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The Los Angeles Lakers always like to kick the offseason off with a bang, for better or worse. It wasn’t too long ago when midnight stuck on July 1st only for the Lakers to reach quick agreements with Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Last winter, the first domino to drop was the Lakers making the move to acquire Dennis Schröder from the Oklahoma City Thunder for Danny Green and the 28th pick of the 2020 NBA Draft (which eventually became Jaden McDaniels of the Minnesota Timberwolves). General Manager doubled down once the marriage with Schröder began to go downhill, trading for former MVP Russell Westbrook from the Washington Wizards in a package that includes Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and the 22nd pick of the 2021 NBA Draft (which eventually became Isaiah Jackson who is heading to the Indiana Pacers). It isn’t a perfect marriage between Westbrook and the two superstars the Lakers currently employ in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But the move was one worth making to get the best out of the 28-year-old Davis, which is what the goal of this offseason seems to have been.

Let’s start with Russell Westbrook. The fit with him next to James is where his deficiencies as a shooter and off-ball cutter will come to a head at some point this season and likely fester throughout the entirety of it. Westbrook is literally one of the worst three-point shooters in NBA history when accounting for volume. He’s a career 30.5% three-point shooter and hasn’t shot less than three a game since the 2010-11 season. To make matters worse, Westbrook is nothing as a mover, screener, or cutter either. Once Westbrook gives up the ball he typically chills out and watches the play go on. When you aren’t a good shooter, not moving makes it so much easier for the defense to ‘guard’ him and neutralize possessions when his team has the ball. Heck, if anyone knows about those holes in Westbrook’s one would be the Lakers who actively went out of their way not to guard him when they faced the Rockets in the bubble in 2020.

But if there’s anything Westbrook provides, he allows the Lakers to preserve their identity as a transition behemoth and unleash Anthony Davis as a roller when LeBron is not on the floor. The Lakers hoped to get something resembling that from Schröder. We saw it in glimpses, but he is nowhere near the playmaker Westbrook is. Davis is athletic a big man the NBA has to offer and often loves to leak out in transition when he forces a miss on the perimeter. When the opposing team shoots free throws, Davis almost always camps out on the other end of the floor in hopes to get a quick mismatch. Rajon Rondo sought those transition oop opportunities any time he could when he was a Laker, while Schröder typically tried to do it himself and missed some of these chances. Not only can Westbrook do a little bit of both, but he will also bring zip and playmaking in the halfcourt that neither of those two could. According to the B-Ball Index via Alex Regla of Silver Screen and Roll, Westbrook ranked in the 99th percentile at ‘getting to the rim,’ ‘box creation,’ and ‘high-value assists.’ Essentially, Westbrook is still really damn good at getting to the rim and feeding bigs with dump-offs or kicking out to shooters. If Westbrook can Daniel Gafford is getting these types of looks, then imagine what he can do with Anthony Davis.

Getting an upgrade from Dennis Schröder to Russell Westbrook as a second playmaker is one way to maximize Davis, but another is to get more shooting around him. I love the holdovers from the 2020 Championship team and appreciate all their contributions over the years, but they often left hands holding their breath with the hope their open threes would go in. They made up for it and more with great effort and tenacity on defense (more on that in a bit), but the shooting was inconsistent, to put it nicely. The Dwight Howard signing aside, amongst the Lakers free agent signings of Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, and Kendrick Nunn, only one of those new Lakers additions have made so far shot worse than 38% a year ago and only two hit threes at worse than a 40% clip. All the additions are far better shooters on catch-and-shoot and wide-open threes than the discarded Lakers of a year ago. Davis should feast with more room to operate. Perhaps he could even be used differently; maybe he gets more chances to operate out of dribble handoffs that can lead to him either keeping the rock himself & driving into open space or dishing to teammates. Davis is not a great passer out of the post but certainly a good one. On top of it all, he’s a total mismatch with the list of players actually capable of guarding him 1v1 is about as many as the number of fingers on a human body. Better playmaking and more space to facilitate that playmaking should make life all the easier for Davis to dominate the paint.

The last two seasons of Lakers basketball may have been frustrating when it comes to perimeter shooting, but they hung their hat on defense. Despite the fact that LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two of the best defenders in the NBA, missed a boatload of time to injuries last season, the Lakers still finished with the best defense in the NBA. It was their identity. Alex Caruso (now depressingly a member of the Chicago Bulls) is legitimately one of the best defensive guards in the NBA and the Lakers will miss his help and feel on that end of the floor. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope struggled against bruising wings but was very good at chasing around guards off screens. Kyle Kuzma transformed his reputation from scoring chucker to a guy that could hang with some of the best scoring wings the NBA has to offer. No one is going to mistake the Lakers’ new additions with the quality of defender those guys, but the Lakers should still be fine on that end of the floor as long as Davis and James are on the floor and Davis plays more at the center spot. Both Jovan Buha of The Athletic and Brad Turner of The Los Angeles Times has reported that Davis will play more at center this season. Signing Dwight Howard is a fine depth move, but he was mitigated to the bench during the Lakers’ title run in 2020 save for banging with Nikola Jokic. He and the incumbent Marc Gasol are the only centers on the Lakers’ roster so far. Even if Davis didn’t want to play center, he has to play more of it this season, and the Lakers typically dominate and modernize when he does. I still don’t suspect he will play center exclusively with Gasol still on the roster, but it should be more than what we’ve seen from him so far. We’ve seen centers be able to anchor a mediocre cast of defenders surrounding them to remain amongst the top of the NBA, and Davis is right up there with the best of them. The Lakers’ defense kind of hinges on Davis’ dominance, but he’s shown he’s up to the task.

The Lakers trade for Westbrook was a gamble, but after the dust has settled on the moves that surrounded that big trade, it looks like the risk was worth it. With the overhaul of playmaking and shooting, life should come much easier for Anthony Davis offensively. It shouldn’t be overlooked any time a team attempts to go all-in for their star(s) and brings in someone that can help them on the basketball floor, and that’s what the Lakers have done. For the first time since Davis arrived in Los Angeles though, the Lakers have questions defensively. Davis can answer a lot of them himself, however. This season we could be the best version of Anthony Davis we have seen yet, and he’s already been damn good. We’ll see if that holds up to be true.

Typically, the NBA Draft doesn’t take place a month before training camp and just a week before, but 2020 has been anything but normal. Normally, the NBA doesn’t start after the college game has tipped off, but here we are. Before I get to talking about the upcoming 2020-21 NBA season, I wanted to give a glimpse into what I’ve seen from the top freshman from this much-ballyhooed class. This class received a lot of hype prior to stepping onto the court, and it has lived up to it. They surely will have a say this upcoming NBA season too; not everyone is going to make the playoffs, and with an exorbitant amount of teams able to talk themselves into possibly making the postseason or play-in games, there will be the couple who find themselves in the top five of the 2021 draft. And, odds are, they’ll enjoy who they end up with.

Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State: Currently slated to be the number one pick in ESPN’s Jonathan Givony’s Way-Too-Early 2021 Mock Draft, Cunningham has been getting hype as the next future star player for some time now. He’s making good on those prognostications so far through the first four games of his college career. He already seems adjusted to the speed of the college game. He doesn’t force much on the floor. He’s already an extremely crafty playmaker. Once he gets into the teeth of the defense, he knows exactly how to react to the defense’s reaction as they’re in motion. He already is a machine for creating corner threes in the halfcourt. In transition, he constantly makes the throw ahead pass to set up fantastic looks for his teammates. Playmaking seems to be the ace in Cunningham’s repertoire.

Cunningham has looked more than cozy when looking to get his as well. His shooting capabilities were a supposed knock on Cade Cunningham, but he’s made that look like a walk in the park as well, hitting 46.2% of his threes (3.3 per game) and 84.2% of his free throws (4.8 per game). When teams go under Cunningham’s ball screens or the big drops/is late to switch, he’s made teams repent for their sins. But that isn’t Cunningham’s only avenue to scoring. He isn’t particularly bouncy or explosive, but he seeks out contact and is adept at finishing through it or venturing to the free-throw line. On top of that, Oklahoma State will find ways to get Cunningham the ball at the post when he’s defended by smaller players, almost a necessity for a guy his size in the NBA. As you could probably imagine, that’s an advantageous idea to exploit.

I don’t want this to sound inflammatory, but Cunningham reminds me a lot of Luka Doncic, style-wise. Now, before you call me all kinds of names and exile me the same way the Soup Nazi did George Costanza, hear me out for a second. Like Luka, Cunningham doesn’t seem too fazed by anything out there and is a next-level playmaker that finds multiple ways to create for himself or others. Neither possesses the freakish hops or burst of a LeBron or a Giannis, but both still find ways to get to the rim and do damage. Do I expect Cade Cunningham to be the next Luka Doncic? Hell no; that’s an impossible task. But let’s just say I haven’t seen anything to talk any GM out of taking Cunningham number one overall in next year’s draft.

Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga: Outside of Cunningham, I don’t think any freshman has been more spectacular than Jalen Suggs has. He already looks like a fifth-year senior at the helm for a team that is probably the best in all of college basketball, at least in my opinion. The man is a heat-seeking hound defensively. He isn’t afraid to guard anybody and will run down and dunk it the other way the second you lob a grenade anywhere near Suggs’ direction with how great his hands and defensive instincts are. Suggs is also a rugged rebounder for a point guard as well. By eliminating the middle man, he can kick-start fast-breaks himself and launch throw-ahead passes even sooner than the defense anticipates, getting his team a layup. 

That’s one end of the floor. On the offensive end of the floor, Suggs is a genius playmaker. Through three games, Suggs is averaging 6.3 assists compared to just 1.7 turnovers That’s just outright preposterous for a freshman stepping into the national spotlight. He hasn’t played against cupcakes, either. Suggs has done this against three great programs, first against the Kansas Jayhawks, then the Auburn Tigers, and lastly the West Virginia Mountaineers. Suggs just sees things before they happen on the floor. Check this play out. You can see he is about to hit his teammate Drew Timme on the roll… before Timme is even looking for the ball! Some seasoned NBA struggle to make this pass and Suggs makes it look routine. This play is pretty awesome too. Check how Suggs freezes the Kansas big man with that one last dribble, buying up extra time for Drew Timme to be all alone in the paint the same way Will Smith was in his house. Then when the roll isn’t there, Suggs already is great at delivering the crosscourt pass to the corner for an open triple. 

Jalen Suggs is already just an awesome defender and playmaker. Suggs hasn’t shown much as a guy who can create for himself but hasn’t needed to while playing for a kickass title contender. He’s already, however, shown he can excel in the areas teams need their point guards to excel. He reminds me of Kyle Lowry or Fred Vanvleet, with just how relentless yet brilliant Suggs is on the court. Unfortunately due to COVID concerns, Gonzaga’s (#1) matchup against the second-ranked Baylor Bears got postponed, another big-time setting to watch Suggs perform in. However, if he keeps this rate up, Gonzaga will likely have a very fruitful season, and Suggs would be very deserving to become a lottery pick in some fashion. 

Evan Mobley, USC: Evan Mobley may look Spongebob on stilts when took Pearl to the dance, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Mobley is a supreme talent. Mobley has long strides and uses it to his advantage to saunter his way to the rim even when he catches the ball far beyond it. Mobley will even bust out a Giannis Antetokounmpo or Bam Adebayo impersonation and take it coast-to-coast himself, something that should be illegal for seven footers to do. He has good touch around the rim and constantly finishes around it. Perhaps what sticks out the most about Mobley’s game is how good a passer he already is. For some reason, USC Head Coach Andy Enfield seems hell-bent on giving his star big men as little space as possible (just look at how many defenders swarm the paint when Mobley rolls to the rim), making it easier for teams to get the ball out of Mobley’s hands and harder for him to get the ball closer to the rim. However, Mobley already knows how to beat defenses when they send double teams toward him and make the manipulative pass to an open teammate, both when teams double him on the catch or while Mobley is on the move. When Mobley isn’t still on the post, he already can operate as a fulcrum for the offense from the elbow and beyond and create offense that way. It takes some big men time to become fruitful passers, but Mobley seems fluent in that regard already.

Defensively, he looks the part of a rim protector. USC likes to play a zone and plop Mobley directly in the middle of that zone and let his ludicrously long limbs do the work. He has good timing and positioning, forcing teams to retreat as opposed to attacking him. When they do, it tends to end poorly. Mobley has all the goods of the big man en vogue in today’s NBA. He’ll be a top 5-10 pick, for sure.

Ziaire Williams, Stanford: Williams is one of those that guys that just looks smooth on the floor. His percentages don’t bear it out (32.6% from the field and 26.3% from deep), but his jumper looks pure and super silky. There isn’t a shot Williams can’t take or make, whether it be step-backs, pull-up jumpers, catch-and-shoot threes, etc. He’s shown a nice handle on some of these pull-up jumpers he’s nailed so far this season, most notably busting out this beautiful hesi between-the-legs dribble to shake his defender and drill a jumper at the elbow. He also has a solid feel for the game. Williams can make the right pass when teams throw help in his direction. He still has work to do in this regard (6 assists to 11 turnovers so far), but he’s shown flashes of playmaking while running the pick and roll. You’d like the shooting percentages to be better with Ziaire Williams, but when you can hit jumpers like he can (and make 100% of your free-throws, though admittedly just four in four games) and he continues to improve as a passer, I’m willing to bet he becomes a more complete offensive player sooner than later.

Defensively, Williams can be a problem there too for the opposition. He is super long and athletic to stay in front of anyone, from point guards to wings. He is very active off the ball, properly rotating or using his athleticism to get back to his man. Just watch how much ground he covers here, going from helping on a Tar Heel in the paint to straight-up blocking the jumper of his man who thought he had a wide-open jumper, only to be presented with a false delusion of grandeur. Of course, Williams followed that block by drilling a transition three of his own. Williams is a slender guy who needs to get stronger, but the skills to be a super versatile wing in today’s NBA are all there.

Brandon Boston Jr., Kentucky: Brandon Boston Jr. (or BJ Boston) kind of encapsulates the Kentucky team as a whole: extremely talented, but still adjusting to the college game. This is typically the case with just about every Calipari-led Kentucky squad with how many NBA-bound freshmen they churn year-in and year-out, but the pandemic seems to not have done Kentucky any favors, squashing their matchups with the cupcakes they schedule every and being thrown right into the fire against the big boys, giving this team less time to iron out the kinks and get adjusted to each other. That’s the main reason why I think Boston, Terrence Clarke, and others on this team have struggled so far. Boston has been used to being the main guy on his team (though he did play with other great players at Sierra Canyon), but adjusting to Kentucky’s team style has been difficult, sometimes jacking up bad jumpers instead of keeping the ball moving.

With all that being said, Boston’s talent is something to behold. He is another slender guy, but I love how physical and willing a driver he is. He reminds me a lot of Brandon Ingram in this regard, how, even though Ingram would get bumped or sent backward early in his career before his frame filled out, he’d still put pressure on the rim. Boston does the same. He’s getting to the free-throw line nearly three times a game and shooting just under 82% on those, a great sign for him going forward.

Like Ziaire Williams, Boston hasn’t been off to the strongest of starts shooting from the field. Part of this is because of the forced shots he’s been taking, but he’s been getting good looks that haven’t fallen either. He’s also been able to create some great looks for himself, like this sick step-back jumper. Calipari always gets his Kentucky teams rolling at some point, and this one seems like no exception. It’ll take some time, but I think they’ll right the ship, with Boston playing a big part in the turnaround.

Terrence Clarke, Kentucky: Terrence Clarke is a bit different than Boston. Both had to adjust to the new level of play, but Clarke likes to play with a bit more finesse. He has a nice float game with the speed and quickness to get to that just about any time he wants. Clarke also likes to get to the post and bully smaller guards defending him, a nice tool to have when things get tight. Unlike Boston, Clarke has shot well from the field, but not from the free-throw line (both at 50%). Again, I expect we’ll get a better glimpse of him once Kentucky starts to figure some things out, but Clarke looks like the next flammable Kentucky guard capable of busting off at any point, like Malik Monk, Jamal Murray, Tyler Herro, and Tyrese Maxey before him.

Josh Christopher, Arizona State: It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a game or few where Christopher just unleashes hell on whoever plays against him. He’s got a hefty bag to unleash, with a 28-point sneak peek of his powers against Villanova in November already under his belt. That’s noteworthy because that already is more points in any game than James Harden, the best scorer we have in the NBA today, ever had as a freshman at Arizona State. Christopher is able to rise up for a jumper from all kinds of moves, whether it be cross-overs, stepbacks, or pull-ups. Getting to the rim isn’t a problem for Christopher either, and even when he can’t get there he has a nice touch around it to flick in floaters over bigs protecting the rim. Christopher does have a bit of tunnel vision when he’s dancing with the ball (he has only three assists in four games), but I do like he at least is a strong cutter to keep the machine humming in some fashion. Christopher needs to become a more complete offensive player (he is a pretty good and willing defensive player who should be able to guard multiple positions), but someone who can defend and have the ability to drop 30 on anybody is already a pretty desirable outcome.

Isaiah Jackson, Kentucky: Isaiah Jackson looks like a Mitchell Robinson clone on the basketball floor. He looked every bit the part against Kansas, where he swatted the Jayhawks a preposterous eight times in 30 minutes of game time. He’s an athletic specimen rumbling down the lane as well, fitting the bill of a vertical spacer for today’s NBA. Jackson still has a way to go, but it isn’t hard to see his potential role at the next level.