TORONTO – Usually, Luke Walton has evaluated his starting point guard by how much he has blended his scoring talents with both running the offense and elevating his defense. With D’Angelo Russell out of the lineup for the past week recovering from a sore left knee however, Walton judged his replacement through a different lens.
After veteran guard Jose Calderon logged the first of many nights as the Lakers’ starting point guard, Walton observed and joked how many ice bags the 35-year-old Calderon had around his knees.
“I feel great,” Calderon said, laughing. “He’s always joking around with the pads and the old guys. But you always have to be ready.”
The Lakers (10-10) enter Friday’s game against the Toronto Raptors (12-6) at Air Canada Centre with Calderon fulfilling that job description the most.
Calderon spent the first two games sitting out because of a left calf injury that bothered him in training camp and has since fully healed. He then played spot minutes in six games while becoming healthy scratches for six others in between. Calderon then has started seven of the past eight games while Russell has sat out to recover from his sore left knee.
During that stretch, Calderon has averaged 6.7 points on 56.76 percent shooting and 4.29 assists in 16.7 minutes per game. He has also shown to Walton that “physically he’s much better than I thought he would be,” which the Lakers’ coach attributed to Calderon playing only limited minutes for the Spanish national team in the 2016 Rio Olympics and taking care of is body. And Walton called Calderon a “very smart player” for various reasons.
“He helps stabilize the first unit that has been a different lineup way too many times this year already,” Walton said. “Just having a veteran that knows how to play and can run an offense and knock down open shots, it’s been nice to have him to lean on when D’Angelo is out.”
It also has been nice for the Lakers to have Calderon after acquiring him last offseason from the Chicago Bulls, which looked to shed salary in their successful free-agent chase for Dwyane Wade. The reasons reflect why Calderon has considered this season “perfect” and “what I expected.”
“I’m happy with the way things have been going. I’m comfortable out there every day and I’m feeling more comfortable with my teammates. I’m ready for whatever role,” Calderon said. “I’m here to help this team to win. It doesn’t matter what. If I’m on the bench, it’s the bench. If I’m playing five or 30 minutes, I’m good.”
When Calderon has fulfilled the latter role, the Lakers have liked his steady veteran presence, his consistent outside shooting (42.9 percent) and hustle. When Calderon has fulfilled the former role, the Lakers appreciated how engaged he has remained in practice, in team huddles and on the bench. So much that both Calderon’s teammates and Walton himself have credited him for providing observations and tips on various player and game tendencies.
“If the coach decides that’s my role for that game, I can’t just be sitting there with a long face and do nothing,” Calderon said. “That’s how I’ve been forever. I’m a team player and that’s all I worry about. Everything is taken care of when you go out there and do your best. Every little possession and every little detail can help you win a game or that possession. It’s an easy way to get involved in the game just in case it happens.”
Those qualities remind the Raptors of what Calderon brought to their team from 2005 to 2013 before the Detroit Pistons acquired him in a trade. He remains the Raptors’ all-time leader in assists (3,770). Toronto coach Dwane Casey then joked he could be Calderon’s agent for all the compliments he handed him.
Casey called Calderon a “winner.” He praised his Olympic experience as a two-time silver medalist (2008, 2012) and bronze medalist (2016). And Casey expressed appreciation both for Calderon’s on-court contributions and mentorship.
“Having Jose Calderon on any team is special,” Casey said. “I think he’s a special person, a leader by example, a coach on the floor and a good person. His heart is in the right place.”
So much that Raptors forward DeMar DeRozan largely credited him for becoming a a two-time NBA All-Star and securing a five-year deal worth $145 deal million last summer to stay in Toronto.
“I credit a lot of the player I am today to Jose,” DeRozan said. “He gave me a lot of confidence early on, trusting me and giving me the ball, trusting me to shoot and never get down if you have a bad game and if you’re missing a few shots. He always believed in me.”
Calderon called DeRozan a “great guy” and said he feels “happy” for his growth entering his 8th NBA season before offering similar optimism about the current Lakers.
“There is great chemistry and good mix with the young guys with the vets,” Calderon said. “I think the coaching staff is doing a great job with how we’re playing together and playing as a team.”
But as much as Calderon waxed nostalgia about returning to Toronto and reflecting on his first regular-season game here nearly 11 years ago, this place also marked his own rite of passage.
After playing six seasons in the Spanish Pro League, Calderon played on a struggling Raptors team that went through three coaches (Sam Mitchell, Jay Triano, Casey) and only two NBA playoff appearances in seven full seasons. After shooting 16.3 percent from 3-point range his rookie season, Calderon spent the majority of his offseason taking “a lot” of outside shots and subtly tinkering with his form.
“It’s about confidence and always doing the same thing,” Calderon said. “I think that’s the same thing. I think mentally you have to be ready. Some days go in and some days you don’t. There’s nothing you do with the ball. You have to be ready.”
Calderon stayed ready thus far with the Lakers by making the best with both limited playing time and his elevated role during Russell’s absence.
“It’s kind of easier this way. It’s been great. We have so many guys. Even if you don’t feel great that night, somebody else will come in and do your job and do better if they need to,” Calderon said. “It’s been good so far. I’m okay. I’m healthy. I’m feeling really really good and out there enjoying basketball.”