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The Lakers’ Kids Go Back to School

After enduring the darkest days in franchise history, the Lakers are starting to see the light. But even with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and a promising group of young players now in place, the team—and coach Luke Walton, in particular—is finding that success is far from assured.

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In the gym of the Lakers’ beautiful new state-of-the-art training facility, in El Segundo, there’s a long window overlooking the practice courts. From there, on the afternoon before the Lakers hopped a flight to the East Coast to start their current four-game road trip, anyone watching could peer over the championship trophies that line the windowsill and get a good view of head coach Luke Walton putting his highly paid professional athletes through another round of what he described as “high school drills.” Walton said the players laugh about it, but “that’s what it’s come to.”

When he later addressed the media, Walton let it slip that he had taken his prep-coaching clinic even further. In addition to the basic drills, he had the Lakers run suicides before hitting the showers. One for each turnover as a unit during the scrimmage. He called them “penalty runs.” (He did not mention which player’s mother was responsible for bringing orange slices or whether they all went to Dairy Queen after.)

When asked if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had been dealing with a minor ankle issue, participated in that particular practice, the coach said, “Yeah, he was one of our better players today. He was winning the running races.” At this point, Walton is a picket fence play away from going full Norman Dale on the Lakers.

And maybe that’s exactly what they need. The Lakers are 29th in turnovers per game, which has quite a lot to do with why they’re five games under .500 heading into Tuesday’s matchup against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Walton described certain Lakers turnovers as a byproduct of trying too hard to “push the pace and make the extra pass for their teammates,” which he’s fine with for now. The Lakers have an average age of 24.9, which ties them for the youngest team in the NBA. They’re still learning. If that sometimes means they’re overeager, that’s a pleasant enough problem to have, as these things go.

But as Walton and anyone who has watched the Lakers understands, there are plenty of other times when they turn the ball over simply because they’re careless and sloppy. “Those are the ones we need to fix,” Walton said.

Lonzo Ball—who leads the team in turnovers and is 46th among point guards in turnover ratio—said his group “cut down on them” in the scrimmage because “we didn’t want to run.”

“We only had one turnover,” Ball said, “so we only ran one.”

There you go.

“Yeah,” Ball replied, seemingly pleased with himself.

Los Angeles Lakers v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

It all makes for some pretty powerful and obvious symbolism for how far the Lakers have strayed from past glory, though some of the players had a difficult time recognizing it. After Larry Nance Jr. returned to practice following a hand injury in late November, he said the Lakers were looking at the playoffs because, as he saw it, the Western Conference is “wide open.” The Lakers proceeded to lose five straight after that proclamation (though they’re just two games behind the 13-14 Jazz for the eighth seed). Meanwhile, everyone’s favorite Lakers rookie, 22-year-old Kyle Kuzma, was defiant and refused to concede that running suicides is a glowing neon indictment of their place in the league pecking order.

“It’s just because we turn the ball over so much,” Kuzma countered. “We need to make an emphasis on it and that’s the reminder.”

So it has nothing to do with age and inexperience?

“Nope.”

Kuzma was essentially given an out to explain away all the high school stuff, but instead he went with an answer that essentially amounted to, “We’re not inexperienced, we’re just not that good.” In fairness to him, it’s probably closer to a little from Column A, a little from Column B.

Short term, going back to the basics worked. The Lakers were relatively careful with the ball and beat the Sixers on the road Thursday to end their five-game skid, then they beat the Hornets in Charlotte for back-to-back wins. Long term, as Walton has said many times, the Lakers remain a work in progress. That’s as accurate now as it was when he took over as head coach last season. But a year ago, at least early on, the Lakers seemed young and exciting. They’re still young, of course. As for exciting, that depends on the night.

Houston stomped the Lakers by 23 on December 3 at Staples Center. Even when the Rockets were up big late in the game, they did not let up on the Lakers, not even for a moment. James Harden played 35 minutes (and had 36 points). Chris Paul played 33 minutes (and scored 21 points).

You would naturally expect Houston to beat the Lakers. The Rockets are a very good team and the Lakers are … not. That kind of victory came complete with more than a whiff of schadenfreude. Let us not forget that Lakers royalty once delighted in Mike D’Antoni’s ouster as head coach after a rough 154-game stint. D’Antoni’s wife certainly remembers.

While others around the league might not be quite as overtly giddy about the Lakers’ ongoing struggles and their quest to return to form, plenty of people are curious about whether Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka can resurrect the franchise. The prevailing sentiment among a handful of league executives I spoke with was that the Lakers are better off with Jeanie winning the Buss family feud than they would have been had her brother Jim and former general manager Mitch Kupchak prevailed. But Jeanie’s promotion of Johnson to president of basketball operations presented questions. Johnson is a Hall of Famer, but it was fair to wonder how involved he’d be with the details. The minutiae of the CBA and the slog of scouting sound a lot less fun than being the gregarious outsize personality who got to toggle between loving the Lakers and trumpeting the Dodgers.

Actually running a team comes with expectations. Installing Pelinka was obviously designed to free Magic from the micro day-to-day tasks and let him focus on more macro responsibilities. Makes sense, though that, too, came with still-unanswered questions. Pelinka, the former president and CEO of Landmark Sports Agency, was highly regarded as an agent. We’re still learning how that skill set will mesh with Johnson’s and whether the combined effect will benefit an organization that’s recently fallen on hard times.

There was no shortage of snickering around the league, for example, when the Lakers stumbled into a $500,000 tampering fine in August. Not only did Pelinka reportedly make contact with Paul George’s agent while George was still under contract with the Pacers, but Magic Johnson went on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and somehow managed to tamper while talking about not tampering.

You can chalk all that up to inexperience and the front office finding its way—or, if you’re slightly more critical, something approaching malpractice. But among the league executives I spoke with, the takeaway wasn’t so much that Johnson and Pelinka are viewed as easy money at the table so much as they have a steep learning curve ahead. No one seemed too broken up about that, though. There is not a lot of sympathy for an organization that already has 16 titles.

It should make for a fascinating trade deadline and offseason for the front office. The Lakers will forfeit their 2018 first-round pick to either the Sixers or Celtics, but they could potentially free up close to $50 million in cap space in the offseason if they strip down the roster. If the LeBron-to-L.A. rumors are true (he just bought another Los Angeles mansion), that will certainly supercharge the renaissance and make Johnson and Pelinka look awfully smart, awfully quick. But what happens if the Rockets or some other team foils their plans and the path forward doesn’t feature an easy patch to their problems? What happens if they can’t retrofit the team with established superstars and instead have to find some of their own?

It’s no secret that Johnson is a big fan of Ball. The old Lakers point guard praises the new one at every turn, though right now Johnson’s love for Lonzo is mostly about projection.

Ball was the youngest player to ever record a triple-double, but the concerns about his shooting form are legitimate. Ball is shooting 32.1 percent from the floor and 24.6 percent from 3-point range. He’s shot 30 percent or worse from the field in 15 of the team’s 25 games, including five straight during a particularly ugly stretch in early November. Among the 27 rookies averaging 15 or more minutes per game, his unsightly 38.4 true shooting percentage ranks 26th. That puts him behind De’Aaron Fox, Josh Jackson, and Frank Ntilikina, who aren’t exactly known for shooting, and just barely ahead of Markelle Fultz, who may or may not have entered the broken jumper witness protection program.

As a result of his shooting woes, Ball sometimes looks hesitant offensively. That often forces Walton into making a tough decision. As constructed, the Lakers are often desperate for offense, especially late in games. Jordan Clarkson is one of their most aggressive scorers, but playing him sometimes means not having Ball on the floor. That’s exactly what happened against Houston, when Ball was benched for the final 16 minutes. It went the same way in the Lakers’ win at Charlotte over the weekend; Clarkson scored 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter while Ball watched the final frame from the sidelines.

Los Angeles Lakers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Not surprisingly, those kinds of decisions have led LaVar Ball to periodically lash out. Last month, LaVar indirectly called Walton “soft” and said “they don’t know how to coach my son.” And last week, LaVar said on SiriusXM NBA radio that Walton needs to play Lonzo down the stretch if the Lakers want to win. Not so coincidentally, the Lakers announced last week that they would emphasize what has been colloquially referred to as “the LaVar Ball rule.” The upshot is that reporters are no longer allowed to conduct interviews in the Staples Center section where friends, family, and agents of the Lakers usually sit. The team said the rule always existed, but the timing regarding its enforcement was telling. (It could be worse; Isiah Thomas revealed his mom used to bring a gun to his games and drink “a lot of alcohol.”)

For his part, Walton said that anyone who isn’t on the team or in the organization can “have whatever opinion they want.” He’s also been publicly supportive of Lonzo at every turn. “He’s got a lot of, um, off-the-court stuff that most rookies don’t have to worry about,” Walton said in the most polite way possible.

“He’s starting as the point guard for the L.A. Lakers,” Walton continued. “There’s not a harder position to learn in this league. There’s not a harder position to play. It’s got the most responsibility, and I think he’s doing a really good job handling that.”

It’s a fair point. Between his father keeping questionable company, his brothers making questionable life choices, and being the no. 2 overall pick—not to mention replacing the no. 2 overall pick from 2015—there’s a lot of pressure on Ball. It’s sometimes easy to forget that he just turned 20. Not that his age or the attendant drama buys him or any of the other Lakers a pass.

A few weeks back, Walton reminded everyone that the Lakers no longer have Kobe, or anyone like him (despite weird attempts by outside concerns to herald some version of the Mamba’s second coming). None of them are guaranteed to play 35 minutes and take over at the end of a game, which is why Walton usually goes with the evening’s heat-check candidate as his closer.

“It’s why I keep preaching to our players that it’s not about us as individuals,” Walton said. “It’s about us as team and each night it’s going to be someone else. One night it will be you, and your teammates need to support you. And one night it will be someone else and you got to be there to support them, too.”

It was a fine stab at diplomacy. But distilled to its essence, what that really means is the Lakers have a bunch of young guys—and, right now, none of them are the guy.

If anyone is poised to challenge the assertion that the Lakers don’t have a future star, it’s Brandon Ingram. He’s popped up on the rising-talent radar a few times this season. The flashes are more frequent now than they were when he was a rookie. He had a double-double (19 points and 10 rebounds) and shot 50 percent from the field in a win over the Wizards. He had another double-double (18 points and 10 rebounds) and shot 53.8 percent in a win over the Nets. He put up a career-high 32 points (on 57.1 percent shooting, while adding five rebounds, three assists, three steals, and two blocks) in an overtime loss to the Warriors. But it was his game-winning 3-pointer on the road to beat the Sixers on national TV last week that served as the best argument in favor of him becoming the guy.

It was a good drive by Ball, and it made for an easy kick-out to Ingram when the defense collapsed. Ingram nailed the shot. Solid play all around. Except a different interpretation is that Ingram got the shot because Lonzo didn’t want it. We can debate that point, but the real win for Ingram, and especially us, was that the whole affair set Clarkson up to throw down an incredible postgame quote alley-oop.

A year ago, Ingram might have hesitated in that situation and incurred Clarkson’s painful hair-related wrath. By his own admission, Ingram had a rough start to his rookie season. It wasn’t until after the All-Star break that he felt comfortable. The Lakers lost big at Oklahoma City in late February, but that game sticks in his mind even now. He played 39 minutes that night and put up a modest line (11 points on 12 shots, five rebounds, four assists), but he was aggressive going to the basket, which hadn’t always been the case. Ingram said that this new approach followed a conversation he had with Magic, who had recently taken over the organization. Johnson urged him to attack the rim and use his length to find a rhythm rather than relying on his jump shot.

“That’s when the game slowed down a little bit,” said Ingram, who’s 6-foot-9 but has a go-go-Gadget wingspan of 7-foot-3. “I have to get even better at it—knowing what shots to take, knowing when to pass the ball, knowing what’s a good pass or a good shot.”

So far this season, 214 of Ingram’s 333 field goal attempts have come in the restricted area or the paint, per NBA.com. He’s dunked 26 times and made 70 layups, which accounts for 63.6 percent of the field goals he’s made. That’s naturally helped boost his shooting numbers. He’s hitting 45.3 percent from the floor (up from 40.2 as a rookie) and his TS percentage has climbed to 51.7 (up from 47.4 a year ago).

Defenders obviously know driving is a crucial part of his game, but it’s not as easy to stop him from attacking the rim as it once was. After the Warriors beat the Lakers in overtime at Staples last month, Andre Iguodala told Walton that Ingram made them work harder than ever before. It used to be that the Warriors would just push Ingram left and go under on screens, with a fair certainty that “nothing good was going to happen.” But Iguodala said that’s getting tougher because Ingram’s left hand is improving and he’s starting to recognize the angles and space that the defense gives him.

Kevin Durant noticed Ingram’s improvement, too. When he was asked about the difference between Ingram now as opposed to last season, the first thing he said was “confidence.” “As a player playing against him, I hate to see it,” Durant said. “But if I was watching on TV, I’d be really excited for him.”

At practice the next day, someone relayed those remarks to Ingram and—even though Durant had 29 points, seven rebounds, five assists, a steal, and a block, not to mention the win—asked the sophomore forward if he thought he “got into KD’s head.”

“Ummmm,” Ingram said, thinking about it for way longer than he needed to, “I’m not sure.”

The correct answer was, no, the 20-year-old did not get in KD’s head. He is a long way from being on that level. And yet that Ingram—who is so soft-spoken that you can stand right next to him and still strain to hear the words coming out of his mouth—even entertained the idea shows the kind of newfound confidence Durant was talking about. He’s not the only one who noted it after their matchup, either.

While Walton wants Ingram to stay aggressive, that doesn’t necessarily mean trying to get 30 points every night. The Lakers need the scoring, but more than that they need someone to assert himself in the flow of a functional offense, and they need him to do it regularly rather than intermittently. That’s Ingram’s problem at present—finding a way to affect the game every night. Walton wants to see how Ingram—who is only 190 pounds—holds up over the rest of the season with the grind of the NBA schedule, the back-to-backs, and the heavy lifting they’re asking of him (he’s averaging 33.9 minutes; only KCP has played more). Simplified, he wants to see Ingram “keep doing it and doing it and doing it” before having a real conversation about whose team it is.

“That,” Walton said, “is when you kind of become the guy.”

On the whole, it is a weird time for the Lakers. They are still treated like the Lakers. Celebrities sit courtside. They’re on national television 35 times this season, the fifth most in the league. And the local and national media covers them like Magic is still running the fast break and not the front office. The town and the team’s history make that somewhat understandable, but there is a big gap between where they play, what they once were, and who they are at present.

Walton recently said it will be “glorious” when the Lakers win another championship, and he boasted “it is going to happen.” But that outward assurance did not include any sort of timetable. While Walton dreams of a bright tomorrow, he’s saddled with a much less glamorous current reality.

As he admitted, there has been some recent “slippage.” As the season lumbers along, he’s noticed “guys are starting to mentally and physically fatigue a little bit.” These Lakers are a long way from judging themselves on how close they are to a title. They’re even pretty far from measuring themselves by wins and losses. He said it’s sometimes hard to impress upon them that their progress isn’t always reflected in their record. When I asked Walton what success might look like for this team, he thought about it before settling on a few broad concepts. He mentioned how they “compete,” “sharing the ball with teammates,” and their “defensive mind-set.”

The big one, though, the one he emphasized, was “effort.” He mentioned it multiple times and said, “That’s part of what we have to go through as a young group.” It was a strange thing to hear from a coach of that particular organization. Imagine Pat Riley or Phil Jackson selecting something so simple when pressed to evaluate the mighty Lakers. But then, those old teams probably never had to run high school drills or suicides, either. In the end, Walton put it best: That’s what it’s come to.

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