LeBron James, Frank Vogel Heap Praise on Returning Lakers Starter

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, left, and LeBron James of the Lakers

Getty Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, left, and LeBron James of the Lakers

For four games with wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope out because of an injured ankle, the Lakers were a very average defensive team. They allowed 44.9% shooting and 37.5% from the 3-point line, giving up 104.8 points, 25.3 assists and forcing only 10.5 turnovers per game in that span.

They managed three wins, but that included two two-point wins over league bottom-feeders Memphis and Chicago. On Sunday, with Caldwell-Pope back in the lineup, the defense looked transformed, allowing only 102 points on 41.1% shooting (29.3% from the 3-point line), and forcing 21 turnovers.

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Caldwell-Pope is probable for Tuesday night’s game against the Rockets.

Caldwell-Pope himself scored just seven points on 3-for-9 shooting, but he received credit from star forward LeBron James for the way the Lakers’ defense played.

“His speed, the level of acceleration that he plays at automatically ignites our team,” James said. “We play at a different pace when he is in the lineup. His defensive approach as well, he is able to guard the other top perimeter player on the other side. And he has been in our system, so, you know, it’s just always great having him out there.”

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Caldwell-Pope Has Shot Well in Early Lakers Games

The poor shooting night against the Rockets was a first for Caldwell-Pope, who had started the season red-hot from the perimeter. In six games before the ankle injury, KCP was making 52.6% of his 3-point tries. That is down to 47.8% this season after he went 1-for-4 on Sunday.

Still, coach Frank Vogel agreed with James that Caldwell-Pope’s contributions go well beyond what he does with his shooting.

“That whole first group really set a tone on the defensive end,’ Vogel said after the game. “I think getting KCP back—I thought he had three steals in the first quarter, one of them must have been a deflection, he didn’t get credit for it. He had three forced turnovers in the first few minutes, got out on the break. … The whole group was really good in that first quarter, and set a tone for the whole night.”

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Vogel also credited Caldwell-Pope’s speed for transforming the Lakers’ starting five. L.A. plays with a big lineup but KCP adds a different dimension.

“We’re a big team,” Vogel said. “We play with great size, we have size and to play with that type of size, you need speed to complement it. His speed and athleticism is invaluable to us. You have what he can do defensively, his ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter, he’s really one of our best players and an important part of what we’re doing.”

Caldwell-Pope Rarely Misses Games for Injuries

The absence from the lineup marked a first in Caldwell-Pope’s Lakers career. He has been as close to an “iron man” as anyone on the team, and had never missed more than two games in a row in his four years in L.A. Only twice in his career—with Detroit in 2016 and again in 2017—has he missed four straight games, and has never missed more than that in his career.

In 2018-19, James’ first with the Lakers, KCP played all 82 games.

Vogel said last week that Caldwell-Pope has shown more signs of leadership this season, helping new payers get accustomed to the Lakers’ defensive system.

“He’s in the second year of our system [and is] more comfortable and more comfortable in his role,” Vogel said. “And when you get more comfortable in a system, in a role, you’re more confident to step up in leadership situations and help someone like Talen (Horton-Tucker) with some coverages or things like that. KCP drew the biggest assignment defensively on a championship run, you know what I mean? So he’s got a pretty strong pedigree there.”

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