It’s not always the case that you can trace the current crop of key NBA players to a single team during a single season. But that’s exactly what the 2017-2018 season was for the Los Angeles Lakers. That season was two years removed from the retirement of Kobe Bryant, who won five championships with the franchise and is in contention as the greatest Laker of all time. Bryant’s retirement paved the way for losing seasons and Lottery picks. These picks and the young core drafted during Bryant’s last couple of seasons, mostly losing ones, formed a group of players currently running the NBA.
That group became All-NBA, All-Stars, Most Improved Players, Sixth Man of the Year, and NBA champions. It makes one think what would have happened had that group stayed together. Once LeBron James chose the Los Angeles Lakers as his next team in 2018, the team’s core was traded away to New Orleans to bring Anthony Davis as James’ new co-star. The duo would win a championship together in the 2020 NBA Bubble season, While the main rotation of that 2017-2018 season is playing huge parts for their current teams. We’ve highlighted the nine key players from that Lakers’ season, chronicling where they were in their careers then and where they are now.
Ingram averaged 9.4 points per game as a rookie, with .402/.294/.621 shooting splits for L.A. While he improved on those numbers during the 2017-18 season, it didn’t appear that the former Duke star and No. 2 overall pick in 2016 would be a star.
But two seasons later, Ingram was the centerpiece of the Anthony Davis trade, becoming an All-Star and winning the Most Improved Player Award in 2020. Today, Ingram is among the most lethal three-level scorers in the NBA. His long, wiry build makes his jump shot impossible to guard, and his 24.7 PPG this season on .484/.390/.882 shooting makes him one of the 20 best players in the league.
Hart was the 30th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. As a rookie, he averaged 7.9 ppg and 4.2 rebounds per game. Those rebounding numbers would be an impressive career precursor for the 6-foot-4 Hart, a champion in 2016 with the Villanova Wildcats during his college career.
After being traded to the Pelicans in the A.D. trade, he would play for Portland before landing with the New York Knicks this season at the trade deadline. Once he joined his Villanova teammate Jalen Brunson on the Knicks, the team went on a nine-game win streak with Hart on the bench. His offensive rebounding prowess and gnarly defense have solidified the Knicks bench and were key advantages to the Knicks upsetting the Cleveland Cavaliers this postseason, Hart’s first taste of the playoffs.
The most tragic of this group is Ball. The second pick in the 2017 NBA Draft was a rookie. At 6-foo6, he showed massive potential as the next big point guard in the mold of Magic Johnson, Penny Hardaway, and Shaun Livingston. Magic is an apt parallel because he was president of Basketball Operations for the team then and was the main supporter behind the team drafting Ball second.
Once Ball was traded to New Orleans, he would continue to breakout, averaging 14.6 ppg in his final season with the Pelicans, making him one of the most wanted free agents in the summer of 2021 before signing with the Chicago Bulls. He hoped to partner with Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, as he did with the Lakers’ young core, to form an eventual championship-level squad. Unfortunately, severe knee injuries have derailed his career, and his injuries continue to keep him out of basketball activities. He has not played in a season and a half.
The most talented and enigmatic player from that Lakers team is certainly Randle. He was an athletic dynamo with the Lakers, tied for the leading scorer at 16.1 PPG during that pivotal season. Now in his ninth season, the burly 6-foo-8 power forward was named an All-Star and All-NBA for the second time since joining the Knicks as a free agent in 2019.
He was also named the Most Improved Player of the Year in 2021, becoming a bonafide 20-point, 10 rebounds, and five-assist player. But, for all the statistical accolades, Randle has had issues controlling his emotions while in New York. The pressure cooker of playing for the Knicks has shown cracks in Randle’s tough exterior, where he has had spouts with the fanbase and failed to play as well in the playoffs as he has in the regular season.
After being named to the All-Rookie First Team in 2015, Clarkson was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he spent a season before being moved to the Utah Jazz, where he has remained even as they enter a rebuild. With the Jazz, he became one of the best off-the-bench scorers in the league, earning the Sixth Man of the Year award in 2021.
Not bad for the 46th pick in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft. It’s unknown if Clarkson will stay with the Jazz as they continue to tear down the core that made the playoffs from 2020-2022. Clarkson averaged 14.5 PPG during that key Lakers season, showing the dynamic offensive skill set that saw him reach a career-high 20.8 PPG this season.
The 6-foot-5 guard has become one of the best off-the-bench defensive specialists in the league. Caruso was one of the few players to stay with the Lakers, playing for them for four seasons, helping them win the 2020 championship in the Bubble. He was a key bench spark that post-season, averaging 6.5 ppg and 1.1 steals per game.
It helped him earn the bag as an unrestricted free agent when he signed a four-year, $37 million contract with the Chicago Bulls that summer. He never became a greater scoring threat, but he did tighten up his efficiency, averaging career-highs this season in FG percentage (46 percent) and FT percentage (81 percent). His defensive efforts were finally recognized this season, earning him All-Defense First Team.
Along with Caruso, Caldwell-Pope was the only other player from the previous core to stay with the team for their 2020 championship. During that Lakers run, the sharp-shooting swingman averaged 10.7 points and started in all of L.A.’s 21 playoff games.
That championship experience is vital to his current team, the Denver Nuggets, who have reached the Finals for the first time in franchise history. He’s averaged 11.7 points a game and 3.2 rebounds while guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player. KCP is part of the team’s five-man best offense and defensive lineups, showing his diversity on both sides of the ball.
Of all the names on that Lakers roster, Lopez was the odd man out. He was trying to find a place in a league that had passed him by. The half-court post genius that made him an All-Star in 2013 had evolved into the pace and space offense that requires centers to be able to hit threes to be more than useful.
With the Lakers, he was no longer the 20 PPG scorer he was with the Brooklyn Nets, averaging the lowest point per game average since his rookie seasons, at 13 ppg. His stay with the Lakers would be short-lived, while he would start 72 games in L.A., making him an attractive free agent, signing with the Milwaukee Bucks the following season. He mans the middle with the Bucks, evolving his game to become the best shooting center in the NBA while retaining his elite defense, helping the Bucks win the championship in 2021.
Buried on the bench, behind Brook Lopez, Channing Frye, and other bigs, was Zubac, who was in his second year at the time. He averaged just 9.5 minutes per game and 3.7 ppg. And while he’s no longer with the Lakers, he is still in L.A., now with the Clippers. For the last four seasons, he has been the starting center for the Clips, providing a deft scoring touch and double-digit scoring.
He has been a key team member since acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in 2019, helping to space the starting lineup. Zubac is not only one of the most skilled European players in the league, but he’s also one of the toughest as well, helping to shed the assumption that big men from Europe are soft on the court.