As the Los Angeles Lakers continue to get acclimated to their new roster, one player, in particular, seems to be struggling with the changes. It has been a disappointing start to the year for Josh Hart by his standards after the sophomore guard came into the year with sky-high expectations amplified by a stellar rookie season and even better Summer League.
Hart has had his share of moments to start the season, momentarily earning the starting shooting guard position over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope after the latter’s even bigger struggles. But when suspensions to Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram forced Kyle Kuzma into the starting lineup, it became clear that the latter fit into that group better than Hart did.
Hart’s issue so far this season has been his defense. After showing so much promise his rookie year, the two-guard has been a liability on the perimeter this season, routinely allowing straight line drives to opposing guards. It’s not a lack of effort on the Villanova product’s part but his poor technique is amplified by his lack of foot speed and length to make up for mistakes, making his youthful errors more pronounced than some of his counterparts. If Hart is not an asset defensively, then there is no need to play him over Kuzma whose offensive repertoire makes up for his own defensive issues.
On Saturday, however, the Lakers may have found a solution to the Josh Hart problem. Playing in the most hostile environment with rumors about his job being on the line, Luke Walton played Hart off the bench primarily at the power forward position and took advantage of his best skills.
Hart made a name for himself his rookie season through his defense but that was primarily through his withstanding blows from bigger opponents in the post. With a switch-heavy defense, Hart often found himself guarding bigger players in the post and excelled in those situations, to the point where David West credited him for making him consider and choose retirement.
Against the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday, Hart went back to his roots. Hart’s stat line was nothing sexy: just 11 points, one assist, one steal and two blocks. But it was the most comfortable he had looked in some time, especially with some big plays down the stretch.
The Blazers, like most teams in similar situations, sought out Hart on mismatches with second-year forward Zach Collins but they gave up several possessions trying to score on Hart in those opportunities. Hart was the primary defender on Collins for 14 possessions, during which the Blazers scored only six points. Collins was 0-for-2 from the field, according to NBA.com.
On the other end of the floor, Collins was routinely blown by as Lakers guards took advantage of the mismatch.
Hart’s big defensive plays on Collins were a major part of an extended 16-0 run to end the third quarter that gave the Lakers just enough room to breathe as the Blazers mounted a furious comeback attempt. They also gave Hart the confidence that he often draws from hustle plays as he hit huge threes and free throws to close out the effort.
Playing Hart as a power forward alongside a traditional center in Ivica Zubac was perhaps Luke Walton’s most innovative decision yet and something he should continue to explore, especially after the signing of Tyson Chandler. It takes advantage of Hart’s biggest strength defensively which should amplify his overall game as he builds his confidence. Furthermore, it allows the Lakers to play a form of small-ball without sacrificing too much defensively, an issue that has plagued them thus far this season.