The Los Angeles Lakers front office knew two things last October. This was going to be Kobe Bryant’s final NBA season and if they were going to return to prominence in the foreseeable future, their young players needed to signal that they would quickly mature into true NBA stars. Bryant would receive most of the attention, but the real mission this season was assessing whether the Lakers would be justified going “all in” for the future on D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson.
Unfortunately, the results have been inconclusive. The team’s recent victories over the Golden State Warriors and Orlando Magic had everyone proclaiming that Russell, Randle and Clarkson had arrived. This positivity evaporated, however, when they regressed in the following games, eerily resembling the inexperienced players they were at the start of the season. They have been relegated to watching Brandon Bass, Lou Williams, Ryan Kelly, and Marcelo Huertas rally the team from the steep deficits created by the starters. Once again, unheralded Larry Nance, Jr. looks like the most polished all-around young player on the team.
Jordan Clarkson’s scoring average has increased this season from 11.9 to 15.5 points per game. But that statistic is misleading, since Clarkson is taking more shots now (13.8 as opposed to 10.1 last year) and making a lower percentage. Although he has started all year and averaged 32 minutes per contest, assists have dropped from 3.5 to 2.5, shooting percentage has dipped from 44.8 to 43.7, and free throw percentage has gone from 82.9 to 80.6 this season. One aspect of his game which has improved is his three-point shooting, up from 31.4 to 35.3 presently, which is still modest.
Clarkson is a pretty good player on a bad team. However, those who expected him to progress at the same rapid rate he did last season must be disappointed. There was speculation last summer that Clarkson might have a break-out season, but it hasn’t happened. While he has played point guard much of the time, he has emerged as more of a shooter. The fact that his assists are down is another sign that his future may be more as a wing player.
D’Angelo Russell has endured a challenging rookie season and while head coach Byron Scott called him immature, he has actually shown surprising maturity in the face of harsh and sometimes unfair criticism from fans, the media, and his own coach. When he played in last year’s Summer League, Russell looked overwhelmed. He was slow and deliberate, not at all like modern point guards whose blinding speed and quickness are dazzling. He did not show the court-vision that general manager Mitch Kupchak raved about, and he could not hit the side of a barn with his outside shot.
When the season began, Russell was an obligatory starter by virtue of his position in the draft, but Scott lost sight of the fact that this year was supposed to be about player development and not victories, so Russell was replaced in the starting line up by Lou Williams. The team didn’t win any more games, but Scott stubbornly kept Russell on the bench until well after the All-Star break, creating instability for Russell and stunting his development.
Still, Russell has slowly improved this year and has enjoyed an occasional very strong performance. He nearly rallied the Lakers to a victory over the Sacramento Kings in January with a 27-point game, after which he proclaimed, “Y’all ain’t seen nothing yet.” He had an astonishing 39-point performance against the Brooklyn Nets, and he ably led the team to their top victory of the season against the Warriors.
Most of the time, however, Russell has been inconsistent and underwhelming. He has made 42.1 percent of his shots and 35.1 percent of his three-point attempts, which is not bad and certainly an improvement over his early season statistics which were dreadful. He is only making 72.0 percent of his free throws, which is unacceptable. Most troubling, he is averaging only 3.5 assists per game which is poor for someone whose primary talent is supposed to be as a playmaker. In recent games, Scott has gone with Marcelo Huertas in the fourth quarter because of his ability to get other players involved.
Russell appeared to have turned a corner when he was re-inserted as a starter earlier this month, but in recent games, he has looked like the same hesitant player he was when the year started. In comparison, certain rookies who started slowly have been coming on strong since the All-Star break, such as Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns and Justise Winslow of the Miami Heat. Of course, Karl-Anthony Towns is in a league of his own.
Russell needs to finish the season strong for the Lakers to have justifiable confidence that he can lead the team to the playoffs and beyond one day soon. He just turned 20, and it is far too early to give up on him. But, if the Lakers were hoping for proof of his ceiling as an NBA player, the results from this year are inconclusive.
Julius Randle was considered the future face of the franchise until Russell arrived last summer. He missed his entire first season with an injury, so Randle was really a rookie this year and should be judged accordingly. He was overshadowed by the constant focus on Russell, but Randle showed occasional signs that he could be a formidable player. Still, it is not clear how formidable.
Randle was confused and out of control in last year’s Summer League. While he got to the rim with impressive speed and power, he never seemed to actually score. He, too, was a starter when the season began but was eventually benched along with Russell. He did not take the demotion well and became sullen in post-game interviews.
To his credit, Randle continued to play well and emerged as a formidable rebounder, which was crucial once it became clear that Roy Hibbert was the worst 7’2” rebounder in NBA history. For the year, Randle is making only 43.1 percent of his shots which is awful since most of his attempts are around the rim, but he is averaging 10.2 rebounds per game which is outstanding. He is only converting 70.5 percent of his free throws, which must improve since he shows a propensity for getting to the line.
What Randle needs to work on this off-season is well documented. As a left-hander, he must use his right hand because defenders know to cheat to the left, and it is imperative that he convert mid-range jumpers since defenders are laying off him to discourage his drives to the basket. At times, Randle shows little enthusiasm for playing defense, which is a problem.
Randle has received praise from time to time from opposing players, but as the season progressed, the media seemed to downgrade their assessment of his NBA ceiling. Other than his rebounding which has improved enormously, what he did well at the beginning of the year he continues to do well and what he did poorly has not appreciably improved. If he wants to join the ranks of the elite players, he must improve his mid-range shot, learn to finish at the rim with both hands, and dedicate himself to giving maximum effort on defense.
The Lakers must decide what to focus on this summer in the draft and free agency, which will depend on their assessment of Russell, Randle and Clarkson and whether they can finish the season strong. With this uncertainty, do the Lakers build around these three players or trade one or more if there are better replacements available at their positions (e.g., Ben Simmons, DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford, Mike Conley)? Right now, it is a crapshoot, which is precisely the position the Lakers hoped to avoid.