Lakers better have big free-agent plans after going small in draft

About that NBA draft that appeared to be a Lakers slam dunk?

They broke ankles, stepped back, and shot a trey.

All the hype over the franchise-changing big man the Lakers would be miraculously handed with their second pick?

They didn't want him.

The celebration over the acquisition of a kid who can lead the Lakers into their next championship era?

That kid might actually be a 29-year-old dude from Portland.

In their best no-look pass since Magic, the Lakers snubbed Duke center Jahlil Okafor for Ohio State point guard D'Angelo Russell on Thursday with a pick that was about far more than Okafor or Russell.

The Lakers committed the unthinkable act of ignoring an impact big man for a streaky shooter because they are convinced they can acquire a certain big man in free agency, which begins next week. That man is Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge, whose skills are similar to Okafor's, meaning Aldridge's presence would make the Duke star redundant while making the Ohio State star shine.

Mitch Kupchak, the general manager who had the final call on this pick and thus has put a bit of his legacy on the line with it, denied that free agency was a factor ... but explained exactly why it could be a factor.

"It so turns out that there are a lot of big men that may be available during free agency and if you look at the guys in the backcourt, there may not be as many," said Kupchak at a news conference. "But that wasn't a factor."

Hmmm, sounds like a huge factor, which makes this a huge gamble that Aldridge will take as much as $30 million less — per NBA rules — to sign here. But then again, why would Kupchak base the most important draft pick of his career around a wish? Here's guessing Aldridge, who has been unhappy with the direction of the Trail Blazers organization, has already given the Lakers some sign that he will sign. If not, there is always that consolation prize that would be Kevin Love, or, maybe ... hey, they just better come up with somebody right? Until they do, it feels like Kupchak drafted like the blackjack player whose gut tells him to hit on 16.

In going with the 6-foot-5 Russell and potentially Aldridge instead of Okafor and potentially a free agent guard such as Goran Dragic, it could be a sweet hit, or it could be an absolute bust.

During recent interviews, Kupchak often referred to this draft as being dangerously like the 1984 draft, where big man Sam Bowie was taken second and Michael Jordan was picked third. No, Kupchak did not want to be the guy who passed on the next Michael Jordan.

But what if, instead, it's like the 2010 draft, where another smooth Ohio State shooter, Evan Turner, was taken second and center DeMarcus Cousins was taken fifth?

It's not that the 19-year-old Russell, who played one collegiate season, is a terrible choice. He's a smooth shooter, a creative passer, and potentially the draft's closest thing to this year's NBA MVP, Stephen Curry. But he could also be this draft's closest thing to Jonny Flynn, the sort of highly drafted all-or-nothing guy who breaks as many hearts as he lifts.

The Lakers took a streaky guard who was three-for-19 shooting in his most recent game, a blowout loss to Arizona in the NCAA tournament. The Lakers passed on a big man who set a Duke record with 35 double-digit scoring games. Depending on his development, there could be lots of D'Angelo Russells out there. But, already without question, there's barely a handful of Okafors.

Yet Lakers Coach Byron Scott, who pushed hard for Russell, said there was one main difference between the players.

"I think Okafor is going to be a good center in this league," Scott said. "I just think D'Angelo has a chance to be a superstar."

Scott said he made his decision during Russell's second workout with the Lakers, a series of three-on-three games that showed his competitive skills. Scott marveled at Russell's leadership qualities, his ability to make the smart pass, get to the basket, shoot the three-ball, and play tough defense. During Scott's news conference Tuesday he actually brought up the names Magic Johnson and Chris Paul while saying the kid seems to have to the toughness to hang with Kobe Bryant.

"He has a little bit of an edge to himself," Scott said.

During a conference call interview with reporters, Russell showed a bit of that edge when he said he wanted to "definitely bring back that winning attitude."

Russell acknowledged he was stunned to be chosen ahead of Okafor, but then said one needed only to watch the NBA Finals to understand why.

"Who won the championship?" he said. "[Golden State] did, they put something together beautiful with just wings and guards.... This is slowly changing into a wings and guard league."

For the Lakers, Thursday was about guards and wings and a prayer, one that will be answered when they replace the big man they didn't take, the one everyone will now be waiting for them to find.

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke

MORE ON NBA DRAFT:

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
69°