In case you hadn’t noticed, the Los Angeles Lakers have a cerebral, multi-talented player who is strong as an ox and competes like a runaway train. But no: We’re not talking about the NBA’s best player, LeBron James. Josh Hart is something of a makeshift James clone, and he could very quietly end up being the club’s second-most-important player because of the unusual, Swiss Army knife role he plays.
At first blush, that might seem preposterous. After all, the second-year Hart — who is all of 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds — may not even start for this talented team. The former college star who led Villanova to a national title took 6.0 shot attempts per game as a rookie, scoring 7.9 points and taking a definitive backseat to far more heralded Lakers youngsters such as Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma.
Yet there’s reason to believe that Hart, in his own way, will be just as important in the grand scheme. Hart’s ability to beat the defense before it’s set will be one of the Lakers’ greatest weapons — both when James is quarterbacking things and when he’s on the bench.
At 10.4 seconds per possession, the Lakers had the NBA’s second-fastest offense after securing a defensive board last season, trailing only the Golden State Warriors (10.0 seconds), according to advanced-stats website Inpredictable. Hart, one of the Lakers’ many solid-rebounding wings who could lead the break, was responsible for much of that; 31.5 percent of his offensive plays came in transition — the highest rate in the league, per Synergy Sports1. And it wasn’t as if he just wildly sped down the floor in those situations: Hart, at 1.18 points per transition possession, was scoring nearly as well as the Houston Rockets, who led the NBA in transition scoring efficiency last year at 1.20. He also ranked second in the NBA among rookies in field-goal percentage at the rim2.
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The 23-year-old’s skill in the open floor figures to pay dividends for his team in two ways. First, it gives James — among the NBA’s most lethal fast-break players himself — an efficient running mate for what he and Lakers coach Luke Walton have said will be an uptempo offensive attack.
“You see those young legs out there. We would be stupid not to utilize that as a strength,” James said to Yahoo’s Chris Haynes last week.
Secondly, and even more important during these next couple of months: Los Angeles will need the kind of quick, reliable scoring that Hart can provide as the young team learns how to play with James3. And that will hold true regardless of whether James is initiating the offense at the top of the key or trying to operate from the low block. (On Thursday against Sacramento, for instance, I noticed a few examples of teammates unintentionally crowding James’ space by cutting into the lane just as he was getting ready to turn toward the basket, something they’ll learn not to do over time.) And despite his undisputed title as the world’s best player, James will likely need time to adjust, too, since the makeup of this roster is so much different from anything he had in recent years.
But even when you take James out of the picture momentarily, Hart still provides immense value to the club, which figures to develop an even more positionless mindset at times than last year, when the defense ranked third in switches on pick-and-rolls, per Second Spectrum. Despite being a shooting guard, Hart has shown he can often hold his own defensively in the post against bigs who weigh up to 35 pounds more and stand 4 to 5 inches taller. David West, seen as one of the NBA’s toughest players until his retirement in August, chimed in on Hart last week, tweeting that the youngster “stood [him] up in the post twice” last year, and that he knew it was time to hang it up when he couldn’t merely steamroll his way to the basket against Hart.
But West was far from the only player with a considerable size advantage to struggle with Hart down low. In fact, looking solely at situations where guards defended centers in the post4, Hart had the best rate in the league, holding bigs to just 0.42 points per possession, according to Second Spectrum. (Zooming out and gauging Hart’s work against players at all positions, he surrendered the third-fewest points per post-up possession among guards5.)
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In fact, with an array of new teammates, some appear to just now be learning how strong Hart is in the low post defensively. Last week against the Nuggets, Hart appeared to be doing just fine against Nikola Jokic, Denver’s franchise big man, when Rajon Rondo came over to double him. That allowed Jokic, a superb passer, to find a cutting Monte Morris (Rondo’s man) for a basket.
Walton told reporters later that Hart was insistent during the ensuing timeout that he could guard players such as Jokic in the post without additional help. “ ‘Don’t come [to double-team]. I’m fine. I’m good over there. I don’t need it,’ ” he recalled Hart saying. “He takes a lot of pride in the fact that he can guard bigger players.6”
And while we’ve long assumed that James will hold down the role of center — at least as a roll man — when the Lakers go small on offense, Hart, who’s mostly known for his perimeter jump-shooting, showed recently that he may be able handle some post tasks on offense, too.
Against the Nuggets, Hart set a screen at the top of the key for Rondo, then rolled, forcing the slow-footed Jokic to make a play. He couldn’t, and it resulted in a layup for Hart — a play Walton praised as an example of quick recognition and high IQ.
That play sums up Hart’s presence on this team: His full impact — unlike that of his other young teammates — often flies under the radar, particularly when he’s not scoring. Yet for all the attention James and the headline-making youngsters get, Hart’s play figures to make a huge difference for this Lakers team, even if he isn’t talked about nearly as much.