Thanks to a four-year stretch where the Los Angeles Lakers failed to surpass 26 wins, the storied franchise had, for a while, their pick of the litter as far as elite college prospects in the annual NBA Draft.
As such, they were able to build one of the Association’s top young cores.
Late last season, HoopsHype ranked the Lakers’ 25-and-under nucleus as the fifth-best in the NBA.
Of course, since then, the team’s expectations have shifted dramatically following the signing of four-time league MVP LeBron James. If the Lakers fail to meet those heightened expectations, or if progress isn’t made quickly enough, it’s possible that we could see some combination of their young players packaged in exchange for a true star.
Which of those young L.A. players could yield the biggest return? Which player is currently performing at the highest level? Who has the most promising upside?
Below, we rank the eight members of the Lakers’ young core, based on their individual potentials.
8. IVICA ZUBAC
Ivica Zubac looked like a promising prospect for the Lakers – a big man capable of providing second units with rebounding and some low-post scoring.
However, it’s been a few years since that’s been the case.
Since Zubac’s decent rookie campaign, when he averaged 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds per contest, the Bosnian center’s role on the team has decreased dramatically every season to the point that in 2018-19, he’s been a healthy scratch in over half of L.A.’s games.
There was a reason the Lakers went out and acquired Tyson Chandler to fill backup center duties behind JaVale McGee.
Unfortunately for Zubac, unless you’re a beastly bucket-getter in the post, the modern NBA isn’t well-suited for slow-footed big men who don’t space the floor and can’t defend at all on the perimeter.
7. MORITZ WAGNER
Former Michigan big man Moritz Wagner propelled himself into first-round status after an impressive junior campaign in Ann Arbor, one in which he averaged 14.6 points and 7.1 rebounds while shooting 39.4 percent from three. The Wolverines even reached the NCAA title game behind Wagner’s strong play before ultimately succumbing to Villanova.
To this point as a rookie, though, Wagner hasn’t been able to crack the Lakers’ deep rotation. The fact that he missed the entirety of training camp, as well as the preseason, due to a knee contusion certainly hasn’t helped matters.
It’s hard to imagine Wagner contributing much in his rookie campaign, especially on a team with such high expectations, so his immediate upside doesn’t look great at the moment. Perhaps in the long-term, Wagner can blossom into L.A.’s version of Ryan Anderson, a score-first power forward with feathery touch from three-point range. But for now, his potential ceiling doesn’t appear to be all that high. He’s more of a high-floor type: Someone who has a high chance of becoming a reliable role player, but little chance of becoming much else.
6. SVI MYKHAILIUK
Despite garnering some offseason buzz thanks to a productive Summer League showing (16.6 points on 48 percent shooting over seven contests) and impressive practice footage exemplifying his knock-down shooting ability, playing time has been hard to come by thus far for Svi Mykhailiuk.
The Ukrainian sharpshooter has only seen the floor for a total of 225 minutes over 31 games, averaging 3.3 points and knocking down 34.1 percent of his looks from deep in that time.
Mykhailiuk still possesses good upside as an elite floor-spacer with some pop as a scorer out of the pick-and-roll, but his potential just isn’t as great as some of his teammates. That’s not to say he won’t be an excellent role player, maybe even soon, it’s just that his ceiling is somewhat hampered by some of his physical limitations
5. ISAAC BONGA
A 6-foot-8 ball-handler with quickness and soft touch from the perimeter, Isaac Bonga’s upside may actually be higher than some of his fellow 2018 Laker draftees.
Just observe how effortlessly he exploits a mismatch on the perimeter before seamlessly pulling up into a wide-open mid-range jumper:
Bonga is still pretty raw (more than anything, he needs to tighten up his handle and work on his functional strength). But over 12 G League outings, the German wing is putting up eye-catching marks of 14.0 points, 6.2 boards, 2.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.7 triples nightly on healthy 47.5/44.4/82.1 shooting splits.
He’s still not all that close to being an every-night contributor at the NBA level, but considering he just turned 19, Bonga’s potential is quite exciting.
4. JOSH HART
Josh Hart’s upside is mostly hurt by the fact that he’s already almost 24 years old, despite it being just his second season in the NBA. Besides that, he also hasn’t developed much of an off-the-dribble game in half-court settings, doing most of his damage as a spot-up shooter or in transition.
What’s more, Hart hasn’t really taken the step that many expected him to this season. The Villanova product is averaging just one more point nightly (7.9 to 8.9), while his shooting percentages have all seen a significant dip (46.9 to 43.0 percent from the field, and 39.6 to 37.1 percent from three-point range).
Nevertheless, the Lakers still very much consider Hart a key part of their long-term future, declining to include him in trade discussions unless the player they’d get in return is of star caliber. This makes sense, because even if Hart doesn’t develop into a star-level talent, 2-guards who can shoot the ball well, pick up easy buckets in transition and ably defend are important in the modern NBA.
3. KYLE KUZMA
Like Hart, Kyle Kuzma (23) is also a bit old for the amount of time he’s been in the league, but he’s able to make up for it thanks to having better physical tools than his teammate (being a 6-foot-9 ball-handling scorer doesn’t hurt).
Also similarly to Hart, Kuzma hasn’t taken a huge step forward this season even if his raw numbers might indicate a decent amount of improvement. The Flint native is averaging 18.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game this year, while shooting 48.3 percent from the floor, but just 30.9 percent from beyond the arc. To be fair, though, Kuzma’s season marks are weighed down a bit by a slow start, which probably had a lot to do with acclimating to playing next to LeBron.
As he’s gotten more aggressive recently, Kuzma’s numbers have seen a big uptick. Over the last 10 games, the 23-year-old wing is averaging 22.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting a much-more-acceptable 33.8 percent from deep.
Playing the role of confident bucket-getter with his size, length and athleticism, Kuzma’s potential is much higher than his age may indicate.
Kuzma still isn’t close to a finished product.
2. BRANDON INGRAM
Kuzma isn’t the only young player on the Lakers’ roster who has struggled to mesh with James’ addition. Perhaps no one has suffered more for it than Brandon Ingram.
After a promising sophomore campaign (even if the advanced stats didn’t think so), Ingram has regressed in his third season. In 2018-19, the former Duke star is putting up a highly inefficient 15.2 points per contest, making just 32.4 percent of his threes and a paltry 62.6 percent of his free throws. According to NBA Math’s Offensive Points Added metric, only 10 players have been a bigger negative offensively than Ingram (-48.8) this season.
What’s more, for a player with his freakish physical traits (6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan), Ingram should be wreak havoc defensively and rack up steals and blocks. That’s what makes his 0.7-block and 0.7-steal averages quite disappointing.
Regardless, Ingram still possesses a ton of promise thanks to those aforementioned physical tools, his age (he’s still just 21) as well as his ball-handling and shooting skills. Per Synergy Sports, the third-year wing ranks in the “very good” range as both an isolation and post-up scorer.
Thus, despite struggling a bit this year, it’s way too early to give up on Ingram and his still-huge upside.
1. LONZO BALL
Despite the insane amount of young talent on the Lakers, we still have to go with Lonzo Ball as the one with the most potential.
Ball’s unique game, featuring unexpected fastball passes, ridiculous defensive effort and penchant for rebounding (on both ends) make him a very rare prospect.
Ball’s raw numbers this year – 9.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists nightly – may not reflect his potential, but the advanced metrics all say he’s easily the best young player on Los Angeles’ roster.
It remains to be seen if and when Ball will put it all together, but there’s no question the young 6-foot-6 floor general has a ton of potential.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.