Lakers offseason process could follow Heat blueprint

Tribune Content Agency

LOS ANGELES — The NBA draft is two weeks away, free agency and summer league will follow, and before we all know it we’ll be talking about the 2024 NBA season.

But this week, I wanted to write a little about the offseason process, at least one small slice of it.

The imitation game

As the doors opened for the Lakers’ pre-draft workout Thursday, players were running to the corners to shoot three-pointers off the move, a necessary skill for anyone trying to write an unlikely journey to the NBA.

And, for this group, there were a lot of long odds. There was the shooter with the push form who began his career at a Division II college, a former NCAA champ with a mullet who had to transfer to Illinois to find a bigger role, and a former junior college guard trying to make history from the British Virgin Islands.

Yet with the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, a roster populated with players who have these near-identical back stories, this is the way you build the modern NBA roster. Jimmy Butler landed at Marquette after playing junior-college ball in Texas. Duncan Robinson started a Division III school, and Max Strus did the same in Division II.

The Heat also have had a veteran point guard, Kyle Lowry, playing important minutes in the postseason despite having a reduced role throughout the regular season.

It’s a situation, NBA insiders say, the Lakers are watching as they wait to see if Chris Paul gets waived by the Phoenix Suns. Like any team with a need at the position, the Lakers will weigh factors like fit, role and cost before any meaningful pursuit, but Paul is a future Hall of Famer who, despite being 37, still averaged 13.9 points and 8.9 assists in 59 games last season while shooting 37.5% from three. If he’s indeed available, he’ll obviously get consideration.

Other roster decisions, though, are less flashy, forged from days like Thursday when an unheralded yet hungry group works out to earn a spot, emboldened by what the Heat have accomplished.

“That’s given us hope that it’s possible,” D’Moi Hodge said Thursday. “Everybody thinks that JuCo is not as good as they think it is. But it does show that Jimmy Butler and them showing us that it’s possible. Like me, [it] feels like I can do an impossible, so that’s a good thing.”

Hodge is aiming to become the first player from the British Virgin Islands drafted, a 6-foot-4 guard who played at the State College of Florida, Cleveland State and Missouri on his way to the Lakers’ facility.

He’s potentially a second-round pick. The Lakers also worked out Toledo’s JT Shumate, Illinois’ Matthew Mayer, Rutgers’ Caleb McConnell, TCU’s Damion Baugh and Saint Mary’s Logan Johnson.

“Max Strus. That’s my NBA comparison,” said Shumate, who began his college career at Walsh University before transferring to Toledo.

Shumate, like Hodge, said the Heat have given players like him a road map.

“They’re basically trailblazers for me,” he said.

While the Lakers have been conducting workouts with better prospects in 1-on-0 settings — the team hasn’t released the names of those players, it’s searching in these roughs where the Lakers have had success.

Austin Reaves is headed for a big payday after signing with the Lakers as an undrafted free agent. Last year’s rookie, Max Christie, could see a big jump in his role if he performs well this summer. Talen Horton-Tucker, Thomas Bryant and Ivica Zubac, like Christie, were also second-round picks of the Lakers.

But no one has done it better than the Heat — and it’s a game plan worth following.

There’s only so much a player can show evaluators in a controlled workout. That work gets done during the college season when scouts are on the road watching live basketball with real stakes, not 1-on-0 workouts. There’s still value in conducting them — but no one overrates that part of the process. And speaking of “Overrater,” enjoy this jam that I stumbled upon from critic Steven Hyden’s favorite albums of 2023 so far.