There are only two games left on the Los Angeles Lakers’ preseason schedule, and another roster cut is coming, so now is a good time to take a look at who on the team is trending up and who is trending down.
For clarity’s sake, please note that players are considered to be “Trending Up” or “Trending Down” based on their individual expectations coming into training camp.
Nick Young– No Laker has improved their stock from the offseason to now like Swaggy P has. Not only was he extremely available via trade this summer, but it was rumored that the Lakers were willing to waive Young outright if they couldn’t find a taker for his contract, which has two years and roughly $11 million remaining on it if he exercises his player option next summer.
In other words, Young was so bad on and off the court that the Lakers were rumored to be willing to pay him $11 million to not play basketball for them.
Given his uncertain status, Young’s resurgence has been a very welcome surprise. In the preseason, Young is averaging 22.5 points per 36 minutes on 55 percent shooting from the field and 56 percent from three. While those shooting percentages are not sustainable, his defense has also improved, making a previous area of weakness a newfound strength. At 6’7” with a 7’0” wingspan, Young has the physical profile to be a solid defender but has never had the mentality to pull it off.
Now, thanks to a personal challenge from head coach Luke Walton, it appears that he has finally located his swag on both ends of the court. Here is the real kicker: IF (and it is a big if) Young can continue playing at this level, it wouldn’t be all that crazy for him to decline his player option next summer and explore free agency. Who would have thought that just a few weeks ago?
D’Angelo Russell– With a now-bearded Kobe Bryant enjoying retirement, the Lakers are clearly Russell’s team. There are still questions surrounding the young point guard’s maturity, and whether or not he can truly fill the post-Bryant leadership void, but Russell appears determined to seize the opportunity and stake his claim.
Russell is averaging just over 18.2 points and 4.6 assists per game during the preseason, and that includes two stinkers against Sacramento and Golden State in which he scored just 12 points total. The roller-coaster ride will level out as he matures, and if Russell can settle into consistent averages of over 20 points while getting his turnovers down a bit (3.2 per game), then he has the chance to really be special in the NBA.
Tarik Black– The Lakers decision to sign Tarik Black to a two-year deal worth nearly $13 million this summer was a bit surprising. After all, Black had spent most of last season glued to then-coach Byron Scott’s bench, appearing in only 39 games.
The Lakers didn’t agree with Scott’s assessment of Black, and new coach Walton promised to give him a fair shot this year. So far, the gamble has paid off. The energetic big man is averaging 10.7 rebounds and 2.2 steals per 36 minutes, which highlights not only his strength in the paint but also his versatility to defend the perimeter.
While he isn’t a real shot blocking threat (just two so far this preseason), Black’s surprising agility makes up for it, and it has allowed him to become the clear favorite to back up Timofey Mozgov at center.
Thomas Robinson– The fifth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Thomas Robinson joined the Lakers with little hope of making the team. After all, Los Angeles already had 14 guaranteed contracts, and the final spot appeared nearly certain to go to international big man Yi Jianlian.
Yet Robinson has impressed, even though he has appeared in only four preseason games for an average of eight minutes. Walton recently raved about his work ethic, and it appears that the 25-year-old former King-Rocket-Blazer-Sixer-Net (phew) is going to give his coach some things to really think about before making his final cut. Perhaps the biggest deterrent to Robinson making the team is that his game is too similar to Black’s, but regardless, his stock has certainly gone up this preseason.
Yi Jianlian– After several successful years in the Chinese Basketball Association and an impressive run in the Olympics for China, the Lakers decided that now was the time to bring 2007 sixth overall pick Yi Jianlian back to the NBA. The thought was that Yi, at 7’0 and with a solid outside jumper, would give Walton the stretch five his offense was lacking.
Unfortunately, Yi is shooting just 30 percent from the field in preseason, and while the sample size is tiny (just 13 shots in 36 minutes total), the eye test confirms that Yi’s lack of quickness is cause for concern. The release on his shot has been so slow that it allows defenders to contest on pick-and-pop opportunities, and he has struggled with stronger players in the paint, which was a major issue during his last stint in the league.
On the positive side, it’s very likely that Yi simply needs time to become re-acclimated to the NBA game and that his shooting accuracy will come around. Furthermore, his contract is a unique trade chip, and he has plenty of fans in the large Chinese market, so the chances are still good that he makes the team.
Anthony Brown– When he was drafted in the second round in 2015, Anthony Brown appeared poised to become the three-and-D player that the Lakers had long coveted. Unfortunately, his inaugural campaign was marred by uncharacteristically poor shooting, and while his defense was indeed good, he was often a ghost on the other end of the floor.
Brown has a reputation as being an excellent shooter in practice, but that has yet to consistently translate that to live-game action. He showed some flashes during the preseason, including a perfect 4-4 shooting performance against the Sacramento Kings in just seven minutes, but the biggest problem for Brown hasn’t had much to do with his own play, but everything to do with Nick Young’s.
Both players are competing for minutes as a reserve swingman, and with Young’s defense suddenly much-improved, Brown’s biggest advantage has evaporated. As long as Swaggy P keeps playing at this level, Brown won’t have many opportunities to get off the Lakers’ bench for the second straight season.