The Los Angeles Lakers currently have 18 players under contract for the 2016-17 season, four of which are non-guaranteed. Yi Jianlian, Travis Wear, Zach Auguste and Julian Jacobs are the four non-guaranteed salaries, though Jianlian is expected to make the final 15-man roster. Eight players: D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Luol Deng, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Timofey Mozgov, Larry Nance Jr. and Lou Williams, figure to be locks for rotation minutes. But what about the other promising young players?
Jose Calderon and Marcelo Huertas will battle for the backup point guard job during training camp, with Tarik Black and Ivica Zubac vying for rotation time in the frontcourt. With so many minutes surely dedicated to those aforementioned eight guys, any other roles will be spotty at best.
Very few of Luke Walton’s primary options are limited to playing just one position, too, which means he’s free to do plenty of mixing-and-matching. Nance is capable of handling some minutes as a small-ball backup five, while Clarkson can play either guard spot. Deng also showed last season in Miami that he can effectively contribute as a power forward.
So what does that mean for guys like Black and Zubac? They’ll surely latch on to the back end of the roster, but it’s hard to see where their minutes will come from. Unlike last season under Byron Scott’s reign of terror, player development is priority No. 1 for the Lakers right now. Sure, Mozgov and Deng are capable of potentially helping the Lakers win more games this season, but how do they factor into the franchise’s long-term plans?
Black has shown in limited time that he’s deserving of a real chance. In limited duty over the course of his first two NBA seasons, Black has averaged 10.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and just under one block per 36 minutes. He only logged 496 minutes in 2015-16, but led the Lakers with a net rating of 0.7. That’s not overly impressive on its own, but when you consider that the Lakers had a team net rating of -10.7, any positive net rating will stand out.
Black’s offensive game doesn’t exist outside the paint, but he’s a strong rim roller and a good finisher. He’s a fantastic rebounder and holds his own defensively despite being undersized (6-foot-9) for a center. Playing time may be hard to come by for him, but here’s hoping the 24-year-old gets a shot.
If the minutes at the two big man spots are to be divided among Randle, Nance, Mozgov and Black, that leaves Zubac out in the cold.
The rookie drew rave reviews after his strong showing at the Las Vegas Summer League, with some even going so far as to compare him to Marc Gasol. That’s obviously fairly ambitious, but the comparison isn’t without its merits, either.
Zubac looked incredibly polished offensively for a 19-year-old. He can step out and shoot reliably from about 15 feet but he’s also capable of working in the post. The 7-foot-1 Croatian also showed a knack for shot-blocking. Summer League standout performances should be taken with a grain of salt, of course, but it’s obvious why the Lakers are excited about his potential.
Zubac has a higher long-term ceiling than Black does, but the Lakers aren’t going to get the best out of either of them if they’re forced to watch from the bench all season long. They need to play if they’re going to improve. And that’s what makes the club’s decision to dump a combined $136 million into Mozgov and Deng even more confusing.
Any young team needs a veteran presence or two, but at what cost? The team didn’t dish out all that cash just to have those two come in and be mentors. Despite already having several promising young players at their respective positions on the roster, Mozgov and Deng are going to play, while the others sit and watch.
The Lakers probably aren’t winning more than 25 games this season, regardless of who plays. If the idea for this season is to help the young team grow, then they should commit to it fully.