighting for a roster spot. The Lakers only have two solidified point guard options (Lou Williams is not a point guard) at the moment, and you need a third.

Enter Huertas, whose skills in the pick and roll (demonstrated below) and likely small guarantee make him a likely roster lock. 

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