Coaches frequently note the difficulty rotating three players through one position during a game. There just aren't enough minutes available. For the Lakers, who had Metta World Peace and Matt Barnes as the primary small forwards, it's particularly true because Kobe Bryant gets time at the 3, as well.
However, when injuries occur coaches often avoid disrupting their rotation by elevating that player's backup to starting status.
Put this pair of truisms together, and you get the 2011-12 season for Devin Ebanks. He appeared in only 24 of 66 games -- between Jan. 3 and April 6 (34 games) Ebanks played a total of five minutes -- but started 12 of the 24 regular season games in which he saw action (including the first four of the season when he briefly won the job out of training camp) -- and six of seven during the playoffs. It's a very all-or-nothing existence, and for a second-year player working to establish himself in the league, not the easiest way to play.
As as starter -- seven games at shooting guard, five as a small forward -- Ebanks averaged 6.4 points, 3.2 rebounds (including 1.4 on the offensive end), nearly one assist, and half a block in 24 minutes. Not prodigious numbers by any stretch, but not bad either for a guy getting his first real experience against first-unit NBA competition. He scored 12 points with four rebounds on 6-of-11 shooting against Phoenix on April 7, and was 7 of 11 for 14 points against Sacramento in the regular season finale. In the playoff opener against Denver, Ebanks missed only once in six tries en route to 12 points and grabbed five boards in only 19 minutes, becoming one of the "wild cards" George Karl hoped to avoid as the Lakers took Game 1.
Still, the game leaving the best impression for fans came against Oklahoma City in the last of three regular-season matchups. Pressed into extended service following the ejection of World Peace for elbowing James Harden and an ankle injury for Barnes, Ebanks contributed eight points, five rebounds, two steals and a block, but more importantly did good work chasing and harassing Kevin Durant through the fourth quarter and two overtimes. He made a big impression that afternoon, for sure.
Generally speaking, Ebanks handled his playing time well, not forcing too many shots, filling the wing aggressively on the break, hitting the offensive glass, and trying to play good defense, though like most young players he made plenty of mistakes in the larger team concept.
Well, there was the aforementioned five minutes of burn in those 34 mid-season games, but that's not really his fault. Ebanks also never demonstrated the ability to stretch a defense. While he was comfortable with the mid-range baseline jumper, Ebanks missed all nine 3-pointers he launched during the year. To his credit, nine isn't that big a number, indicating an awareness of his limitations, but Ebanks will definitely need a more effective perimeter game. It's an aspect of his game he worked on last summer, but couldn't translate to the floor this year. Looking at his postseason performances, Ebanks never managed to impact a game as effectively as he did in Game 1. Not for lack of effort, but at times he just looked overmatched.
OUTLOOK FOR 2012-13
The Lakers have the ability to bring Ebanks back. With a qualifying offer of about a million bucks, they can then match any offer sent his way by another team. Given their relative lack of cheap, young talent and the total lack of certainty at the 3, where Barnes is an unrestricted free agent and MWP an amnesty candidate, it makes little sense to let him go. Ebanks is a hard-working athlete, showing the potential to be a legitimate rotation player. There's a real chance the Lakers may need to take a leap of faith with him next season, depending on how the summer plays out.
Ebanks never had a chance to get a rhythm this year, but when he played I thought he acquitted himself nicely, especially given his total lack of experience. Generally speaking, he showed poise and an excellent work ethic. It's a shame he didn't get a more sustained opportunity to fill the void behind Kobe at the two, considering how hard it was for Mike Brown to find production there.
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