By: Pete Zayas (@LakerFilmRoom)
At best, the term “role player” is a backhanded compliment, and at worst, it’s an outright insult.
It implies that a player may contribute, but only in ancillary ways that aren’t as impactful as what the main characters bring to the table. That delineation is almost invariably determined by scoring ability. Yet, in a sport where the average game has slightly less than 200 possessions, evenly distributed between offense and defense, players without the knack for putting the ball in the hoop on a regular basis can still have a significant impact. Larry Nance, Jr. is one of those players, helping the Lakers win more games with him (39.3% winning percentage) than they do without him (26.3%). And isn’t that ultimately every player’s role?
What the Numbers Say
[supsystic-tables id=3] These three data points, which are reflected by several other metrics of the same ilk, point toward a few simple truths: Larry Nance, Jr. has been the Lakers’ best defender, an efficient (if not prolific) finisher, and one of the best players on the team. A deeper dive into the lineup data reveals his enormous impact on the Lakers bench units. [supsystic-tables id=4] Notice a pattern here? Almost without fail, the lineups that include Nance play significantly better with him than they do without him. A deeper look into the game tape makes it clear why that is the case.
What the Film Shows
Earlier this season, I took an in depth look at the simple, frenetic brilliance of the Lakers bench, which revealed a straightforward but devastating approach to the offensive end of the floor. Since neither Lou Williams nor Jordan Clarkson are prototypical PGs, Luke Walton chose to primarily stick to ball screens in early offensive situations, allowing his guards to attack without the burden of having to set up the offense. It takes a fairly specific skill set for a front court player to execute and thrive in this style of play. Not only must he be capable of setting quality screens, but he needs to be fast enough to get up court and set them before the defense is set. Furthermore, because it is considerably more difficult to get out and run after the opponent scores, he also needs to be a plus defender. Larry Nance, Jr. is the only player on the Lakers who checks off of each of these boxes, making him integral to the bench’s success.
Nance gets up court quickly, seeks out contact on his screens, and is adept at either rolling or popping.
Nance leads the Lakers in Steal Rate, which is extremely unusual for a big. He’s capable of wreaking havoc with a quick burst and great motor.
While he’s not a spectacular shot blocker, Nance understands his defensive rotations and moves his feet better than any other Laker big.
Nance is an excellent passer, particularly in the short roll. Here he catches the ball around the free throw line and properly identifies the open man.
Larry Nance, Jr’s, speed, intelligence, defensive versatility, and unselfishness make him a perfect compliment to a bench corps that features aggressive scorers with deficiencies as distributors and perimeter defenders. Prior to his injury, he enhanced the productivity of every bench unit that he played significant minutes with, and there’s not any reason to believe that won’t continue to be the case. It’s good to have him back.