Rookie Josh Hart Wants To Help Reverse The Lakers’ Defensive Struggles

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In each of the four seasons preceding this one, the Lakers assembled a roster of players who were, at best, mediocre individual defenders. Collectively, they were miserable.

Presented with these facts Wednesday night in Ontario, Josh Hart said, “I’m looking to change that.”

While the entire defensive culture may be a lot to put on the shoulders of one 22-year-old rookie guard, Hart sees defense as his way onto the floor. For a team that has ranked last in defensive efficiency the last two years, Hart’s mentality is refreshing.

“I take defense personally,” he said. “When somebody scores on me I don’t care if it’s a good move or what. That infuriates me. I don’t like getting scored on, I take that personally.”

The Lakers, who on Wednesday had their first day off since practice started on Sept. 26, spent the first two days of training camp focused exclusively on defense. Hart missed the first week of training camp and two preseason games with a hamstring injury, but Walton still has an idea of what to expect from the former Villanova star.

“He is a tough young man,” Walton said, “which is something we need on this team.”

Hart was a consensus first-team All-America last year and was named the Big East’s co-Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. Yes, that’s right: a senior.

Hart, who won an NCAA national championship in 2016, is the rare rookie who spent four years in college and was one of just two seniors drafted in the first round last summer.

“I think I’m physically a little more mature,” Hart said. “Especially how I’m a physical defender, I think that plays into my role a little bit.”

Hart made his season debut in the Lakers’ ugly 122-104 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Ontario, a game for which official statistics were not available. The rookie still managed to pass the eye test.

He knocked down at least one 3-pointer and scored on a breakaway dunk in transition.

“He was good,” Coach Luke Walton said following the loss. “He gambled a couple of times on defense, but for the most part he was solid and knocked down some shots for us.”

Hart pencils in on the depth chart somewhere behind $18 million man Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a noted defender, and Jordan Clarkson, who has never quite evolved into the defender the Lakers hoped, but remains their best weapon off the bench.

Compared to rookies such as Ball and Kyle Kuzma, who figure to play right away when the regular season starts on Oct. 19, Hart might be more of a project. That gives him time to hone the two skills the Lakers see as his best assets: defense and 3-pointers.

Last year, he shot 40.4 percent from the 3-point range.

“Now,” Walton said, “he’s got more to his game. And obviously, as he gets older, he will get more freedom with that. But for now (he can be) that 3-and-D type of player.”

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