Trying to make it as a professional athlete is inherently stressful. Jobs are scarce, competition fierce, and each and every mistake could be the one that costs you your spot and the millions of dollars that come with it. Factor in that most athletes are in their early twenties — or younger — when this mountain of pressure is heaped upon them, and it’s a wonder that we don’t see more crack under the strain.
The young players on the Los Angeles Lakers certainly aren’t exempt from the stress. Their coach, Byron Scott, practices “tough love,” believing that these moldable young men need to be pushed rather than nurtured. Public criticism outpaces compliments, which is a shock for players who have spent their entire lives up to this point being talked up as “the man” on their youth, high school, and college teams.
Bank accounts swell, as do the number of “friends” who appear, looking to get a piece of the financial windfall. More money, more problems.
On the court, star guard Kobe Bryant is in his final season and as inspiring as it must be to play alongside a childhood hero, he also provides — for better or worse — a crutch for the youngsters to lean on. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak recently asserted that Kobe’s presence actually takes some of the heat off of the younger players, though many pundits feel that he holds them back and stifles their development.
Regardless of how you view Bryant’s impact on the young players, there is no denying that his presence can create a circus-like, surreal atmosphere, particularly on the road where fans and media members are relishing their final opportunity to glimpse the Black Mamba in action.
To complicate things further, the Lakers are blessed with a massive fan base that makes them boatloads of money. The downside is that Los Angeles supporters are not known for their patience, and with Bryant on the way out, they are desperate to anoint a new heir apparent.
With the team still in draft pick debt due to the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard trades, fans are acutely aware of how crucial it is that every move that the Lakers make is a good one. The margin of error is razor thin and should Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, or any of the other young Lakers not pan out, it will be a major setback for the franchise and source of anguish for the fans. There simply aren’t enough picks in the bank to make up for a miss.
Add it all up and that’s a Shaq-sized amount of pressure to place on a young man.
“Most rookies enter the league so timid, really nervous. They were ‘the man’ in college and now going to the NBA, you’re dealing with grown men, you’re dealing with superstars. You’re dealing with financial endorsements that are massive.”
Meanwhile, we live in a culture that demands instant gratification. The internet and mobile devices have given us access to more information than anyone has ever had in all of human history. When you have that kind of power at your fingertips, it’s easy to grow impatient. Kids today can barely be bothered to open a textbook or a dictionary because Google provides the answer they are looking for so much faster. Adults can’t even sit through a stoplight without checking their phones to see what they missed on social media while driving from point A to point B. In a world that is moving at ludicrous speed, waiting is simply intolerable (Tom Petty agrees).
This manifests in the sports world as a rush to judgment, with talking heads engaged in a mad scramble to label players as future stars, busts, and everything in between.
Case in point, according to a recent ESPN report, D’Angelo Russell is the only young Laker who has a chance to be even an above-average starter. The report attacked Julius Randle’s struggles to score efficiently, Jordan Clarkson’s ability to succeed as a starter, and Larry Nance Jr.’s ability to create his own shot, using those shortcomings as reasons why they won’t make the impact that Lakers fans are hoping for.
Keep in mind that each of these players is in the infancy of their NBA careers, with a long road to travel before they get anywhere close to their peak.
In our scramble identify and then deify future stars we craft a narrative that anyone who isn’t instantly dominant must be considered a bust. This is particularly the case this season, when rookies Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis came roaring out the gates and set the bar high for their peers. When some young players are thriving well beyond expectations, the tendency is for fans and media members to look at the players falling short of the frontrunners and wonder why they aren’t keeping pace.
However, not all players develop at the same rate. There was a time when James Harden was considered a bust, and Andrea Bargnani was the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki. Oops. Player development is in inexact science, and placing labels on them too soon can be problematic.
For the Lakers, Jordan Clarkson was the 46th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, yet was selected to the All-Rookie first team, indicating that he was one of the top five players in his draft class. While he is playing off the ball more this season thanks to the arrivals of D’Angelo Russell and Lou Williams, Clarkson has been effective by using his quickness to knife to the basket and has also improved his ability to shoot the three. The pessimists among us have compared Clarkson to Jerryd Bayless and Rodney Stuckey, using them as evidence that the Lakers haven’t found a star, but rather simply a scorer off the bench.
Of course, this analysis discounts Clarkson’s drive and determination to improve as a player. The will to grow as an athlete, to not be satisfied with mediocrity, plays an important role in a player’s career, and it’s something that can’t be measured by statistical analysis.
One could just as easily make that argument that there is a lot of Monta Ellis in his game, who has spent the vast majority of his NBA career as a starter and has been a potent weapon on the offensive end for nearly a decade. Clarkson’s ability to effectively score from the mid range out of the pick-and-roll and off screens is very Monta-esque, and he has even begun to add a some nice spins in the paint to lose over-aggressive defenders.
Will he ever get to that level? Exceed it? We don’t know, but I certainly wouldn’t bet against a 23 year old who has already shown so much.
Meanwhile, Julius Randle has been skewered for his struggles, and from purely a statistical standpoint some of the concerns may indeed be valid. Randle has struggled to finish at the rim, and his jumper has been suspect at best.
We also can’t forget that he looked like a man among boys to start the season, bullying his way to the basket and crushing anyone in his path. Defenders have adapted though, sagging off of him and forcing him to his weak right hand. The once unstoppable force has become a blind bull, needing multiple attempts to finally crash and smash the ball into the basket.
“This league, everybody, they watch tape and they scout. What they’re doing right now is just laying back and letting Julius take the jump shot.”
Again though, we are talking about a 21 year old who is coming off of a major injury and who has played a total of about half of an NBA season. He has also shown that he has a lightning-quick first step that few power forwards can keep up with, the ability to run the break like a guard, and has more rebounds than any rookie OR sophomore. He is also currently 14th in the entire league in boards.
Think about that; Julius Randle barely able to legally buy alcohol and he is the 14th-best rebounder in a league full of grown men.
To say that Randle, in spite of all of his gifts, cannot possibly become the player the Lakers need him to be is asinine. Let’s not cast all of that excellence aside because a young player hit the rookie wall and is dealing with some adversity.
The young Lakers have a lot to overcome, from Kobe’s retirement and ravenous fans to media scrutiny and their coach’s criticisms. Now isn’t the time for hot takes and pessimism, nor cutting them down for what they aren’t (yet). Yes, the Lakers are desperate for a star, but patience is a virtue. For the first time in decades, Los Angeles has young, talented pieces with a world of potential. Let’s give them a chance to show us what they can be rather than tell them what they can’t be.
Oh, and Festus Ezeli says Larry Nance Jr. is for real.