The Lakers’ young core consisting of Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart have spent the last seven games being forced to play without their centerpiece LeBron James and veteran point guard Rajon Rondo. Over that span, the Lakers have gone 2-5 with their only wins coming over the Kings on Dec. 30 and the Mavericks on the road Monday, Jan. 7.
“The challenging part is, between the injuries and the lineup changes, suspensions, whatever it is – trying to get the continuity of the group together has been tough for us,” Lakers coach Luke Walton reflected.
James sustained a groin injury in the second half of the Christmas day game against the Warriors while Rondo was diagnosed with a sprained right finger after the same game. With no set return date for either of the team’s veterans, the shorthanded Lakers have been challenged with stepping up and finding ways to win.
“They’re competitors,” is how Walton described the young core. “We already knew that about them though, we’ve had them for two years some of them three years others.”
The Lakers win over the Kings was one of the biggest bright spots in seeing how much upside the team’s young core has when things are clicking. That game, Lakers’ second-year guard Josh Hart set a new single-half career high of 17 points and finished with a season-best 22 points, seven rebounds, a season-high-tying three assists, and two steals in 40 minutes.
It was the same game that Ingram had his most complete performance as he notched 21 points, grabbed seven rebounds, dished out nine assists with two blocks and a steal.
“People ask, ‘when is Brandon at his best?’, and I tell you, ‘He’s a basketball player,’” Walton stated. “He seemed to have a joy about him. When he has that, it’s a lot of fun to watch.”
In the veteran’s absence, it has been Kuzma leading the way though he too was sidelined for two games with a lower back contusion. After the team dropped five of their last six contests, Kuzma returned to the Lakers’ starting lineup to help against the Mavericks on Monday and added 13 points with five rebounds and three assists. In the month of December, he averaged 22.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists through 14 games and scored 20 or more points in 11 of those.
“He grows game by game,” Lakers’ center Tyson Chandler said of Kuzma. “He’s learning, he wants to learn. He wants to know how he can be better out there and you see it.”
“We’re not just one player,” Kuzma expressed. He described all of the teams’ losses without James and Rondo as winnable. “We [have] just got to eliminate a little bit of mistakes.”
Meanwhile, Balls’ numbers are down from averaging 11.9 points and 5.8 assists in the month of December to 6.7 points and 4.3 dimes in January.
“There’s been pressure on us since we got here, whether we had other guys or not,” Ball said. “We’re a big part of this team and we’ve got to bring it every night.”
While the opportunity for the Lakers’ young players to improve and develop is important, it is no secret that the Lakers’ skid has resulted in them dropping from fourth in the Western Conference standings to eighth.
“For us, it’s just continue to get better and better and when those guys get back hit the ground running,” Kuzma asserted.