Will Damian Jones be able to find a role with the Lakers?

Damian Jones
Damian Jones last season with the Sacramento Kingss | Image Credit: Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Ever since Anthony Davis was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, the center position and Davis’ willingness (or unwillingness) to play it has been a polarizing topic amongst the team and its fans. There have been reports that Davis doesn’t want to deal with the physical toil that comes with being a near full-time center for 82 games, however, Davis did seem up for the challenge this past season as he bulked up with reports indicating he would, in fact, be the starting center come opening night. As was the story for most of the season, injuries derailed that idea, not allowing it to be fully realized by the year’s end. Now, the Lakers will almost certainly be going back to the well in terms of Davis starting at the four with true centers Thomas Bryant and Damian Jones now signed to the team.

Bryant already seems likely to have a substantial role with the team given the report from Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes that he will be “given the opportunity to win the starting center position.” So where does that leave Jones? It’s an interesting question.

Bryant — at least the pre ACL tear version of himself — seems like a no-brainer fit alongside Anthony Davis. Before that injury, Bryant was a long, athletic stretch five who shot the ball decently well, making 41.8% of his 2.1 3-point attempts per game in 56 games across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. If Davis is to start at the four, then that type of shooting at the five may be a mandatory requirement given his 26.0% clip in the 2020-21 season and the abysmal 18.6% clip last season.

Davis is obviously going to be playing 30+ minutes in every game of the 2021-22 season when healthy, so would Jones be able to come anywhere close to the amount of minutes that Bryant will garner? Jones did make 34.5% of 3-pointers last season for the Sacramento Kings, however, that was on an extremely low 0.5 3-pointers per game. There’s a reason why, even amidst the low expectations of Sacramento, Jones isn’t putting up 3-pointers. It’s not part of his game, although Jones did indicate he’s “comfortable” with that part of his game and that it’s “there if needed” during his introductory press conference earlier this month.

Speaking of that press conference, Damian Jones did help his case for a healthy share of minutes in that media availability by talking about how he sees himself fitting alongside Davis despite not being able to do so during his two 10-day contracts with the Lakers in the 2020-21 season (Davis was injured which was the main reason Jones found himself on the team).

When talking about that fit, Jones referenced the impact that JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard brought to the 2019-20 championship team. Although the two saw their roles diminished most of the time during the 2020 NBA Playoffs in lieu of fast, well-shooting, small-ball lineups, they were substantial parts of the regular season with Howard seeing 18.9 minutes per game while McGee saw 16.6 himself in his 68 (of 68 total games played) starts.

Jones was very smart to reference those two when trying to envision what his fit alongside Davis would be as those two may have been the best two fits alongside AD since he joined the team despite their complete lack of perimeter shooting. Sure, it helps that Davis made 33.0% of his 3.5 3-point attempts in that season, but that doesn’t negate McGee and Howard’s activity on the boards, their ability to deter at the rim on defense, or their roll-man talents.

Speaking to Jones’s potential of playing alongside AD, he compares pretty well to the seasons those two had during the championship year (data courtesy of B-Ball Index). And by playing with LeBron and AD instead of with [INSERT WHOEVER PLAYED FOR THE KINGS LAST SEASON] in Sacramento, maybe we’ll see Jones’ metrics below meet or surpass those belonging to McGee and Howard back in the 2019-20 season.

Comparing the interior defense of the three centers (Image and data courtesy of B-Ball Index http://www.bball-index.com)
Comparing the offensive rebounding of the three centers (Image and data courtesy of B-Ball Index http://www.bball-index.com)
Comparing the screen and roll impact of the three centers (Image and data courtesy of B-Ball Index http://www.bball-index.com)

I do envision Jones as a player who can get around 20 minutes per game just as those two former Lakers centers did, even with Bryant starting and getting a fair share of minutes himself. Now, there is something that could quickly change that, and it involves everyone’s favorite Laker: Russell Westbrook.

If the Lakers don’t trade Westbrook to the Brooklyn Nets for Kyrie Irving, it seems as if a deal between the team and the Pacers is there where Westbrook would be exchanged for Buddy Hield and… Myles Turner. Turner would really logjam the Lakers’ in their front court, with him, Davis, Bryant, and Jones all being more of centers than they are power forwards. Given Turner’s talent as a defender and perimeter shooter combined with the reports that already make it seem like there’s bigger plans for Bryant than there are Jones, this trade would be a detriment to Jones getting on the floor often.

But if we learned anything from this past season, it’s that players’ impacts around LeBron and AD can vary and that injuries are always looming as a possible disruptor of plans. Turner, Davis, and Bryant all have well-documented injury histories that could cause them to miss games. If that happens, the Lakers could be far more prepared with depth at the center position via Damian Jones, much more prepared than they were last season when LeBron and Carmelo Anthony played at the five at times.

But even without injuries, I think Jones has shown that if given a larger opportunity, he could be a very impactful defending center while also being an above-average roll man who could really eat alongside LeBron James. Everything considered, I’d be surprised if he didn’t at least get a few shifts right when the Lakers open their season in October, with his play possibly leading to even more time on the court once head coach Darvin Ham and the team sees what he can do in the purple-and-gold while on a normal contract.

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