This season’s Lakers have been forced into an interesting role. The departure of Dwight and the Kobe/Nash aging injuries have forced them to re-imagine this prime market, star-led franchise as something else entirely: A group of underdogs and reclamation projects coming together to play hard, play together and play for their individual and collective basketball lives. It’s like a paint-by-numbers college basketball movie from the 80s. Somewhere it’s only fitting that it’s happening in L.A.
There’s a sense of temporariness among D’Antoni’s gang of merry pranksters… They seem like rentals to provide an alternate but engaging story line during what seemed like a lost year from the start. A lighthearted, entertaining digression in the grand narrative of consistent success that the Lakers franchise and it’s fans have been spoilt with. Nick Young, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson have been great pickups and tremendously entertaining but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this is Kobe’s supporting cast in the quest for that elusive 6th ring to rule them all.
But on the 3rd of January 2014, something happened. Kendall Marshall made his first start for the Lakers, against a pitiful Jazz team, but also against potential Rookie of the Year candidate at the point, Trey Burke. He scored their first 5 points, proceeded to control the game, run the offense, drop some threes.
When the final buzzer sounded, Kendall had played 41 minutes and finished with 20 points, 15 assists. Burke: 6 points (on 15 shots!) and 9 assists. But like he said in his postgame interview, it was all about getting the W.
Games like this are not a rare occurrence though: another former lottery pick / trash heap pickup got some minutes and a chance to shine…only this time it felt different. Only this time it may be a harbinger rather than an outlier. This wasn’t just a good flash-in-the-pan game from a player getting big minutes on a bad team. This looked real. There is a very strong possibility they may have just found their point guard of the future.
Every year eligible prospects declare for the draft, are scouted and re-scouted, analyzed and overanalyzed. And eventually some GM, either with a vision or a whim, drafts them into a system. Sometimes the system fits, sometimes the player develops. Other times they fail. But it’s unfair to think it’s all on the rookie. The team, system, coaching, locker room are all vital in determining whether the player really develops, or goes by the wayside and becomes a league dropout. Save for a few monumental busts, and barring injury, most high draft picks have something that makes teams take a chance on them.
And even if things don’t go right initially, history has illustrated how sometimes players eventually find the right situation to flourish in. (Chauncey Billups played for 4 different teams in his first 5 seasons before settling in as Detroit’s floor general who would eventually lead them to a championship.)
I’m not saying Kendall Marshall is the next Chauncey Billups. But last year’s Suns team was definitely not a situation that was conducive to player growth. Still the league is a business, and Kendall got thrown in as a spare part into the Gortat salary dump. He wound up on a team already with a budding superstar point guard that saw no value in keeping him around. Still, getting waived right after his rookie season was surprising. He was, after all, a solid college player from a reputable basketball program that never even got a chance to develop or prove himself in the league. Hell, even Adam Morrisson got six whole years to show he had no business being in the NBA. Even more surprising was that no other team came calling either, despite the fact that many had holes at the point guard slot and desperately needed ball movement and youth (Knicks!!???)
Being without a team gave Kendall the motivation to work on his weaknesses – an edge he showed right from his D-League debut where he dropped 31–10 and 9 with 5 threes for everyone who said he couldn’t shoot.
Then injuries forced the Lakers’ hand & they got a hungry, slighted prospect looking to prove he was deserving of a fair shot at an NBA career.
In that respect, the Jazz game should be declared as Kendall Marshall’s official NBA debut (or arrival, if you may) – the game we could look back on as when we first took notice. He’s finally playing – at a pace that favours his game, for a coach whose system makes even average point guards look like world-beaters (Linsanity anyone?) and for a franchise that honestly hasn’t had a league average point guard since Nick the Quick was dropping lefty turnaround fadeaway threes for the win.
The Nash signing has been tragic but this could be serendipity. Nash may never play another meaningful NBA minute and Kendall certainly won’t be dropping 20-10s every night, but is there a better mentor the Lakers could have chosen for their future floor general?