With the Los Angeles Lakers competitive through the first 12 games of the 2017-18 NBA season, the team’s fans are optimistic about the current product on the floor. However, after rebuilding since 2014, it has not been an easy path to this new era of Lakers basketball led by President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson, general manager Rob Pelinka, and head coach Luke Walton.
Originally the 27th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Larry Nance Jr. has endured changes every season in his young career — until now. In just his third season, Nance Jr. is already the third-longest tenured player on the team behind Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson. In an exclusive interview with ClutchPoints at The Optometry Practice of Dr. Alex Corbin Liu, he discussed his time in Los Angeles, starting vs. coming off the bench, 2018 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, and 2018 free agency.
Dan Duangdao: The Lakers recently picked up your team option for the 2018-19 season. How have you seen the organization improve since you’ve been here?
Larry Nance, Jr.: My first year was Kobe [Bryant]’s last, so that was a blast. Regardless of our record, getting to spend a full year with him and go along for that ride was an incredible experience. Then last year, we saw a change in coaching staff, so that came with its own different challenges and lost a couple more teammates.
Since Magic [Johnson] and Rob [Pelinka] have taken over, the culture is changing. We’re shifting into a win-first mindset and if you’re not part of that mindset, then you’re out. I think we’re really heading towards and getting there quickly to a winning culture.
DD: One of the biggest storylines was who would start at power forward. What adjustments have you had to make as a starter and has it been difficult trying to balance relationships?
LN: The things that make me fit in with the starting unit are the things that also made me good off the bench. Just coming in, doing the little things, scrambling for extra possessions, hustling and diving on the court, and playing great defense. It wasn’t that big of a transition, I just had to keep doing what I was doing.
We’re professionals. For me, I’m just worried about whatever helps the team win. Later down the road, if it’s me coming off the bench, [Kyle] Kuzma starting, Julius [Randle] starting, or me continuing to start. For me, if that gives us the best chance of winning, awesome.
DD: It’s unfortunate and it feels like every season when you’re playing well and in a rhythm, something happens. What’s your mindset when you suffer a setback especially with your current injury?
LN: It’s frustrating, obviously. I’m starting to create a rhythm, starting to build a rapport and name for myself. It’s a little bump in the road, but this is the healthiest I’ve felt. My knees and legs — that’s all done — so I’m ready to keep on rolling. This was a just freak thing that nobody could have seen or prevented.
DD: I know your goal is to get healthy, but are you considering the Slam Dunk Contest?
LN: I haven’t even considered it. I’m just really looking forward to these next 3-6 weeks. Right now, I don’t know where I’m going to be at that time. The first hurdle is getting back healthy and getting back on the court. If I can get back on the court, then yeah, my mind might lean towards that direction. For now, that’s the last and furthest thing.
DD: The Lakers are currently top-10 in defensive rating. How did the team make that jump in six months after finishing near the bottom last season?
LN: We got a couple of guys this offseason that are really helping us. KCP [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] being such a good individual defender. Brook [Lopez] being such a good team defender and really talking us through our defense. Different guys buying in this year. We have a lot of guys putting in effort and playing some D this year. It’s a mindset change and gosh, I’m ecstatic to see that. That’s kind of where I hang my hat, so I’m super proud of that stat right there.
DD: You had a great interview about tanking with Shahan Ahmed of NBC Los Angeles. Now, the talk is 2018 free agency. The Lakers are trying to create cap space for two superstars. Does that distract the team and does it affect the winning culture you’re trying to build?
LN: No, no. At the end of the day, winning cures all. For guys seeking contracts, if you’re on a winning team, you’re going to get paid more than if you’re on a losing team. Free agents don’t want to go to a team that isn’t showing any promise so winning is going to help that as well.
Prior to the season, Johnson best described Nance Jr. as the Lakers’ ‘secret weapon.’ All the attention is naturally on the team’s lottery picks, but being able to draft a player of Nance Jr.’s caliber who is able to impact the game without even having to score will help speed up the rebuilding process.
As the Lakers are establishing a winning culture, there is no one better that represents the storied franchise’s vision than Nance Jr. On the court, he is always willing to make individual sacrifices to help Walton and the Lakers win games. And most importantly, off the court, he is using his platform to help children realize their potential through Athletes vs. Crohn’s.
To learn more and support Nance Jr.’s foundation, please visit Athletes vs. Crohn’s.