Heading into the 2015-16 NBA season for the Los Angeles Lakers, some of the team’s “sophomores” are actually producing at a very encouraging level. Julius Randle may still “feel” like a rookie to those of us observing due to last year’s injury, but the 20-year-old is clearly showing signs of at least benefiting from being around the team while rehabbing.
“Julius [Randle] is an animal,” Roy Hibbert declared after the Lakers’ second preseason game last week. “He’s the future of this team. He’s a future face of the NBA. That boy can play.” Hibbert concluded.
That certainly sounds like high praise for a player that has played all of 14 minutes of actual NBA basketball (regular season), but those that were around the team throughout the summer couldn’t help themselves from showering the power forward’s efforts with praise. Kobe Bryant, who might know a thing or two about assessing basketball players, echoed similar sentiments as the 20-year veteran referred to Randle as “Lamar Odom in Zach Randolph’s body” recently as well.
At 6’9 and listed at 250 pounds — although he may be even lighter at this stage — he’s in phenomenal shape for a man that has undergone two significant surgical procedures (leg and foot) within the last 11 months. He has an exceptional first step for a man of his size, and seems to be finding more appropriate times to utilize it as the game appears to be “slowing down” around him. Although the results have yet to come, one look at how much smoother and more comfortable he looks when presented with the open look from the mid-range tells you how much work Randle has put into extending his range.
Randle’s willingness to turn-and-face and take open looks from the outside will actually make his first step that much more effective once he is able to knock them down with regularity. When you’re as strong and aggressive as Randle tends to be, foul trouble could be a concern in the early going.
If Randle continues to make plays like this (courtesy of our Trevor Lane), he’ll quickly make believers of even the most staunch of critics. His preseason performances have, at the very least, raised a few eye brows of those that may have questioned just how effective the former Kentucky Wildcat could be at this level. Frankly, he’s deserved every bit of the praise his teammates offered, and has given us every reason to think this front office might just have another special player to serve a prominent role in returning the team to a successful path.
As we discussed in a recent Lakers Nation roundtable, fellow second-year player Jordan Clarkson could very well challenge to lead this team in scoring when it is all said and done; which, quite frankly, simply wouldn’t have even been a consideration in previous years for a roster with Kobe Bryant’s name on it. Like Randle, Clarkson enters the year with high expectations from the organization and fans alike. Unlike, his teammate, Clarkson was able to endure a relatively slow start to his inaugural year and was actually one of the most impressive rookie’s around the league from February through the end of the regular season.
His Rookie of the Month (March – 15.8 points, 5.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game) and All-Rookie First Team selections weren’t enough to prevent some from questioning whether a good portion of his production should be attributed to the old adage of “big numbers for a bad team.” To Clarkson’s credit, not only did he avoid allowing such relative personal success to go to his head, but it almost seemed to fuel the 23-year-old to want to continue improving. Not, necessarily, to disprove any remaining doubt or hesitance, but because the former Missouri Tiger appears to simply have a drive to continue honing and developing his skills.
With Bryant’s eventual ‘curtain call’ looming a lot sooner than later, it would certainly behoove Clarkson (and all the young players) to “soak up” as much information as possible while the opportunity is available. Bryant is literally a walking, talking, ‘shooting’ basketball encyclopedia for this new generation of players.
Clarkson’s commitment to improving was also shown in his new physique as he reportedly added as many as 10-15 pounds of muscle due to a strenuous off-season workout regiment, and looks to be even more explosive than last year. Like Randle, Clarkson’s first step is strong enough to get into the paint quite regularly; and similarly to his versatile power forward, the combo guard would also benefit from continuing to work on his outside shot in order to provide balance to his offensive game. After shooting just 31 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, he looks a lot more comfortable on his three-point stroke so far this preseason.
The two of them have looked better and better with each game, but the Lakers still fell to 1-4 on the preseason. This won’t impact the veterans on the roster, but the psychology of the game means that much more when you are dealing with a group chock full of so many young players still trying to adjust to playing at this level, let alone learn how to win together.
To be clear, while the results of these games don’t ultimately matter, it would be nice to see the team find a way to continue growing and improving while also transitioning into the regular season with at least a taste for what it feels like to succeed together. Clarkson and Randle are two of the players that have shown an ability to do so individually, but the coaching staff will simply have to find a way to get such “gains” to translate into the group’s overall success. With so many young and viable talents to work with, there are certainly less enviable positions to be in.