In an up-and-down season for the Lakers, Dennis Schroder has been a consistent spark
Long after the Lakers locker room has cleared out, the smallest player on the team waddles toward his locker.
Dennis Schroder has been beaten up. His legs are wrecked. And his postgame massage has outlasted any stragglers in the room.
None of his teammates have had the year he has, the most minutes played by any Laker this season. He’s run to the point of exhaustion. He’s grabbed at his shorts and gritted his teeth after rolling an ankle.
With players entering and exiting all the time, Schroder has been a constant for the Lakers.
“I trust him,” coach Darvin Ham said in the hallway after a recent win.
The numbers aren’t all flattering.
He’s making 41.9% of his shots — just a hair better than Russell Westbrook’s 41.7% while with the Lakers. Schroder's playing time has been scrutinized by fans, who have pined for more minutes for any number of Lakers wings.
But take a 30-second stretch from the Lakers' win last week against Oklahoma City and you’ll see why Ham believes so much in his 29-year-old sometime starter, sometime reserve point guard.
With the Lakers clinging to a four-point lead late in the third quarter, Lonnie Walker IV drove the baseline before the ball squirted out and sailed up the middle of the court. Thunder reserve Isaiah Joe bolted after it, starting what could be an easy fastbreak.
Schroder, though, quickly turned and sprinted after it, diving in to snatch the loose ball. He passed it to Wenyen Gabriel, who started a fastbreak for the Lakers.
But after Gabriel passed it to a slashing Malik Beasley, the ball was poked loose again. The Thunder tried to throw a baseball pass to Joe, who was still in the Lakers’ backcourt, but Schroder, like a cornerback who had been beaten deep, turned and made a miraculous interception to stop another Thunder fastbreak.
He brought the ball up the court, drew a foul, fell to the court and stayed there — his lungs grabbing for air.
“I almost passed out,” he said with a laugh later that night.
“And as coaches, that’s what we preach. That’s what we’ve been preaching since Day 1, competitiveness, togetherness and accountability,” Ham said. “So, you saw that. That was on full display tonight and I expect it to continue and to become even greater.”
Some other numbers bear out what that moment showed.
Among players who began the season with the Lakers, only Anthony Davis and LeBron James have higher individual net-ratings, a metric that shows the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions with a specific player on the court. Schroder is a plus-2.9 behind 3.8 for Davis and 3.7 for James. D’Angelo Russell, who has played only 11 games since being acquired has a whopping plus-10.4 rating. Austin Reaves is the only other Laker with a positive rating at plus 2.5.
Schroder has swung between the bench and starting lineup ever since he returned from a thumb surgery that sidelined him the first 13 games of the season.
He’s missed only one game since then, the Lakers going 34-28 since Schroder recovered from the torn ligament in his thumb, a pace that would have the Lakers in fourth in the West had they played at that pace all season. The Lakers are currently ninth at 37-38 as they begin a four-game trip in Chicago on Wednesday.
It’s been a satisfying return to Los Angeles, in large part, for Schroder, who spent the post-bubble season playing in an empty Staples Center.
It was part of the reason why he returned on a veteran's minimum deal in free agency — unfinished business, he said, from a season that ended with a disappointing performance in a playoff series against the Phoenix Suns.
He flashed the same hustle that season, his double-dive for a loose ball in a win against Denver still fresh in Davis’ memory.
When he made the same kind of play last week, though, Schroder got to bask in the praise from the crowd that filled the building.
"It’s a lot of energy, man. He plays with such a good passion. He’s energetic," Davis said. "That’s how he plays, he’s scrappy and he saves a fastbreak, comes back down and draws a foul. He’s kind of another spark. Got the crowd into it. But that’s Dennis. That’s how he plays.
“… He’s leaving it all on the floor. Everyone is. I mean, the position that we’re in, you got to be able to leave it all on the floor, give 110%. And he’s giving like 150. He’s leaving it all on the floor, laying everything out on the line for us to get a win. And it’s contagious.”
It’s also exhausting, the wear and tear Schroder carried during his walk from the massage table back to his locker.
Yet he smiles as he slowly gets ready to head home to his family, where he said he’ll get his legs back underneath him.
Then, it’s back to work.
“Whatever the team needs right now,” Schroder said, “I just try to get it done.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.