Lakers player preview: Jaxson Hayes is JaVale McGee 2.0

Jaxson Hayes, Los Angeles Lakers (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Jaxson Hayes, Los Angeles Lakers (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

The Taurean Prince signing was a bit of a surprise to kick things off for the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency. By no means is that to say it was a bad signing, because it should prove to be one of the better bang-for-your-buck deals in the league. It is to say, though, that Taurean Prince was probably not at the top of your list of potential pick-ups for the Lakers with their bi-annual exception. The Gabe Vincent pact was similarly eye-catching, and a streak of unforeseen signings was born.

Next up was Cam Reddish signing on a veteran minimum deal. If everything clicks for Reddish in LA, that monetary sacrifice now could pay lucrative dividends later. That all depends, of course, on how Reddish performs on the court and exudes professionalism off the court.

We have to bear in mind that this is the Los Angeles Lakers, potentially the most polarizing sports franchise in the history of history. There is a higher standard that one is held to upon signing a contract with the Lakers.

So far through Reddish’s young career, he has shown glimpses on the court of a player budding with promise. Even more impressive, he really has not ever come up in terms of headlines off the court. As a 23-year-old in the NBA, that will get you brownie points from an organization.

After Reddish, it was 23-year-old Pelicans big man Jaxson Hayes signing with the Lakers on a minimum deal. Just like the Reddish signing, this is a low-risk, high-reward type agreement for a young player in this league with a lot of potential in this league looking for the proper opportunity to showcase it (also just like Reddish). Also comparable to that acquisition is the idea that Hayes still has a ton of potential to grow as a player.

Hopefully, that growth will extend on his personal side as well, as unlike the Reddish signing, Hayes does come with somewhat of a checkered past. As a young professional, sometimes you are going to make mistakes. Shoot, as a human being sometimes you are going to make mistakes. We are all entitled to them. It is our right to make mistakes. It is our choice, however, to learn from them.

Coming to Los Angeles could turn out to be a supremely beneficial change of scenery for Jaxson’s young career. While his time in the league with New Orleans since being drafted was sometimes promising, he never truly had a consistent role.

Overshadowed by other prospects like Zion Williamson, Trey Murphy, Jose Alvarado, and Herb Jones, Hayes found himself lost in the shuffle down south. Now, he joins a contending Lakers team fresh off a Western Conference Finals run with largely the same nucleus reunited. And aside from Anthony Davis and the newly inked Christian Wood, he is currently the only other true big man on the payroll for the impending season.

Of course, the Wood acquisition tempers Jaxson’s responsibilities a bit, but he certainly still has a chance to earn a sizable role with the Lakers. Seizing that chance could in turn earn him a sizable payday with an NBA franchise following this season, with the Lakers looming as an obvious reunion candidate.

So what does seizing his opportunity with the Lakers mean for Jaxson Hayes? Well, quite simply, it means that he must fully embrace his role without branching out from it in the slightest. It means grabbing a rebound and remaining patient until a primary ballhandler becomes available. It means making the simple passes, and never looking to be too flashy. It means understanding that this team currently belongs to LeBron James and Anthony Davis (with all due respect to Jeanie Buss).

Looking back at the past few seasons, some of the secondary frontcourt pieces brought on just have not worked out. Last offseason, Thomas Bryant came over on a veteran minimum, prove-yourself type of deal. And as has been the case with multiple other young Lakers, Bryant certainly proved himself. However, he proved himself so profoundly, that he actually felt overqualified for the amount of minutes he was getting. Oddly enough, his effort for a larger role elsewhere led to a smaller individual role behind the best center in the NBA.

With Bryant’s midseason departure came Mo Bamba. Bamba was an awfully intriguing specimen coming over from Orlando, but there was a reason he had fallen out of the frontcourt rotation there. His time with the Lakers after the trade deadline never really went anywhere, and he always seemed buried on the bench. This offseason, Bamba signed on as Joel Embiid’s backup with the 76ers. They also brought Damian Jones back for a second run (just like Bryant) prior to the start of last season. Darvin Ham’s plan to maximize Jones was a failure, and he was subsequently sent to Utah as part of the larger Russell Westbrook deal in February.

In 2021-2022, the duo of DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard was maybe the worst center combination in the league over the course of that particular season. That entire season was just a mess, though, so you cannot buy too heavily into the performance of those two sailors when the entire ship was sinking from the start.

In 2020-2021, the tag team of Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell formed an interesting mix of skills. On one side, Gasol was solely a catch-and-shoot threat that season and was actually pretty effective in that role. However, the former Defensive Player of the Year just looked a step slower than everyone else on the defensive side. So, on the other side, it did not aid the situation that his primary backup was a score-first, ask-questions-later-on defense type of player in Montrezl Harrell.

Harrell will forever be etched in NBA history as one of the all-time greatest 6th men to ever grace the hardwood, but he was played off the court defensively that postseason. So was Andre Drummond, yet another attempt by the front office at sparing Anthony Davis minutes at the 5. Drummond might be the greatest rebounder in NBA history when his career is closed, but the ADx2 frontcourt was never going to work. There was too much congestion in the paint. And Drummond seemed to try to force things at times, thus breaking the rule of not trying to branch out from your role within the team.

Jaxson Hayes brings back a familiar, championship presence to the Lakers.

In order to find that prime example of the type of role Jaxson Hayes should be looking to fill with Los Angeles, you have to go back to the 2019-2020 NBA title season. That season, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard combined to provide nonstop energy on the boards and in the paint defensively while constantly roaming lob alleys and dump-off lanes from LeBron offensively.

They never seemed to break character, which was the key to their success. When you go back and look through highlights from that season, there are few if any of those two doing anything aside from blocking a shot or dunking a lob. They understood what their role was, and they understood that LeBron and AD were in charge. More importantly, they bought in.

Looking at McGee in particular, Hayes almost seems to mirror JaVale from both a physical perspective and overall just looking at the type of player they both are. Less beefy than Howard, McGee is still no slouch down low. With a 7′ and 270-pound frame, he has the body to compete against some of the bigger brutes in the barracks. But he is primarily known for simply how much energy he always seems to bring.

All Shaqtin’ a Fool slander aside, JaVale McGee is a solid big man who has won multiple NBA titles. On the teams that he has won titles on, he was been nothing more than a complimentary 15-20 minute per night source of energy and rim protection. On the teams that he has won titles on, he has thrived within those parameters.

Compared to what the team has now in Hayes physically, he is approximately 50 pounds lighter and 1 inch shorter than McGee. That means he might bounce back a bit more in a trench war against guys like Nikola Jokic. Looking across the rest of the league, Hayes should be tasked with patrolling the paint and intimidating rim-attackers.

During the 2019-20 season, Dwight Howard was on the court for a lot of those Jokic minutes. Looking at this season, expect AD to request responsibility for a majority of those minutes.

Where McGee made his mark with the Lakers from a defensive perspective was his off-ball energy. We are all acutely aware of his athletic gifts. Sometimes when his athletic gifts aligned just right with his defensive instincts, JaVale McGee manufactured some magical moments as a help defender with the Lakers:

Just like McGee, we have all seen the Jaxson Hayes dunk/block highlights. The dude is a freak athlete, and at 6’11” he can do a lot of things on the defensive side of the ball. Where McGee’s thicker bones made it a bit easier for him against bulkier big men, it sometimes made him a target for pick-and-roll switch targeting. His athleticism helped mask some of his lateral deficiencies at times, and he will always be remembered as a solid defensive contributor during that championship run.

Weighing 50 pounds less than McGee disqualifies Hayes for some bigger matchups, but it also enhances his switchability. With all seriousness, Jaxson Hayes is athletic enough today to defend the 3-5 positions. Notice that there were no adjectives in that last sentence prior to the word defend, such as “capably” or even “reasonably”. Those descriptions could come, but Hayes must first learn to utilize his mind as a weapon in the same fashion that he utilizes his bunnies.

Just like the other young Lakers (Reddish, Christie, JHS, Lewis, even Vanderbilt), Hayes will have all the opportunity in the world to establish his name within NBA circles. Not only will he have the platform to do that, but he will have 2 future Hall of Famers teaching him their tricks of the trade. There is a lot going for him right now, but it all circles back to his mentality.

Jaxson Hayes is a 23-year-old, former lottery pick that has already produced some of the most jaw-dropping highlights you will ever see. He is one of the best dunkers in the game, but he does not offer much else on the offensive side of the ball. He is not a ball-handler, playmaker, or anything of that nature. He is in essence an energy guy out there looking to swat everything on defense and dunk everything on offense. When he came over to Los Angeles, these raw characteristics fit JaVale’s description as well.

You can make jokes about funny moments from his career, but we are talking about one of the winningest players ever to play the game. Through all of that success, there have been plenty of snippets of evidence supporting his strong contributions to whichever team he represented. He truly earned each championship ring he has won.

And how did he do that?

By BUYING IN. During that 2019-2020 championship season, you were never going to catch JaVale McGee hoisting a 3. That man was running around setting screens rampantly, looking for lob windows, and crashing the offensive glass. He did those things every single time down the floor, repeatedly. When he was on the court, he was sprinting up and down the floor, and there were never any plays drawn up for him. However, that had no effect on his morale.

During his peak, McGee was one of the top vertical threats in the league. Already, Hayes is among the top vertical threats in the league. McGee developed superb chemistry with LeBron James that season, and the King always trusted JaVale to go up and get it if he ever tossed it up. This year, Hayes can earn that same trust but it is going to take a lot of time. But just imagine Hayes floating around the baseline in McGee’s spot.

Similar to the connection that McGee formed with LeBron, his partnership with Anthony Davis up front was also a success. The two played off of each other quite nicely, and the “twin towers” look was always frightening for opposing paint go-ers. Defensively the 2 formed a lethal duet, but they also had their moments of offensive intimacy that season.

If Hayes can give the 2023-24 Lakers 90% of what McGee gave the 2019-2020 Lakers, then he will have largely lived up to his contract. Asking him to do that much is more than reasonable, but expecting him to do more should be on the table as well. Even further, the organization would organically expect Jax to WANT to do more.

But again, this is not about what Jaxson Hayes WANTS. This is about what the Los Angeles Lakers NEED from Jaxson Hayes. And if anything we have outlined above is any indication, the team needs him to do what JaVale McGee did to a tee. Nothing more, nothing less. If he can fill that role, Jaxson Hayes can be a big-time contributor for the 2023-2024 Los Angeles Lakers.

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