Lakers’ Mitch Kupchak considers Larry Nance Jr. “a late bloomer”

As the seconds ticked away, the Lakers’ choices did not just rest on going big (Jahlil Okafor), small (D’Angelo Russell) or risky (Kristaps Porzingis).

The Lakers eventually chose Russell with their No. 2 pick, believing his playmaking, leadership and confidence at the point guard position trumpeted any nostalgia for selecting Okafor as their next dominant big man to lead the franchise back to another championship era.

Once the Lakers were on the clock again, they had to decide who they would select with their 27th pick, a scenario that opened up much different possibilities. The candidates were not as clear cut because of the draft order and the talent level. The Lakers’ list of many needs on defense, outside shooting and secondary scoring still remained unaddressed.

So when the Lakers settled on Wyoming senior power forward Larry Nance. Jr, the choice seemed surprising for many reasons. Most NBA mock drafts pegged Nance. Jr as a second-round pick. The Lakers also already have a glut of power forwards in Julius Randle, Ryan Kelly, Jordan Hill, Ed Davis and Tarik Black.

“If I got picked in the first round, second round, lottery, never picked, it would’ve never mattered to me,” Nance Jr. said. “I just never really paid attention to mock drafts. As long as I go my chance to play in the NBA, I’m going to cherish it and relish it.”

The Lakers felt the same way.

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has his scouting department monitor mock drafts for different reasons. Instead of worrying about seeding, the Lakers’ basketball operations staff studies them to ensure they do not miss on any potential candidates. The Lakers did not miss out on Nance Jr.,” whom Kupchak called “a late bloomer” before raving about his athleticism and his 6-8, 235-pound frame.

“We’ll look back on it four years,” Kupchak said, “and see who was right.”

Nance Jr. predicted the Lakers will be right, believing he will tackle his latest challenge the same way he has handled others. He continues to fight.

Nance Jr. suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee midway through his junior season. That absence made Nance Jr. love the game more. So he returned his senior season and landed All-Mountain West First Team, All-Defensive Team and MW co-Dedensive Player of the Year honors.

He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease his sophomore year. But Nance Jr. has received endless treatment so he can both live and play the game he loves.

“I faced a lot of adversity in my life,” Nance Jr. said. “I think it made me stronger.”

He showed that strength on the court.

Nance Jr. has tried to model the basketball smarts and athleticism his father showed in a 13-year NBA career that entailed winning the 1984 Slam Dunk Contest. Nance Jr. finished 16th in Wyoming history in points (1,386), ninth in rebounds (807) and fifth in blocks (135). Kupchak gushed how Nance Jr. could compensate for his lack of size at the power forward spot with a wingspan that reminded him of a certain Hall of Fame player.

“I played with a guy in Washington, Wes Unseld, who is a center at 6’6 1/2 and 6’7,” Kupchak recalled. “I’m at least 6’10 or 6’11. You put your arm up and his arm and his reach was longer than mine. That’s what’s really important. Your center of gravity is lower. But you can reach up there with the big guys.”

Nance Jr. believed he can reach with the big guys even if he will have to fight through a crowded Lakers’ frontcourt.

“I’m an energy guy. I play with an incredibly high motor,” Nance Jr. said. “I never take a play off. Every loose ball, I’m on it it. Every offensive rebound, I’m chasing it. I really hope to just earn my niche by playing with that energy and athleticism that hopefully is unparalleled.”

That should help the Lakers in numerous ways.

First, the Lakers ranked 29th out of 30 NBA teams last season in total defense (105.3), defensive field-goal percentage (46.6) and 26th in fast-break points allowed (15.1). Second, it appears unlikely the Lakers will exercise their team option on Jordan Hill ($9 million). Third, Lakers forward Ed Davis has declined to exercise his $1.1 million option and could find a lucrative deal the Lakers consider too expensive to match.

Well before any clarity will emerge on any of those areas, Nance. Jr just enjoyed the moment. He relished the bonding experience draft night sparked for his dad, whom he noted “was pretty ecstatic” as he fought back tears.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling, almost indescribable,” Nance Jr. said. “The franchise has been incredible, great history and it speaks for itself. It’s the Los Angeles Lakers. It hasn’t set in that I’m a Laker yet.”

But Nance Jr. is. And he remains determined to prove the Lakers right for trusting his potential so much that they took him before many other teams would.


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