LOS ANGELES (AP) – With 16 championships and a decades-long history of winning, the Los Angeles Lakers hardly ever get a shot at the NBA draft’s elite talent.
Yet whenever they do, they’ve made an extraordinary choice.
The Lakers have the No. 2 overall selection Thursday, sitting behind only Minnesota with their highest pick in 33 years. After winning 21 games in the franchise’s worst season, Los Angeles survived the possibility of losing the pick in the lottery and secured the right to choose a foundation player for its rebuilding effort.
If history is any guide, the Lakers are about to get a great player.
The last time the Lakers had a top-two pick in an NBA draft, they went home with James Worthy. Three years earlier, they grabbed Magic Johnson.
In 1975, they picked UCLA’s David Meyers – and swiftly packaged him in a trade for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The Lakers only had two other top-two picks in their history: Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
That’s a peerless pedigree for Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell or any dark horse draftee following four Hall of Famers – and an unexceptional pro traded for a fifth great.
Kupchak would never predict a Hall of Fame career for the Lakers’ latest selection. The draft has become an exercise in optimism, with teams projecting futures onto frequently raw teenagers, but Kupchak is confident the Lakers know what they need to make the right choice.
“It’s different than it used to be,” Kupchak said. “The kids, they’re 19 years old. Going back in the dark ages, everybody that graduated from college was 22, 23 years old. What you’re dealing with now are 19-year-old young men, but they’ve grown up differently, too. They’re far more mature at 19 then, let’s say, I was or somebody else was 30 years ago at 19.”
Along with that No. 2 pick, Los Angeles also picks 27th and 34th overall, giving Kupchak a chance to add to his recent history of solid mid-draft selections. The Lakers spent the past several years shipping their first-round picks around the league to acquire veterans who could help them win immediately.
Jordan Farmar was the last first-round pick to make any impact with the Lakers, and he was chosen back in 2006. Los Angeles went four straight drafts without even making a first-round selection before getting Julius Randle seventh overall last summer, only to watch him break his leg in his first game.
But the Lakers’ history also reveals another theme with resonance in this draft: Whenever the franchise has been a champion, a dominant big man usually has been in the middle. From George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain to Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol, the Lakers have suited up some of the game’s greatest centers and power forwards.
Okafor and Towns are considered two of the best big men in the past several drafts. Towns is likely to be the Timberwolves’ pick, so the Lakers have a prime opportunity to select the 6-foot-11 Okafor, the Chicago-raised, Duke-trained teenager who could fit splendidly alongside Randle.
The Lakers are aware of the NBA’s evolution into a guard-dominated league, and they watched Golden State’s rise to dominance without an outstanding big man. Russell is a gifted ball-handling guard who could be the next transcendent talent in the lineage of Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook, but Okafor is tantalizing.
“In years past, and maybe even today, it makes sense to build around a big,” Kupchak said. “But you don’t want to take a big because it’s a big, and then pass on the No. 3 pick, which turned out to be Michael Jordan. We’re going to look at the guards and see if there’s a guard there that you don’t want to miss.”
Okafor has an NBA-ready offensive game, but his critics don’t like his defensive commitment. Kupchak blames that perception on Duke – and not just because the GM is a vocal North Carolina alumnus.
“At Duke, they only had eight or nine guys on the team, so there was a conscious effort to make sure he did not get in foul trouble or contest a lot of shots or be overly aggressive,” Kupchak said. “If there’s a part of his game that lags, it would be his defensive presence on the court. I think offensively, what he does on the court would translate quickly to the NBA.”