Ahh, to be young and exciting. The Toronto Raptors have been here before, trying to stock young talent in the hopes of being competitive on some undetermined timeline in the future, and in fact continue to try to do just that in a unique hybrid roster-building timeline, competing now for a fifth straight year while also investing heavily in a youth movement. The Los Angeles Lakers have fewer ideas about competing in the now, even if they might not reap the draft rewards for a down season – they’re all about their young players, putting them in positions to grow and succeed, and seeing who will stick and just how good they’ll be when their window opens.
A lot of that strategy will have to do with attracting a big free agent or two, and in that sense, the built-in Lakers advantage could rear its head as the team rounds back to respectability (and excitement). The idea of the Lakers getting very good again thanks to good prospects, smart drafting, and some wins in free agency is a little scary considering the momentum they could quickly pick up in attracting more and more pieces, but that’s probably a consideration for a year or two (or further) down the line, since they haven’t had much luck on the market in recent years. All of this is just to say that the Lakers, while not an imminent threat, have returned to being very interesting, and that’s good for basketball as a whole.
The Raptors are surely happy to visit, too, with two days off afterward for the heavy group of California-based players on the roster to get some time close to home.
The game tips off at 10:30 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: Obviously, the big story around the Lakers this year is first-round pick Lonzo Ball and some of the ancillary drama. Leaving Lavar Ball aside, what have your initial impressions of Ball been? I was blown away by his passing instincts, creativity, and timing at Summer League, and while I know the shot hasn’t dropped much yet, I’m guessing your answer will be that his first three games have been really encouraging. Words, in your mouth.
Darius Soriano: I was high on Lonzo as a prospect coming out of UCLA and the way he’s played through summer league and into the regular season have only solidified my belief that he can be a truly special player. You’re on point that his shot has not fallen at the rate I’d like, but he does so many other things well that he’s still finding a way to impact games. His feel as a passer is as advertised, but more than that I’ve been really happy with his general decision making as a lead guard. For example, in the win against the Wizards, he had 10 assists to only one turnover in 39 minutes of game action and showed good instincts as a defender when guarding the ball. Not every game is that way of course, and in general he’s still going to make rookie mistakes. But he’s often making the right read on whatever action he’s running which is super impressive for a player who is only just about to turn 20.
Blake Murphy: Around this time last year, that same focus fell on Brandon Ingram, the slender No. 2 pick who went on to have a solid, if unspectacular rookie season. Small sample caveats apply, but it looks like he’s ready to take a step forward here in Year Two. I know Lonzo will probably be The Guy from a marketing perspective, but is this a situation where the Lakers are building around a pair of blue-chip prospects, or is it firmly Ball’s team from here?
Darius Soriano: Ingram had a rough go of things early in the preseason, but is starting to flash more of his pedigree and potential as a player in recent games. His shooting is still up and down, but he’s had bigger scoring games in two out of his last three contests that inspire some hope that he’s finding the right path. In the win over the Suns he had a career high 25 points and against the Wizards he had 19, including a big time drive and tip-in of his own miss to push that game to overtime. In terms of making a leap this year, I am cautiously optimistic. I have a simple formula when it comes to young players: physical tools + work ethic + smarts = a player I believe in. Ingram has those three things in spades and I think once he gets some of his “man” strength (he just turned 20 in September) and figures out how to fully leverage his length as a finisher and defender, he can be a high level player.
Blake Murphy: So, what is it about Utah just churning out underrated NBA talent? The Raptors are getting great production from Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright is finally getting to show what I’ve been expecting for two years and might wind up a Most Improved Player candidate, and Kyle Kuzma is quite literally the best player in Summer League and preseason history. How great a find has Kuzma been for the Lakers? (On the heels of a similar Larry Nance find, no less. The idea of the Lakers getting good with late picks is moderately terrifying.)
Darius Soriano: Poeltl looked really good against the Warriors! Regarding Kuzma, he has been such a wonderful surprise and I’m still kind of shocked at how good he’s looked through the summer and into the regular season considering his profile coming out of college. Even if he were a lottery pick or a guy taken in the low teens, I’d find him to be a “steal” simply because he’s a prototypical forward for today’s NBA and looks like he can have a long career simply playing the style he is now as a rookie. Whether you want to label him a PF/SF, a SF/PF, or simply a 3.5 his combination of perimeter skill combined with his understanding of how to score on the move or in post ups in or around the paint is proving to make him a difficult cover — especially for reserve bigs/wings. The fact that the Lakers were able to draft him at #27 overall, makes all this even more a windfall since his rookie scale contract will come with such low salary (and, when the time comes, qualifying offer for restricted free agency, etc) which can be a huge key considering the noise the team wants to make in free agency over the next couple of summers.
Blake Murphy: Going down the list it’s just interesting Laker prospect after interesting Laker prospect. We haven’t even talked Julius Randle (Free Julius!), Tyler Ennis, Josh Hart, or the god Alex Caruso. What a time to be a Lakers fan. So I guess my question is this: Are the Lakers close? This summer looms huge to lure a marquee free agent or two, and they now have a ton of prospect equity to either trade for established players or to provide legitimate depth around those additions. Is next year The Year in the minds of Lakers fans?
Darius Soriano: I guess a question in response to your question is, “close to what?”. I think the Lakers, as an organization, think solely in terms of their next great team that can compete for a championship. Using that measuring stick, no, they’re not close at all. I’m high on Lonzo and think Ingram is going to develop into a really, really good (if not great) player. But as someone who covers the Raptors, you know as well as anyone that even with guys who are in the top 5 or so at their respective positions and clear All-Star level players like Lowry and DeRozan, it takes even more than that to make deep playoff runs or compete for a championship. What you really need are players who are in the top 5-10 players in the entire league. The Lakers have some nice young players who, if they reach their ceilings, can be special talents. But they’re nowhere near reaching those ceilings yet and we all know nothing in this league is guaranteed with players this young. So, I think the Lakers either need to be patient and develop those two (and, see if they can continue to develop Randle — and that’s if they keep him as an RFA this summer) or they need to strike it big in free agency this summer to before we can call them close. So, there are a lot of if’s here. I like their future and the trajectory the organization is on, though, for sure.
Blake Murphy: How’s our guy Jesse Mermuys doing over there?
Darius Soriano: By all accounts Jesse is a very good guy and, from what I’ve heard and seen from him is very much a nice complementary coach on Luke Walton’s staff. Mermuys seems to share many of the same philosophies and sensibilities as a coach, which I think is one of the reasons Walton tapped him for his staff. He coached the Lakers summer league team in the summer of 2016 and I thought he acquitted himself well, even though the team didn’t perform as well as many fans would like. Still, though, I think he’s a good coach and I’m glad to have him on Walton’s staff.
There’s a bit more certainty heading into this one for the Raptors. Unlike Wedesday, we know DeMar DeRozan will play – not that he was ever much risk to miss a game in L.A. – we know how the Raptors will probably start if Jonas Valanciunas remains out, and we know Jakob Poeltl is more than ready for his larger role. With Valanciunas and Lucas Nogueira both nursing ankle sprains Wednesday, Poeltl was terrific, continuing a stretch of really strong play to start the year. Even if Valanciunas and/or Nogueira are back, Poeltl will figure in heavily. Also playing a big role if two centers are out could be Pascal Siakam, who went from barely playing to dropping a career-high 20 points as a starter. If Valanciunas is back, it’s maybe tough to find Siakam minutes without cutting into time for rookie OG Anunoby, but it’ll be hard not to at least try given the difference he made last time out.
On the defensive end, I’d expect Norman Powell to get the first crack at Lonzo Ball. Powell has great length and has done well against opposing point guards in the past, especially larger ones, and Kyle Lowry might be better off chasing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (likely a pest for Lowry the other way), and DeRozan would probably have a better time on Brandon Ingram than Caldwell-Pope. If Siakam winds up starting, you can get even more creative switching across multiple spots, one of the sophomore’s strengths.
It’s unclear whether Valanciunas is close or not, and a matchup against Brook Lopez would be a good time to have him back. He was shooting without much issue yesterday at practice, by the look of the team’s social media accounts, so that’s encouraging. Even against Lopez, Nogueira has probably missed his opportunity to play a big role if Valanciunas is still out, bypassed firmly by Poeltl and now maybe Siakam. Sigh.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Bruno Caboclo
C: Serge Ibaka, Jakob Poeltl
TBD: Jonas Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira
905: Malcolm Miller, Lorenzo Brown
The Lakers have fun pieces all over the court, and they’re especially interesting when they move to a positionless approach off the bench with Randle as the de facto center. There’s length across all of the positions here, with a pair of long point guards and a rotation of interchangeable wings that allow Luke Walton to get pretty creative at times and the defense to switch as needed with a lot of youth still figuring things out on that end. Caldwell-Pope is a nice stabilizing force in that regard, and Lopez provides solid rim protection even if he’s not the most fleet of foot. The Lakers probably won’t end up a good defensive team because of their inexperience, but they rank 10th in points allowed per-100 possessions here in the early going.
It’s been on offense where they’ve struggled more, despite Ball threatening a triple-double each time out. The Lakers have hit just 32.3 percent of a low volume of threes, which creates a specter of a two-way brick-fest late on a Friday night. They’re also exceptionally turnover prone – expected – and, in good news for a potentially downsized Raptors team, woeful on the offensive glass. Still, this team plays hard for Walton and has some talent at both ends of the floor, so this is anything but a given.
PG: Lonzo Ball, Jordan Clarkson, Tyler Ennis
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Josh Hart
SF: Brandon Ingram, Corey Brewer, Luol Deng
PF: Larry Nance, Kyle Kuzma
C: Brook Lopez, Julius Randle, Andrew Bogut, Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant
South Bay: Alex Caruso, Vander Blue
The Raptors open as 6-point favorites with a sky-high 225 over-under.