Much has been made of LeBron James’ supporting cast in the next era of his career. After signing James to a four year contract, the Lakers were presumed to vault into contending for the championship. But after standing firm in trade negotiations for Kawhi Leonard, it became clear that the organization was comfortable continuing with James, a young and talented core and a slew of retread veterans.
The Lakers have put a lot of faith in their youth, in particular. After a surprising 35-win season, the futures of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart became concrete in Los Angeles. While each have shown promise in their short time in the NBA, all four also have major flaws that need to improve if the Lakers are to have any success in the short term.
Improving each player’s greatest weakness is, of course, easier said than done. But James is known for his ability to make teammates better. So how can the greatest player in the world affect the Lakers’ young core where it needs it most?
Lonzo Ball: Scoring
No matter how you look at it, Lonzo Ball’s scoring prowess in his rookie season was more or less a train wreck. Despite being a lights out shooter at UCLA, Ball only managed to hit 30.5 percent of his three-point attempts in year one. But it wasn’t just the perimeter shooting that hampered the point guard. He managed to shoot only 36 percent from the field, including only 49.4 percent at the basket, according to Basketball-Reference.
Lonzo’s scoring ability will not be fixed overnight. It will take tinkering with his shooting form, his ability to take contact and where he initiates his shots and layups. But he will have the added support system necessary to take a major leap this year.
Ball’s greatest strengths will be accentuated playing alongside his childhood hero. In particular, Lonzo actually showed some offensive chops in both spot up opportunities (0.982 points per possession, 49th percentile in the NBA) and cuts (1.222 PPP, 41st percentile). What better player to feed Lonzo the ball for those chances than James?
The spot ups will now feature ample space for Ball’s high-radius jump shot and plenty of time, should his jump shot prove to be a useful weapon, to attack closeouts and create offense of his own. The cuts will now come more frequently (they were Ball’s seventh most used play type at only 3.7 percent of all used possessions) because James does not miss a potential pass. Getting those easier looks will not only help Lonzo put points on the board, but it will do wonders for his confidence as he attempts to reach his high ceiling.
Josh Hart: Shot Creation
The Lakers struck gold (not yellow) when they drafted Josh Hart in the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft. The Villanova product didn’t play much right away, but when he found minutes on the court, he did not disappoint. Hart was a solid defender, holding his ground against nearly anyone in the league and creating turnovers (0.7 steals per game) with heady plays.
Offensively, Hart did not do much outside of shooting the three which accounted for more than half of his field goal attempts. While the 23-year-old did so effectively (39.6 percent on 3.1 attempts per game), it limited what else he could accomplish offensively.
Hart is never going to be someone who creates plays for others on a regular basis. That’s not his game and it would take a massive overhaul of everything he knows about basketball to change that. It’s also not something the Lakers need from him. But at the very least, Hart should be able to find open teammates and be able to put the ball on the floor to attack closeouts.
People may not know James for that ability but it has grown as his game has evolved to showcase more effective long-range shooting. Last season, LeBron had only 100 spot-up possessions but was very effective at using them to the tune of 1.08 points per possession. That’s going to be the bulk of Hart’s half-court offense and learning from James should be a feather in the sophomore’s hat.
As for Hart’s passing ability? Even as Hart plays like a bowling ball barreling down the lane in transition, it’s going to be really hard to turn down an assist opportunity with James sprinting alongside him.
Kyle Kuzma: Defense
Kyle Kuzma burst onto the scene as a low-profile rookie last season, showcasing a mature scoring ability despite being only 22 years old. Despite his stellar year, however, there’s still plenty to work on if Kuzma expects to be a star in the league.
The forward’s biggest weakness thus far is his defensive ability, a unique trait among the Lakers’ young core which features several above average contributors on that end of the floor. Kuzma’s defense is not actually as bad as advertised – he was in the 92nd percentile defending 227 spot-up possessions and in the 88th percentile when he was defending the big in a pick-and-roll which ended with the ball-handler shooting, turning the ball over or drawing a foul. Those two types of plays were the vast majority that Kuzma defended, accounting for 47.5 percent of his defensive possessions.
But when screens were involved or rotations at the rim became necessary, Kuzma struggled. Kuzma was in the 24th percentile defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers, the 15th percentile on hand-offs and the 28th percentile in off-screen actions. Kuz has the footwork and athleticism to stick with players on the perimeter but not the instincts to beat them to their spots.
LeBron is no longer the defender he once was. While his offensive game has shown no signs of slowing down, the star forward has shown less and less effort defensively over the past few seasons, presumably to keep himself fresh on offense throughout the regular season and playoffs. Perhaps signing to a new team, one that claims it is focusing on easing the burden on him by employing multiple ball-handlers and shot creators, will give James a new breath of life on that end of the court.
But more realistically, James can be an instructor on defensive tendencies. Having been in the league for 15 years and in top form for most of it, James has all the tools to teach the younger players the minutia of playing defense in the NBA. For Kuzma, who will be tasked with defending guards, forwards and centers alike in Luke Walton’s switch-heavy scheme, James is the perfect mentor for learning the intricacies that can offer him more natural instinct on that end of the floor.
Like the other young players and their weaknesses, it will take plenty of time for Kuzma to feel comfortable on that end of the floor. In fact, he may never be a truly positive contributor defensively. But becoming less of a liability is a start and an important hurdle to cross in his NBA career.
Brandon Ingram: Three-Point Shooting Consistency
Perhaps no player on the Lakers made as much of a leap as Brandon Ingram did last season. After an abysmal rookie year, Ingram showed strives in every department showcasing the talent that made him the second overall pick in 2016.
Despite the significant growth, there are still plenty of questions about Ingram’s ceiling as a whole. While he has the ability to impact the game in multiple facets, Ingram does not have one major strength on which to rest his laurels. Similarly, he does not have any glaring weaknesses.
Where Ingram could serve to improve most is his shooting ability, especially from a consistency standpoint. Ingram is not a bad shooter by any means, but he’s not proven to be a good one either. The sophomore increased his three-point shooting percentage from 29.4 to 39 percent between his first and second years. While that was a major success and a huge leap, it occurred on only 105 (or 1.8 per game) attempts.
In today’s NBA, that is a tragically low number for a wing player. This year, Ingram will have to prove that not only can he continue his recent accuracy but that he can do it on a much larger volume.
The good news for Ingram is that he will have plenty of opportunity to do that this year. With so much attention given to James, Ingram should be able to find holes in the defense to exploit and if his shooting is for real, that can be a deadly weapon for the Lakers.
The young forward was already a force in spot-up opportunities, per Synergy, where he scored 1.089 points per possession (76th percentile), including on jumpers taken without a dribble where his 1.08 points per possession ranked in the 49th percentile. Ingram shot 42 percent on his 1.5 catch-and-shoot threes per game.
Ingram will have ample opportunity to take those shots with James attracting attention and kicking out to the perimeter. It’s up to him to limit how many of those turn into mid-range jumpers (more than one-third of Ingram’s attempts last season came between 10 feet of the basket and the arc) and to hit on the shots he receives.
Ingram will no longer be asked to carry the offense with shot creation (about 44 percent of his used possessions came as the pick-and-roll ball handler or in isolation) so he should be free to dominate against already reeling defenses.