Lakers shoot for stars while young core looks to brighten

EL SEGUNDO — Perhaps no one was more candid during exit interviews Thursday about their feelings on a star-level free agent joining the Los Angeles Lakers this summer than rookie Josh Hart. 

When asked if, as a member of the team’s young core, he’s excited about the mere possibility of a max-level player coming to L.A., he said he “definitely” was. But in almost the same  breath, he offered something of a caveat. 

“If that that happens, I think it could be nothing but great for this team and for this franchise,” Hart said. “But our job as players is to work like we’re not going to, to work as if nobody’s gonna come here in free agency, and to work as hard as you can to get to that next level. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

In his 170-word answer, Hart provided a glimpse into the mindset of himself, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram when it comes to their future roles for the Lakers. And looking more closely at how those three players developed during the season, that mindset is hidden in plain sight. 

It happened in moments, but the young Lakers appear to be on their way to becoming a special group. The front office, however, has been open about its desire to create financial flexibility to attract players that have already proven they are special — LeBron James and Paul George, for example. 

But the team is in no way banking on those two or any other big names booking a flight to LAX and walking into the Lakers practice facility in El Segundo come July. If when free-agency dust settles and all that’s left are L.A.’s 20-somethings, that’s all well and good for them. Heck, they may even want it that way. 

During exit interviews, several players expressed excitement over highly sought-after free agents possibly joining the team. They even welcomed the notion. But make no mistake: The young core isn’t waiting with bated breath for it to happen, either. 

“If guys wanna come here, then they come,” Kuzma said. “But if not, we’re not per se depending on that because we wanna be those great players. We wanna be those max-level guys. For us, we just think about how can we make the team better.”

Lonzo Ball, who averaged nearly a triple-double in this first NBA season while also missing 32 games, said the young players showed potential free agents that the team has a bright future. He said they’re ready for whomever the Lakers front office brings to help out. 

But Ball won’t be doing any recruiting. He won’t pay attention to who the organization meets with during the summer. And he certainly won’t sit around wondering if he did enough during this rookie year to attract a superstar. 

“It’s not my job to bring people in here,” Ball said. “My job is get as good as I can for next year and help the team any way I can. I’m kinda just focusing on me this summer, not really worrying about who we bring in. … Whether it’ll be LeBron, Paul George or whoever, if they liked it, they liked it. If they didn’t, they’d didn’t. I can’t do anything about it now.” 

Various people may call them the Baby Lakers, but they spoke about their desires as clearly as mature adults. Still, Lakers coach Luke Walton suggested his young core needs to learn to crawl before it can run away with championships. 

“I can tell you that I love the fact that they wanna become those types of players because that’s the mindset we want,” Walton said. “But that takes a lot of hard work and a lot of discipline. For the young guys that are here, they’re still a couple of years away from that.” 

Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson concurred, and went as far as to say Friday that he expects both Ball and Ingram to make big jumps over the summer. He called itthe biggest summer of Ball’s, and challenged he and Ingram to become more vocal leaders over the offseason. 

“They both have to step up in that,” Johnson said before speaking specifically about Ball. “When you think you’re the point guard, you have to now be able to say, ‘Hey man, that was a bad shot.’ Or, ‘Hey, we need you to step your game up.’ He’s gotta do that now in the fourth quarter. … He doesn’t have to change who he is and talk all the time because now, it’s phony. But in crucial moments of the game, he has to say something.” 

It doesn’t take much to see that the young Lakers — and the front office that drafted them — are eager to see what the future holds. Even the team’s veterans want to be in the mix. Brook Lopez said he “loves what’s going on here,” and would be open to taking a significant pay cut to stay with the team. 

“If that were the situation and it looked like the team was an absolute contender, it’s definitely hard to pass up,” Lopez said. 

Playoffs are a clear goal for this team. It’s been all but mandated from Johnson and Pelinka, and the players want to follow suit. It could come with the help of superstar players, or it could come from within. 

Hart’s words told an underdog story. A tale of a group of kids who want to grow up to be the kind of men their bosses so desperately seek, and prove that maybe, just maybe, they don’t need basketball grownups after all. 

“If we take that mindset going into the offseason and work our butts off and do those kinds of things and get better, and we’re able to add some great players in free agency, then that makes this team that much more dangerous,” Hart said. “If we into this offseason and think, ‘Oh man we’re gonna make a splash in free agency,’ and for whatever reason it doesn’t happen, then we’re just kinda sitting her like we’re behind the 8 ball. I think that could be great, but we gotta approach this offseason like that’s not gonna happen. It’s on us to get this team to the playoffs.”