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Have the Lakers already made their 1st-round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft?

rob pelinka chris duarte lakers draft

The Los Angeles Lakers hold the No. 22 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Anecdotally, one of the most popular selections they could make on July 29 would be former Oregon Ducks guard Chris Duarte. Based on the latest buzz, that could very well be in the cards.

Los Angeles hosted numerous six-player pre-draft workouts this month. Duarte was not in attendance for any of them. However, that could be because the two sides have already come to an accord. According to The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie, some rival teams think the Lakers have already “promised” Duarte they will select him, should he fall to No. 22.

“Duarte remains the name that comes up most for the Lakers,” Vecenie writes. “He is working out for teams above the Lakers in the draft order, so I’m a bit dubious that there is a ‘promise’ here — or anywhere — for Duarte, something that teams around the league have speculated on throughout the pre-draft process.”

Vecenie adds that Duarte opted out of the NBA Draft combine in June, which could (or not) indicate that he has at least one promise from a franchise. Earlier this week, the New York Post’s Marc Berman reported that “rumors among agent circles say Duarte has a guarantee somewhere.”

A “promise” from the Lakers is meaningless to teams that pick higher; it’s simply a leverage move to steer those teams away, as the prospect’s agent steers his client away from those teams in the pre-draft process. Rob Pelinka could promise Duarte an estate in Beel Air and free Nobu Malibu for life, but if the Golden State Warriors (at No. 14) or any other organization have an interest in taking him earlier (which would mean more money, of course), nothing is stopping them from grabbing their guy.

That’s why, as Vecenie notes, Duarte working out for other teams is notable — and it’s not just one or two. In addition to the Warriors, Duarte has worked out for the Charlotte Hornets (No. 11), San Antonio Spurs (No. 12), Indiana Pacers (No. 13), Oklahoma City Thunder (No. 6, 16, 18…Presti), and, possibly, the New York Knicks (No. 19), who could use a player exactly like him.

Duarte is an obvious fit for Los Angeles. At nearly 24 years old, the Puerto Plata native can contribute to a contender and fill a 3-and D need.

He’s 6’6 and shot 42.4 percent on 5.5 three-point attempts per game with an elite True Shooting percentage of 66% for the Ducks in 2020-21. He’s an excellent defensive player — especially off-ball, from where he created a ton of steals and deflections for Oregon — though it’s fair if you want to reserve the “and-D” label until he proves his 1-on-1 chops in the pros.

Did we mention he can shoot? Duarte has enviable balance on his jumper, allowing him to snipe from any scenario. He thrives in a spot-up role, off the dribble, or coming off screens, a la Klay Thompson/Wet-Fire — something the Lakers didn’t have last year (Kyle Kuzma would be such an immensely more valuable offensive player should he do this consistently). Duarte never stops moving, and he’s brilliant at navigating through the defense to find space to fire.

Duarte should also entice any team with his hustle, positioning, and feel. As Vinny Chase used to say about E: He’s got instincts.

Duarte’s ball-handling and play-making need development, but his IQ is advanced. In college, he was an effective finisher in the lane with either hand, but he may need more of a bag around the rim in the NBA. Lateral agility and athleticism are question-marks, as is his passing, though all might turn out to be serviceable. In any case, the Lakers don’t need him to be a polished all-around player, a rim-attacking slasher, or Matisse Thybulle. (A common comp for Duarte is Danny Green, who, the Lakers sorely missed after trading him for Dennis Schroder.)

He’ll be 24 by draft night, but the biggest concern about his age (to me) is the outsized role it gave him on the Ducks and his relative experience vs. the competition in college. There’s still plenty of room for growth. The Lakers — perenially in Win-Now mode — have a recent history of drafting on the older side, so that shouldn’t deter them as LeBron approaches his 19th season.

If both sides do, in fact, have an airtight agreement and Duarte’s camp successfully shields him from other teams, the Lakers could land the steal of the draft. But, that’s asking a “promise” to carry a lot of weight.