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Lakers’ Max Christie seizes opportunities in rookie season

EL SEGUNDO — The business of the NBA has an unwritten process and order, one that 19-year-old Max Christie is picking up quickly. When you get the starting lineup nod, the first thing you have to do is text your mom.

Christie got a heads-up less than an hour before tip-off in Denver, but was quick to reach out to his parents: “I said, ‘Catch me in the starting lineup.’”

All Christie did was score a career-best 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting in 25 minutes for the short-handed Lakers on Monday night. While the Lakers lost to the Nuggets, the rookie couldn’t conceal his pride at the biggest game of his career so far.

“Obviously Denver is a really good team, and then getting my first career start in itself is pretty cool no matter where it is,” he said. “But in a hostile environment and in a big game we had guys out and I had to step up. It was pretty cool and to have the game like I had was just sort of icing on the cake for me.”

Christie playing minutes for the Lakers this season has been surprisingly necessary for a team lacking wing depth, but his performances have also seemed a little like icing on the cake, too. The Lakers drafted the Michigan State product 35th overall with the idea that he’d contribute down the line, after a year or two of development.

Injuries to Lonnie Walker IV, Austin Reaves and Troy Brown have opened a window for the Lakers’ only draft pick last summer, and it’s fair to say he’s been better than expected early. He’s shooting nearly 44% from 3-point range, taking on tough defensive assignments, and has found ways to contribute beyond the box score. With length and athleticism that translates defensively, and a jump shot that the Lakers thought might take longer to develop, Christie has enjoyed a few precocious flashes.

A pair of floaters, corner 3-pointers and even a fadeaway midrange jumper at the shot clock buzzer will make fans salivate, but Coach Darvin Ham is more impressed with the less flashy aspects of Christie’s game.

“Just trying to keep it simple, play within himself,” Ham said. “And the biggest thing, his length, his athleticism, he gets his hands on defensive rebounds, he’s great at closing out with an early stick hand and contesting without fouling. He can make a three. And he can put it on the floor and make drive-and-kick plays as well. So, just being solid. That’s all we needed him to be.”

Of course, NBA rookies have other roles as well: Christie is expected to furnish the veterans with towels, postgame meals and snacks, to turn on the showers and other “rookie duties,” which he said he relishes. As Christie related his pride in his rookie work (essentially a light form of hazing), an approving Wenyen Gabriel nodded from two lockers over.

His work ethic has caught the attention of several veterans. Kendrick Nunn called him “special,” while Russell Westbrook saw some similarities between Christie and a rookie who caught on in the rotation last year: Austin Reaves.

“One thing I do know is that they both work extremely hard,” Westbrook said. “And when you put the work in, eventually, when you get your time, you’ll be ready to go. And I think as Max keeps doing that, he’ll be fine. Same thing with Austin. Put the work in, he does it every day, and it’s showing.”

Christie harbors few illusions that his highlights so far are a path to substantial playing time. He’s already split much of the season with the team’s G League affiliate, and once the Lakers are healthy again, he’s likely to see most of his court time with the South Bay Lakers.

“I think patience is still there for sure,” he said. “Just knowing that the process is one point to the outcome, and sticking to the process every single day showing up to work as long as I give my best effort, put my best foot forward that’s all I can ask for and at the end of the day. If I keep doing that it’ll all stack up and everything will work out for me.”

LAKERS TRYING TO HEAL

Asked about a right pinky finger that he said he had to reset twice, Westbrook grinned: “It’s all right.”

He then showed the media scrum his hands, with his right pinky looking gnarled compared to its left counterpart. It didn’t look quite “all right.” Westbrook brushed it off: “No big deal. Still there. It’s good though.”

There has been a certain grin-and-bear-it mentality around the Lakers lately, so injured that they’re routinely reaching for depth down the bench. Even Westbrook, with seven seasons of 80 games or more, has missed a handful of games already this season.

Even the Lakers who seem to be getting healthy find themselves running into other issues. Ham said veteran guard Patrick Beverley, who missed the second half against the Nuggets with a hip injury, was feeling OK from his slip in Denver, but he missed Wednesday’s practice with a non-COVID illness akin to a cold.

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All that said, the Lakers expect LeBron James (who missed Monday’s game) and Brown (who has missed three straight) back in the lineup on Thursday against the Dallas Mavericks, who last beat the Lakers on Christmas in Texas. Even with players out, Ham said, the team has a better understanding of the roles the coaching staff is asking them to play, which has helped them weather the recent spate of injuries.

“I think guys are feeling more comfortable because they are more familiar with the principles and everything that we expect from ourselves instead of just scouting an opponent or whatever,” he said. “We have to know what we want to do and what we want to get done as a team. And I think they’re fully embracing what’s been thrown at them.”

Most pressingly, Anthony Davis has begun ramp-up work on the right foot injury that has kept him out for the last few weeks. Ham said it was good to see the 29-year-old back in the weight room and training room, beginning the path back to the court.

“He’s in good spirits,” he said. “And hopefully, again, stay disciplined and stick to what we’re doing and there’s a huge light at the end of that tunnel.”

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