Draft picks give Lakers versatility and more depth

EL SEGUNDO, CA-Los Angeles Lakers President of Basketball Operations Earvin “Magic” Johnson has probably the most recognizable smile all over the world. But his competitive DNA is what put him in nine NBA Finals appearances and pushed him to become a five-time world champion. He’s a winner.

If anyone thinks that edge has left the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer because he switched uniforms of playing in a suit and tie these days instead of the tight, gym shorts he used to ball in, Johnson reminded the media that kind of ideology is for the birds.

At a press conference introducing the Lakers two picks in the 2018 NBA Draft, Johnson, after being posed a question by a reporter about whether or not he was feeling pressure to deliver big-name free agents to the franchise, dialed up the mojo that once made him a three-time league MVP, a 12-time All-Star and the famed conductor of the “Showtime” Lakers.

“No pressure on me,” Johnson said. “I’m going to do my job. I’ve always done that. Do you know how many Finals I’ve been in? So do you think I’m worried about this? I’ve played against Larry Bird in the (NBA) Finals, so c’mon, man. I’ve been in nine Finals. I’m Magic Johnson. I’m still the same guy. I’m not going to change. No pressure on me. I’m going to do my job. That’s what I do. I do my job. I’m excited. I’m looking forward to it.”

With the free agent swirl of rumors going all over the place, the reported anticipation around the league is that the Lakers are looking to hit a home run this summer or after next season in regards to free agent pickups. But at the press conference Johnson, general manager Rob Pelinka and head coach Luke Walton held on Tuesday, June 26, at the team’s practice facilities, the focus was clearly on the young talented players the Lakers drafted.

At 6-foot-11 and 245 pounds, Mortiz Wagner (No. 25, Round 1), a star for three seasons for the Michigan Wolverines, is like a younger version of Lakers center Brook Lopez. Grabbing rebounds won’t be a problem and shooting from long distance is a plus. Wagner shot nearly 40 percent from three-point range last season. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (No. 17, Round 2) was actually better in the downtown area than Wagner, connecting on 44 percent of his 3-point shots as a member of the Kansas Jayhawks.

This is one area the Lakers could work on improving. As a team, the Lakers shot just 34 percent from three-point range. Johnson believes both Wagner and Mykhailiuk would provide the Lakers with an upgrade in this category.

“We struggled from the three-point line, we struggled from the free throw line, but today is a big upgrade,” said Johnson. “We set out to get shooters in this draft, and guys that can stretch the floor, guys that have high basketball IQ, guys that were competitive and tough-minded. Both of them come from extremely successful programs in college and they’re fundamentally sound because coach (John) Beilein and coach (Bill) Self did a fabulous job of coaching both of these young men. We felt that when we looked at both of them, they add to our team what was missing. We’re excited about introducing them today.”

The Lakers may not have finished the 2017-2018 NBA season where they wanted, but be rest assured that Johnson and Pelinka are working feverishly behind the scenes to make the Lakers great again. The management duo’s restructuring of the team’s roster started with the drafting of Lonzo Ball and the selection of dynamic swingman Kyle Kuzma last year.

It showed that Johnson and Pelinka did their homework as Ball (No. 2 overall draft pick) and Kuzma (No. 27 selection) both made the NBA All-Rookie team. Kuzma wound up being a first-team selection, while Ball made the second squad. Now it’s up to the newcomers to keep that tradition going, regardless who the Lakers land during the free agent signing period.

“We have some core principles on how we want to build this team, and that it’s guys that are tough, guys that have high basketball IQ that loves the game, that love to compete, that can shoot, (and) that are skilled,” Pelinka said.

Johnson, Pelinka and the Lakers continue to meticulously work on upgrading the team into staunch playoff contenders. At least that is the goal for a team with 16 NBA titles already. However, the last time the Lakers played in an NBA Finals series seemed like eons ago when Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, and Pau Gasol collaborated together to bring LA back-to-back championships. That was then. This is now.

Now, for the Lakers, means getting the right players in place that could rejuvenate the organization back to elite status in the NBA. Well, let’s check that. The Lakers, as well as their longtime Eastern Conference rivals the Boston Celtics (17), are the gold standard when it comes to winning championships.

Since the two teams last tangled with one another in the 2010 NBA Finals in which the Lakers prevailed in seven games (4-3), both franchises have floundered on the court, though the Celtics seem to have regained their strut as of late, making it to the Eastern Conference Finals the last two years.

This summer could be a game-changer for the Lakers, a team that finished 11th in the Western Conference standings last season. If things don’t work out for the Purple and Gold to land at least one max player (they’re hoping two), then there is always the 2019 summer.

“If we don’t find who we think we can find, then we’ll turn our attention to next summer,” said Johnson. “We have the cap space and flexibility. We created that and we’re looking forward to Sunday. But again, we are not putting all of our marbles into one summer. So we understand that we have two summers to add to what we’re building here. I’m going to stay disciplined. I’m going to stay focused. I told you before this is not going to get turned around overnight. We’re building something. We want sustainability. Jeanie (Buss) is one hundred percent behind us and our strategy. We’ve been having unbelievable strategy meetings every single day.”

As the rumors continue to swirl around the team about what free agent will be walking through their practice facilities, Johnson and Pelinka look as if they’re quietly doing their due diligence in re-shaping their roster. Last year, the big splash for the management duo was drafting Ball.

Ball, Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram provided enough flash and dash for fans of the Lakers to be excited about the future. But considering the win now mentality in the NBA, how the Lakers used to roll out championships the way butter is put on soft rolls, and playing in the same Pacific Division as the reigning NBA champions Golden State Warriors, the future is a moment-by-moment experience.