In a new short series for Lakers Outsiders, I will be reviewing all of the young players currently on the Lakers’ roster who project to be part of the team’s future going forward. I’ll be looking at their play in the 2015-16 season as well as predicting how they will fare next year with development and a new coaching staff.
No Lakers rookie was more of a surprise than Larry Nance, Jr. Taken with the 27th overall pick in a bit of a surprise decision, the power forward had an immensely successful season considering expectations.
The Wyoming product finished the season averaging 5.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, but those numbers do not necessarily do him justice. On a per-36-minute basis, Nance put up a more than solid ten points and nine rebounds, which is great production from someone who was slated by many to be an end of the rotation player in the future.
Nance’s immense energy was great for a Lakers team often bereft of it. Despite a grueling and tough season that saw most of the team playing out the last few months just so it could be over, Nance’s play never wavered. That bodes well for his future as an energetic big off the bench willing to do the proverbial dirty work.
But Nance showed off the ability to do more than just rebound and score off putbacks. In fact, the big man showcased a level of skill that most did not expect.
That skill started with his jump shooting. It was certainly not perfect, but Nance showed off much more than what was expected from him coming into the season. In the early parts of the season, especially, the big man seemed unable to miss from the midrange. As expected, that regressed but by the end of the season, Nance looked like he could have a future as a floor spacer from that position:
Nance will have to develop some consistency in the midrange, especially from the right side of the floor where he strangely struggled more. As that comes along, he will hopefully also add just a touch more range on that jumper and extend out beyond the arc, at least in the corners. In fact, it’s a shame that he did not start taking more of them during the last season with only five shots taken from either corner all year.
Developing that jumper to a consistent and perhaps above average level will make Nance an even bigger part of the Lakers offense. LAL currently does not have a single big man on the roster who can shoot, and probably will not add any in free agency. In the pace-and-space era, that is an incredibly rare occurrence.
But Nance can fix that and already has to some extent. Being an extra spacer on the floor around pick and rolls will be of immense help to both D’Angelo Russell and whoever is setting the screens and rolling to the rim.
This also bodes well for lineups featuring both Nance and Julius Randle, two talented bigs who could create a deadly small-ball lineup in the future. The Lakers experimented with that a bit over the later stretch of the season, playing the two of them together 125 minutes in 20 games. (It should be noted that many of these minutes had Nance playing the small forward position and a true center playing alongside the two).
Those lineups did surprisingly well. In a season that saw almost every lineup be a net negative, ones featuring Nance Jr. and Randle together posted a 4.3 net rating. That may not be sustainable and the sample size is not huge by any means, but it is interesting to see the success that the two had playing together and it would not be a surprise if that success continued with more minutes.
From what is known about both players, it makes sense that they would play well together. In a way, they complement each other very well. Nance’s shooting, though imperfect, adds a buffer for Randle who has not come close to matching the former in that department.
Additionally, both bigs project to be good passers at this level. Randle had his struggles with poor vision and lack of control, but at his best, he has demonstrated that he can be a solid passing big and potential point forward. Nance, Jr. goes about it in a different way, with more control and vision but perhaps less natural skill. The connection between the two bigs could become an even bigger advantage in a system designed with ball and player movement. (Note: that was not a Draymond Green joke.)
If Randle develops a jumper of his own, which may be a long shot based on the season he had, then the roles could be reversed with Nance acting as the screener in pick and rolls. Nance’s biggest value to the Lakers is in that role as he was one of only two consistent threats rolling to the rim last year.
In fact, Nance shot 65.5% within ten feet of the rim, an already great number around the basket. He also showed developing chemistry with D’Angelo Russell, as the power forward shot 63.6% from the floor on passes from his fellow rookie, a scorching high number mostly affected by his ability as a screener and roller.
And if the numbers don’t impress you, think back to this moment from the preseason:
Beyond the surprising offensive skills, Nance showed some ability defensively. Most of that came purely off of his relentless energy. Nevertheless, the forward’s hard work on that end of the floor was a pleasant sight on a team that was routinely a defensive disappointment.
Nance’s immense athleticism will lead to the occasional spectacular block but he is not a rim protector quite yet. The 23-year-old struggled at times with rotations, as expected for a rookie, and that will need to improve especially if he is to play as a de facto center in small-ball lineups.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is how Nance projects as a perimeter defender. The big man held his own playing in strange jumbo packages where he was the effective small forward. He has quick feet and moves well laterally with athleticism that will help him get back into plays even if he is blown by.
The ability to defend the perimeter is a rare one for big men, but when present, it can be a monstrous advantage. Look no further than Draymond Green with the Golden State Warriors, whose ability to switch onto the perimeter blows up opponents’ pick and rolls often and is the key to the success for a top-five defense.
The Lakers have the makings of a roster that will eventually be able to switch on most pick and rolls, and Nance’s ability in that regard is a huge reason why. It needs work, like every part of his game, but the potential is there and part of why he can be a crucial part of the Lakers moving forward.
Larry Nance, Jr. surprised us all with his play in his rookie season. While his production was a pleasant sight and helped the Lakers immensely on the court (the team was 3.1 points per 100 possessions better offensively and 5.0 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floot) it has also raised expectations for the young big-man.
Nance had no trouble with expectations and pressure going from Wyoming to the most storied franchise in the NBA. If he reacts the same way in the next few years, he could become the key to this Lakers team contending once again.
All stats, gifs, and shot charts from NBA.com