Fresh off an overtime loss to the Houston Rockets, Lakers rookie Svi Mykhailiuk tried to put on a custom pair of Air Jordans while staying out of his teammates’ way.
To his left was NBA champion Tyson Chandler and to his right were former first-round draft picks Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers’ young stars who had a hoard of reporters around them. Coach Luke Walton loomed in the background.
“I love playing for him,” Mykhailiuk told The Star as his eyes motioned toward Walton. “He trusts me and has given me a lot of chances.”
On a team featuring LeBron James, Rajon Rondo, Lonzo Ball and a core of young rising stars, the former Kansas sharp-shooter has no problem being a role player during his rookie year in the NBA.
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While his numbers aren’t eye-popping, the 6-foot-8 Ukranian has been getting consistent minutes on a team that continues to change its roster. With a strong second-half stretch, the Lakers could make the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Mykhailiuk has played in 35 of the Lakers’ 49 games as of Friday and is averaging 3.2 points per game while shooting 35 percent from beyond the three-point arc. When Los Angeles took him in the second round of June’s NBA Draft, Mykhailiuk thought he was joining a team that was up-and-coming and could contend in the next few years. Then James shook up the league in July when he announced he was leaving Cleveland to sign with the Lakers.
The entire roster suddenly went under the microscope as analysts and fans wondered if the Lakers had the squad to get to James’ ninth straight NBA Finals. While the team has added veterans like Chandler well into the season and shedded other contracts, Mykhailiuk has averaged 10 minutes per game. He’s only been assigned to the G-League once, a five-game stint that he capped with a 47-point performance in late December. First-round pick Moe Wagner has bounced between Los Angeles and the G-League and played in just 16 games.
In his first game as a pro, Mykhailiuk admitted he had some nerves, which eventually settled down as he got adjusted. His problems in the league were two-fold and common. Los Angeles is a very different place compared to Lawrence (just on traffic, alone) and he had to adjust to the league and playing with James.
“It’s about how fast the game is,” Mykhailiuk said. “Coming from college basketball to the NBA it’s a very different level. It’s the best players in the world playing in the NBA.”
Mykhailiuk seems to have his former coach fooled. On Thursday’s Big 12 teleconference, Jayhawks coach Bill Self said he’s been very impressed with how his former shooting guard has handled the NBA, especially given the global attention on the Lakers since James arrived.
“He’s having a great time and he’s learning every day,” Self said. “He looks comfortable to me in the minutes that he is getting. Of course he’s getting more now. He’s also getting minutes I’m hoping, because it makes the team better but also with LeBron being out, there’s 35 minutes that aren’t going to be available anymore when he comes back.”
James has been out since Christmas because of a groin injury but a return appears imminent after being cleared to practice earlier this week.
Mykhailiuk has been around his fair share of great basketball minds from his time at KU but said one’s appreciation for James can’t be understood until you’ve been around him.
“He’s teaching a lot of players how to play and how to win,” Mykhailiuk said. “Just learning from him and how he sees the basketball. Everybody plays different but how he sees (things) is amazing. Him and Rondo have a lot of knowledge of the game that they’ve given to us.”
Self wonders if Mykhailiuk’s minutes will drop when James, Rondo and Ball return from injury in the coming months, but it appears the rookie has a secured spot in Walton’s rotation.
The longtime KU coach has sent dozens of players to the NBA during his stint in Lawrence and said given player and personnel, Mykhailiuk has a lot to like about his young career so far.
“I don’t think he could have gone to a better situation,” Self said.