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Thursday, July 18, 2013
Lakers add versatility, depth on perimeter

By Jovan Buha

Whenever he’s been asked about the Los Angeles Lakers’ biggest needs this offseason, Kobe Bryant has repeated the same two buzzwords: length and athleticism.

As their three best players -- Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash -- age, logic dictates that the Lakers’ rotation could use an extra dose of spryness. As last season showed, the Lakers were simply too old and unathletic to compete for anything more than a bottom playoff seed despite possessing as much top-heavy talent as most contenders.

Even with Dwight Howard and Earl Clark bolting in free agency, the Lakers’ core frontline of Gasol, Jordan Hill and new offseason signee Chris Kaman is formidable. The same, however, could not be said about the Lakers’ perimeter crop until a few signings last week.

The additions of Nick Young, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson pale in comparison to some of the franchise-altering moves of other Western conference teams, but that misses the point. The trio is a solid upgrade over the Lakers’ perimeter options last season, which should be cause for optimism given L.A.’s limited cap space and means to improve.

None of the backcourt signings make the Lakers a contender, let alone a lock for the playoffs, but each player adds a skill or two that the Lakers’ role players lacked. Plus, since all three are on veteran’s minimum contracts, there is little risk involved from the Lakers’ side. If anything, the Lakers got great value given the reasonable likelihood that each player outperforms his price tag.

Here’s a look at each of the Lakers’ perimeter pickups and how they fit with the roster:

Nick Young

Young is a gifted scorer who can create his own shot in almost any situation. He doesn’t contribute much elsewhere -- his rebounding, assists, steals, blocks and shooting efficiency numbers are all below league average -- but his scoring ability alone makes him a relative steal at the veteran’s minimum.

The downside of Young is that he’s averaged more turnovers than assists in four of his six seasons, indicating that he doesn’t always make the best decisions and when the ball is in his hands, he’s usually shooting it. Young can clearly create shots, averaging 15.2 attempts per 36 minutes in his career.

Last season, the Lakers heavily relied on Bryant to initiate the offense. This season, Young can lessen that burden, even if it means a compromise in efficiency. He’s one of the game’s best isolation scorers -- ranking seventh in points per play out of isolations last season -- and is also dangerous coming off screens.

Playing alongside elite passers like Nash and Gasol should improve his spot-up shooting from beyond the arc (just 35.4 percent last year), as Young has been utilized as more of a spot-up threat in his last two stops with the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers.

While he isn’t a defensive liability by any means, Young’s effort and intensity definitely wanes on that side of the floor. Since he’s projected to replace Metta World Peace and start at small forward, Bryant will likely have to accept more defensive responsibility and guard the opponent’s best scorer.

Jordan Farmar

Similar to Young, Farmar is a player who looks for his own shot first. He’s more athletic than people think, boasting a 42-inch vertical that gives him a considerable advantage when attacking off the dribble and exploding in the lane.

The former Laker can also play off the ball, functioning as an above-average three-point shooter (36.7 percent for his career) and solid cutter. In his final two seasons with the then-New Jersey Nets, Farmar was actually more productive defending shooting guards than point guards, so he’ll likely earn pinch minutes alongside Nash and Steve Blake.

His career average of 5.1 assists per 36 minutes is lower than the average of most point guards, but part of that can be attributed to his struggles grasping the Triangle offense. With the Nets, Farmar’s assist percentage actually jumped up to impressive levels (34.9 percent and 29 percent), suggesting he could flourish under D’Antoni if given the proper amount of offensive freedom.

Farmar is immediately a defensive upgrade over Nash, and probably Blake too, as he can apply tenacious ball pressure when engaged. His foot speed and body control allows him to easily shift directions and stick with most guards.

With the Lakers now deploying three point guards expecting of playing time, it’ll be interesting to see how D’Antoni splits up the minutes. If Blake or shooting guard Jodie Meeks shoot poorly to start the season, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Farmar soak up their minutes as a backup combo guard.

Wesley Johnson

Johnson is the wildcard of the Lakers’ offseason signings, as his ceiling has yet to be determined. The former No. 4 overall selection in the 2010 draft has underperformed in his first three seasons (he has a career 9.5 PER), but the flashes of tantalizing potential that made him an intriguing prospect are still there.

Few wings possess the same combination of size and length, and on the occasions when Johnson’s jumper is falling, he makes impossible fadeaway shots look effortless. He has yet to develop into a consistent offensive threat, though, shooting just 40 percent from the field and 33.6 percent from deep over his career.

Despite his athleticism and finishing abilities, Johnson rarely attacks the rim or draws fouls, averaging just 1.3 free-throw attempts 36 minutes. A majority of his possessions came from the perimeter last season -- spot-ups (30.9 percent) and off screens (17.2 percent) -- but Johnson only shot 39.7 percent and 35.7 percent in those situations, respectively.

Defensively, Johnson disrupts shooters with his 7-1 wingspan, which combined with his quickness, allows him to shoot gaps and make effective closeouts. Among shooting guards, he ranked fifth in blocks per foul ratio, implying he’s smart in his gambles. When defending on ball, however, he is highly susceptible to having his man blow by him into the paint, as his reaction time is often a step too late.

Unlike in Minnesota and Phoenix, the Lakers aren’t expecting the world of Johnson. Their reclamation project on Clark -- another disappointing lottery pick -- worked last season, and they're hoping Johnson can enjoy similar results as a backup wing. As long as he can space the floor and play solid defense, he’s worth the short-term investment.

Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats, Basketball-Reference.com, HoopData.com, DraftExpress.com and MySynergySports.com.