After one preseason game, fans got their first look at the group in action. In addition to that, some clarity was provided as to where some of the guys near the bottom of the roster stand, namely Chimezie Metu, KZ Okpala, Sam Merrill, and Chima Moneke.
The latter three of those four were sort of viewed as a group battling it out for a single spot on the roster that may not even be active a lot of the time. However, the reality may be a little different.
For one, look at Okpala. Mike Brown said he’s a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate and clearly has trust in him, starting him at the 4 and assigning him to LeBron in the first preseason contest.
As is evident, Okpala is one of the best defenders on this team right up there with Davion Mitchell, and he could even be the best one among the whole group. His ability to guard seemingly all positions at any spot on the floor and moving in whichever direction makes him a valuable piece for Mike Brown’s team as they try to establish the defensive aspect of their identity.
Considering the defensive upside and the competitive spirit Okpala plays with on that end, it’s almost hard at this point to imagine he doesn’t make Mike Brown’s team.
Of course, three-point shooting is the big question for him and remains as such. Despite checking LeBron on Monday night on one end, Okpala went 0-2 from deep on the other, including clunking one off the side of the backboard from the corner.
It’s probably too early to count out any improvement regarding shooting, so any progress will just substantiate his right to be on the floor. And it should be noted that Okpala is also a sharp player, able to move off-ball and contribute to the ball movement.
Merrill is like the inverse of Okpala. The former Utah State grad and Finals champion could arguably be one of the best shooters on the training camp roster. Of course, unlike the defense, there is a little competition for best sharpshooter, but it’s no exaggeration that Merrill is in that conversation.
It’s because of that shooting prowess that Merrill seemed to have a solid chance at cracking the 15 man. And in the preseason game, Merrill sunk 2 of 3 of his looks from beyond the arc.
Similar to Okpala’s three-point shooting, Merrill needs to show he’s not a liability on defense. There were a couple of moments on that end of the floor where the sharpshooter didn’t look so great. For example, at one point in the 4th quarter, Merrill had to rush back to his man Cole Swider, overplayed, and then just wasn’t quick enough to stick to his man who got a spacious pull-up look from mid-range.
But still, Merrill’s ability from deep range—an undeniable luxury in this league—really keeps his stock buoyed and in the mix.
And then there’s Moneke, who plays with fervent energy, enthusiasm, and athleticism. It may not be as dynamic or valuable a skillset, but the former UC Davis Aggie is a sparkplug type of player. On Monday, Moneke took advantage of the Lakers’ sloppiness, scooped up the rock, and dribbled to the other end for a routine dunk with a little jolt in it.
Moneke also displayed solid defense at one point, providing support in the paint and swiping at a ball for a nice block.
Offensively, Moneke is a big question mark. He’s active off-ball and has a good feel for when to cut, using his athleticism to his advantage, but he missed his one cutting opportunity. And on another shot attempt, Moneke dribbled valiantly into traffic only to get blocked in a forgettable sequence where he tried to hit a layup from the left side with his right hand.
Moneke possesses promise and has a path to a role on a roster, but it may not arrive this year. Though, to be fair, it’s still early.
With those three in mind, it’s time to pivot to Metu.
Being on the team for multiple years, having connections to Mike Brown, and displaying chunks of potential such as his close to last season, Metu may easily have been viewed as having a really good chance to make the roster. However, it appears he may be competing among the aforementioned three guys.
That’s not to say Metu has played himself out of a spot or that the other three are, by far, superior in talent. Metu is still very intriguing and has an opportunity to show exactly why that is, but it is to say that he has just as much to prove as Okpala, Merrill, and Moneke.
Despite his short tenure, it’s not like Metu has done anything to inflate his standing on the team. In fact, Metu is sort of an outlier for not being around the team “all summer.”
To be clear, on Monday night, Metu was pretty good, albeit in the second half of a preseason game. He missed his one catch-and-shoot three-point attempt from the top of the key, maybe rushing it a tad bit, but on another occasion he used the pump fake on the perimeter to dribble into a pull-up 13-footer from the elbow.
Metu showed his size and presence on both ends, snagging an offensive board for a tip-in put back and denying Wenyen Gabriel for an emphatic block.
If Chimezie Metu can assume a similar rhythm he had at the end of last year—particularly regarding catch-and-shoot three’s, which he hit at a 41.7% clip in the period following the Sabonis trade—he has a good chance to lock down a spot. The fact he also shows flashes of defensive ability despite not being all that laterally quick can likewise play towards his advantage.
But because of the fact that you have a far more reliable defender in Okpala and shooter in Merrill, there are other pieces that can obviously pick up any slack Metu creates.
In previous years, Metu kind of made the team by default. This year there’s legitimate competition.
It was just one preseason game, and we’re just about a week into camp, so things remain fluid. However, it appears that, while Metu may not be necessarily on the outside looking in, he has a lot of work to do in order to prove he belongs, just like the other guys.