With Luol Deng still working back from a bruised knee, Luke Walton is taking an opportunity to tinker with different starting lineups.
None of them have included Jordan Clarkson, even though the third-year guard is leading the Lakers with 13.5 points a game through two exhibitions. Walton has started Lou Williams at shooting guard in both contests, and indicated that he will again against the Nuggets in Ontario on Sunday.
Deng is questionable, and Walton said Saturday he is likely to start Nick Young or Brandon Ingram if Deng can’t go. On Friday, the Lakers started Metta World Peace in Deng’s place so they could keep the second unit of Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Tarik Black, Jose Calderon and Ingram together.
So Clarkson, as of now, remains with that group while other parts shift around him. He averaged 15.5 points per game last season and is considered to be part of the Lakers’ young nucleus.
“I’ve loved what he’s done so far,” Walton said after practice Saturday. “But if he continues to play well ... I don’t look at it as really coming off the bench.”
“It’s more of a way of getting a starter in with the second unit so you don’t have a drop off,” Walton continued. “But he’s very good at that role so far, but it’s two weeks in and still a long time to go before we make that final call.”
The Lakers’ first-year head coach likened Clarkson’s situation to Lamar Odom — who came off the bench but played “starter minutes” when Walton played for the Lakers — and Spurs guard Manu Ginobili.
Clarkson scored 15 points and grabbed four steals in 20 minutes off the bench in the Lakers’ exhibition loss to the Nuggets on Friday. After the game, Walton called Clarkson the team’s most consistent defender since the start of training camp.
With six more preseason games left before the Lakers’ regular season opener against the Houston Rockets on Oct. 26, Walton is still figuring out where Clarkson can be most effective. Right now he likes the way Clarkson fits with the second unit, which is no knock on the guard’s play.
“It’s too early to tell exactly what it is,” Walton said of that lineup after Friday’s exhibition. “But there is definitely something there with that group.”
‘Our Way Every Day’
Walton and a few Lakers staffers debuted a new catchphrase at Saturday’s practice, wearing shirts that read “Our Way Every Day” on the front.
A new slogan is another way — albeit a small one — the Lakers are transitioning out of the Kobe Bryant era and into a season led by a young core and new head coach. Walton said the team came up with it during training camp, and it’s emblematic of how he wants the Lakers to prepare, practice and play.
He has no plans to trademark it, but did acknowledge that it may not be a bad idea.
“I think Steve (Kerr) came up with ‘Strength in Numbers’ in Golden State last year,” Walton said. “And he would have made a lot of money there, that was all over the place. But no, I’m just trying to get the guys to buy into it.”
All eyes on Mozgov
At the end of practices, Walton challenges his team with a simple free-throw shooting game: Make 15 of 19 free throws, or run.
The Lakers’ preseason roster is currently at 19, meaning each player usually takes one shot. Walton usually lingers by the foul line, talking trash to players as a way of breaking their focus. He also likes to save first-year Laker Timofey Mozgov for last, hinging the team’s fate on the free-throw shooting touch of a 7-foot-1 center.
Mozgov has shot 72.9 percent from the line in six NBA seasons and has embraced the role. On Saturday, he missed his first attempt to send the team running up and down for 30 seconds. He then made his next try to end practice.
“He’s a new guy, he was with his national team for a lot of the summer so he wasn’t around, so I think going two for three is respectable,” Walton said of Mozgov’s success so far.
“I like making him go last because he’s one of our ‘bigs’ but he’s a good free-throw shooter at the same time. You’re not giving them no hope, but you’re also not putting Jose (Calderon) on the line where it will automatically go in.”