Lakers Look for Defense, Toughness from Caldwell-Pope

As Magic Johnson sat next to the first big free agent of his tenure as team president, the NBA Hall of Famer recalled getting some scouting advice from back home in Michigan.

His father, Earvin Sr., was taken by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s game, and he made sure his son knew about it.

“This is his favorite Piston,” Magic said at Caldwell-Pope’s introductory press conference. “(My dad) kept calling me, (saying), ‘You’ve got to watch this young man.’”

Magic saw what is dad did in Caldwell-Pope: a “mean and tough” defender capable of making big, fourth-quarter stops and guarding positions one through three.

“We needed a two-guard, a special two-guard that could play both sides of the ball,” Johnson said. “And also have a high basketball IQ and bring some toughness to our team and to the floor.”

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Armed with good footwork and a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Caldwell-Pope has developed a sterling defensive reputation, particularly against opposing guards.

Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka hope that he has what it takes to help turn around a Lakers team that ranked last in defensive efficiency this season.

“He would always find himself defending the other team’s best player,” Pelinka said. “So when he’s playing Golden State, he’s on Steph (Curry). He’d always find where the ball is and he would demand that challenge.”

A man of few words, Caldwell-Pope spoke with his play on the floor, averaging 13.8 points, 2.5 assists and 2.0 3-pointers.

Despite playing on the slow-paced Detroit Pistons, Caldwell-Pope excelled on the occasional fast-break opportunity.

Now, with the Lakers looking to run and run under head coach Luke Walton and point guard Lonzo Ball, Caldwell-Pope is excited about the chance to get out in transition.

“That’s part of my game: just running the wing, defending,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I’m good for running. I run every day. That’s me. I like to run.”

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Johnson and Pelinka were also happy with what his peers, and the numbers, say about KCP’s game.

Johnson said that he has “unanimous respect” from players around the league, while Pelinka said the team’s analytics spoke highly of him, especially when shooting off dribble handoffs.

“When Magic and I were really thinking about the architecture of this team and how we wanted to build it, the two of us could not tailor stitch more of a perfect two-guard,” Pelinka said. “… KCP is about winning, and he’s about playing the game the right way.”

The signing has the Johnson family ready for season to start.

“We’re so happy,” Magic said. “And my dad is happy.”

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