Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma has turned himself into a fan favorite with his play this preseason.
But he’s done more than that.
Kuzma has forced himself into the discussion about the starting power forward position — a discussion that at one time only included Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr.
“It’s more than who’s playing better than the other two because we gotta think about making the second unit solid and the threat to be able to score enough,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “Who plays well with Brook [Lopez’s] shooting in that first unit? There’s a lot of things other than who plays the best that goes into this, but we’re very happy with all three of them.”
Nance is entering his third season, a year after coming off the bench to anchor the Lakers’ second unit. Randle is entering his fourth and final season on his rookie contract. He was the seventh pick in 2014 and spent last season as the Lakers’ starting power forward.
That Randle is even in such a competition at this point in his career motivates him, Walton thinks.
“He seems to be pissed off,” Walton said. “But he’s using it to play with an edge. … That’s what competition’s supposed to bring the best out of you and I think he’s really stepping his game up with that happening.”
Nance insists that he does not care who starts but he enjoys the competition.
Nance and Randle have both gotten starts this preseason, but lately the coaching staff has been forced to consider Kuzma in that role.
As a rookie he has some raw qualities, but his shooting far exceeds that of his competitors. Kuzma has averaged 19.2 points a game in the preseason and is making 56.3% of his shots. His confidence in high-pressure situations has especially impressed the Lakers.
“Whoever ends up being that position for us, a young team that we have, we expect there to be some leadership out of that spot,” Walton said. “They’re going to be playing multiple positions. It’s not just going to be one unit. So they’re gonna have to be open and willing to do multiple things. There’ll be times that Julius might be playing backup [center] and Kuz at the [power forward]. There’s times that Larry might be backup [center], Julius at [power forward] and Kuz at [small forward].”
Ball nears return
When the injury first happened, Lonzo Ball assumed his sprained ankle was no big deal.
The morning after the injury, he woke up to swelling that told him otherwise.
“It got fat and that is what set me back a little bit,” Ball said.
Ball is questionable for the Lakers’ preseason finale against the Clippers on Friday. He went through practice on Thursday, doing the most extensive work he has done since suffering the injury.
“A lot of it will depend on how he feels when he wakes up,” Walton said. “I’m sure he’s going to be sore later today. We’ll see if there’s any swelling in the morning. … He looked early on like he was favoring it a little bit and then as he kind of relaxed and started playing, it really looked like he started to move a lot better.”
Ball participated in all of Thursday’s practice except their five-on-five drills toward the end of practice. If Ball’s ankle feels well enough tomorrow morning, Walton will put him through a scrimmage after Friday’s shootaround.
Ball hasn’t played since the Lakers’ first two preseason games. He suffered the ankle injury on Oct. 2 against the Denver Nuggets after blocking a shot by Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay. Ball came down awkwardly on Mudiay’s ankle. He returned to the game after the injury, hoping that would help the healing process.
Ball worked with Lakers assistant coach Miles Simon before Tuesday’s game at Staples Center.
“That was the first time I got on the court since I got hurt so really didn’t take it hard at all,” Ball said. “It was pretty light. Just little movements here and there so it really didn’t affect me the next day and came back and got my treatment and everything was cool.”
He did it again before Wednesday’s practice, but didn’t participate in that practice.
Under normal circumstances, Ball might have pushed his return.
“My dad has coached me my whole life so you know it is not really being hurt with him,” Ball said. “So I usually push it. Now it is a little different. It is my job and stuff and we took preseason into account and I am trying to get 100% and get out there.”
The Lakers signed former UCLA forward Travis Wear to a non-guaranteed contract. Wear is a candidate for a two-way contract that would allow him to spend part of his time with the South Bay Lakers, the Lakers’ development league team, and part of it with the Lakers. Teams are allowed two such contracts. The Lakers also have Alex Caruso on one. … Andrew Bogut missed Thursday’s practice. Bogut is dealing with a groin injury and missed the last preseason game.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli