Young Lakers look to Caldwell-Pope to add veteran leadership, defensive grit

Lakers' Kentavious Caldwell-Pope speaks during a news conference on Tuesday.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Mostly muted during his introductory news conference, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had a moment Tuesday where his lips parted into a bright grin.

It happened when he was reminded that at the ripe old age of 24, entering his fifth NBA season, he qualifies as a veteran on the young Lakers team he just joined.

“I’m laughing,” Lakers President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson said. “You’re old at five years in the league.”


Caldwell-Pope chuckled too.

“I’m just hope to bring the leadership,” he said. “Just try to get the guys’ motor going. Get them going in different ways. You gotta come at people in different ways. You gotta figure out how they work.”

The event to introduce the Lakers’ latest free-agent acquisition was attended by the team’s four 2017 draft picks — 19-year-olds Lonzo Ball and Thomas Bryant, 21-year-old Kyle Kuzma and 22-year-old Josh Hart — as well as second-year forward Brandon Ingram, 19.

The Lakers signed Caldwell-Pope to a one-year deal worth about $18 million last week, hoping that his experience, defensive prowess and offensive skill will elevate their roster.

“There was a time when the Israelites were wandering the desert and all of a sudden bread came down from heaven,” general manager Rob Pelinka said. “That’s kind of what today feels like for us to have KCP join.

“When Magic and I were really thinking about the architecture around this team and how we wanted to build it, the two of us could not tailor stitch more of a perfect [shooting] guard. He has a mentality that is consistent with what Magic brought to the table, what Kobe Bryant brought to the table. KCP is about winning and he’s about playing the game the right way. What he’ll do for this team as a leader and with his basketball skills is going to be critical to what we’re building.”

Caldwell-Pope was a restricted free agent before the Detroit Pistons renounced his rights July 7, making him an unrestricted free agent.

Lakers' Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, center, poses for photos with Magic Johnson, left, and general manager Rob Pelinka during a news conference Tuesday.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

His agent, Rich Paul, then called the Lakers. He knew they had been saving salary cap space for a one-year deal, he knew they needed a shooting guard and he knew they could be a good fit for his client.

“Rich had called us with a possibility he would consider us for a one-year deal,” Johnson said. “Rob and I really started watching film and we were just blown away. ... I wanted somebody mean and tough that we could count on to get that big stop for us.”

Caldwell-Pope was brought in for a visit July 11 and the two sides agreed to a deal that evening. Johnson and Pelinka both thanked Paul for his work in helping the deal go smoothly. Paul also represents LeBron James, so the Lakers could be working with the agent again next summer.

Johnson believes that Caldwell-Pope’s defensive mentality will rub off on his younger teammates. The Lakers team ranked last in the NBA in defense last season, so improving in that area has been a point of emphasis.

“If we don’t’ defend, we can’t run,” Johnson said. “And we want to run, run, run, run, run. I’m gonna love to see him on one wing, [Ingram] on the other, Ball in the middle, Julius [Randle] trailing, [Brook] Lopez trailing after that, man. It’s gonna be awesome. Larry Nance, on and on and on. But we gotta defend. And he’s gonna set the tone on the defensive end.”

A sprain for Ball

An MRI exam Tuesday showed that Ball suffered a low-grade strain in his right calf. Ball was injured in the third quarter of Sunday’s summer league semifinal and did not play the rest of the game or in the championship game Monday. The Lakers did not assign a timetable to Ball’s recovery but said he would rest for one to two weeks.

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli