The Kobe Era is almost over. Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is retiring in a week, and the most popular team in the league needs to find an heir apparent to pass the torch to if they want to keep their ravenous fan base tuning in. Filling the Black Mamba’s sneakers will be a Herculean task, leading many to wonder whether the current roster has anyone capable of bearing the weight.
Bryant himself recently weighed in on the issue. When he was asked if any of his teammates have what it takes to lead the Lakers, he responded, “No. If you have to ask that question, the answer is already there. Torches never get passed. You have to earn that.”
Blunt as always, most took Kobe’s comments to be something of a shot at his struggling supporting cast. However, it’s hard to argue with his logic, as no Laker has definitively taken the reins this season.
Head Coach Byron Scott echoed those sentiments. When asked whether Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle or D’Angelo Russell could be the team’s next star, he said “It’s going to take a hell of a lot of work. All three of those guys have talent, no doubt about it… But they have to spend a whole lot of time on that end of the floor and a whole lot of time in the film room.”
Perhaps even more damning, Scott asserted that “it would be nice” if the Lakers could find their next leader in free agency rather than depend on the development of young players.
Unfortunately, most star players these days don’t hit free agency until their late 20’s, and as such they don’t have time to waste seasons while the Lakers gradually get back to contention. For the past three summers, the Lakers have struck out on the big stars they have pursued, and that trend won’t likely change until the team proves they can win.
No, in spite of Scott’s hopes for an Alpha free agent, the Lakers best bet for finding a star to lead them back to the promised land is through the development of their young talent. They have three intriguing young talents in Clarkson, Randle, and Russell, but which of them have the best chance of carrying the torch?
Let’s dig in.
The Lakers flat-out stole Clarkson from the clutches of the Washington Wizards during the 2014 draft, paying just $1.8 million for the pick used to select him. Since then Clarkson has done nothing but exceed expectations.
He took over a starting spot in January of his rookie year and hasn’t relinquished it since. Clarkson was so outstanding that he was named to the All-Rookie first team, a major surprise in a draft that included big names like Randle, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, and Aaron Gordon. Injuries were certainly a factor, but Clarkson’s rise was nonetheless impressive.
Still, there are legitimate questions about Clarkson’s long-term potential. He isn’t a true point guard thanks to his mediocre passing skills, and his ability to defend shooting guards can sometimes be compromised thanks to his small frame.
Clarkson is, by definition, a combo guard, and while that’s certainly more en vogue than it was a few years ago it does lead to questions of whether his best role will ultimately be as an off-the-bench scorer. At 23 years old he is certainly still a young player but doesn’t have quite as high of a ceiling as Russell, who is just barely 20.
Conservatively, Clarkson appears to be heading down the path that Monta Ellis forged years ago. A peek at their per-36 minute stats at the same age shows that they are eerily similar, which isn’t a bad thing (courtesy of basketball-reference.com).
Rk Player Season Age G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS 1 Jordan Clarkson 2015-16 23 72 72 2315 6.7 15.5 .434 1.5 4.3 .351 5.2 11.2 .465 2.4 3.0 .800 1.3 3.1 4.4 2.8 1.2 0.1 1.9 2.4 17.3 2 Monta Ellis 2008-09 23 25 25 892 7.8 17.4 .451 0.3 1.0 .308 7.5 16.3 .460 3.1 3.8 .830 0.6 3.8 4.4 3.8 1.6 0.3 2.7 2.7 19.1
Clarkson is developing a reputation as a hard worker, and his efforts to grow as a shooter since last season are certainly noticeable. Should he greatly improve his defense over the summer, then his stock will certainly rise, but for the time being it doesn’t appear that Jordan Clarkson is the type of player that the Lakers can build their future around. Monta Ellis-types can be fantastic players, but they aren’t Alpha-level stars.
Still one heck of a pick at 46th overall, though.
When the Lakers snagged Julius Randle with the seventh pick in the 2014 Draft they were somewhat surprised that he dropped to them. Randle was a blue-chip prospect out of Kentucky, who was being billed as a more-athletic version of Zach Randolph. Finally, it appeared that the Lakers would have a star power forward on their roster.
Unfortunately, Randle lost his rookie season thanks to a leg injury but has been a pleasant surprise this year. He has been somewhat up and down, but looking at the season as a whole Randle has made steady improvements, particularly with his field goal percentage. His herky-jerky offensive style and double-clutch shots can be a bit awkward, but it’s effective.
On the surface, Randle doesn’t appear to be the type of player who can be the star the Lakers need. While he certainly has potential, his deficiencies as a shot blocker and as an outside shooter will likely prevent him from reaching a transcendent level.
However, in some ways Randle is unique. There aren’t many players who can match his combination of strength and athleticism, and even fewer who can also handle the ball like he can. He isn’t just the Zach Randolph clone that many pegged him to be coming out of Kentucky.
Kobe Bryant famously called him “Lamar Odom in Zach Randolph’s body”, and that description does appear to be accurate. Randle’s work on the boards makes him a safe bet for a double-double on a nightly basis, but his ball handling, passing, and surprising speed also allow him to be effective running the fast break.
He will never be a great rim protector. He’s slightly undersized and doesn’t have the best wingspan, which means the Lakers will have to be careful to pair him with a top-level shot blocker in the paint.
His outside shooting, on the other hand, absolutely can (and should) improve. Randle is currently hitting just 29 percent of his shots outside of six feet, which absolutely cannot continue if he is going to fully realize his potential. It’s going to take years of work, but if he goes the Blake Griffin route and develops a dependable jumper he’s going to be awfully hard to stop.
That’s where Randle’s mentality comes into play. He’s like a wrecking ball on the floor, constantly looking for someone to smash through. Every day he takes on players bigger than he is, and that never-quit tenacity that he displays bodes well for his future skill development.
Randle also isn’t afraid of the big moment, recently hitting a game-winner against the Miami Heat. During the preseason, he infamously shouted “he can’t guard me!” while being checked by defensive ace Draymond Green. Randle seems to enjoy rising to a challenge, and that’s a desired trait in a star player.
All things considered, Randle has some of the requisite qualities necessary to become an All-Star in the NBA. However, he’s going to have to be surrounded by a very particular set of players to maximize his skills, specifically three-point shooters and rim protectors.
In the modern NBA though “Lamar Odom in Zach Randolph’s body” could end up being exactly what the Lakers need.
Selected with the second overall pick in the 2015 draft, D’Angelo Russell was hyped to the moon as the next great assist man. Clips of him firing left-handed bounce passes were dangled in front of hopeful Lakers fans, with some envisioning the second coming of Magic Johnson.
However, that’s not Russell’s game. From time to time, he will indeed throw a highlight-level pass, and his court vision is excellent, but he isn’t a pure point guard. At least not yet, anyway.
Most of Russell’s best moments this season have come when he is scoring the ball, often coming off of a pick for a pull-up jumper or hitting a three. He’s averaging just 3.4 assists per game and 2.4 turnovers, which speaks to his limited experience playing point guard.
Even so, there is something about Russell that screams “star,” even if the numbers don’t back it up just yet. Russell has a confidence to him, sometimes bordering on cockiness, which serves him well in a league where there is little room to self-doubt.
His game has a sort of Frankenstein feel to it, as though he’s part Stephen Curry, part James Harden, and part Manu Ginobili. All of the things that make those players great- Curry’s shooting and ball handling, Harden’s strength and driving ability, and Ginobili’s instincts- Russell has tried to implement. He’s even thrown in Rajon Rondo’s behind-the-back ball fake for good measure.
A glance at the per-36 minute rookie (courtesy basketball-reference.com) numbers of each of those players shows that Russell isn’t yet on their level, but he isn’t far off either. It also has to be noted that he was the youngest of the bunch during his rookie year.
Rk Player Season Age G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS 1 Stephen Curry 2009-10 21 80 77 2896 6.6 14.2 .462 2.1 4.7 .437 4.5 9.5 .474 2.2 2.5 .885 0.6 3.8 4.4 5.9 1.9 0.2 3.0 3.1 17.4 2 Manu Ginobili 2002-03 25 69 5 1431 4.4 10.0 .438 1.3 3.7 .345 3.1 6.3 .494 3.2 4.3 .737 1.2 2.9 4.1 3.5 2.4 0.4 2.5 4.3 13.2 3 James Harden 2009-10 20 76 0 1738 4.8 12.0 .403 1.9 5.1 .375 2.9 6.8 .424 4.0 5.0 .808 1.0 4.1 5.1 2.8 1.7 0.4 2.2 4.1 15.6 4 DAngelo Russell 2015-16 19 74 42 2053 6.4 15.5 .412 2.1 6.1 .350 4.3 9.5 .453 2.1 2.9 .720 0.8 3.7 4.5 4.4 1.5 0.2 3.1 2.2 17.0
Still, there is a sense that once he figures out how to get all of the borrowed pieces of his game to seamlessly fit together that he will take things to another level, and that’s what the Lakers saw on draft day last summer.
Russell doesn’t have the elite-level athleticism that guards like Russell Westbrook and John Wall are blessed with, but he’s already learning how to use his positioning to make up for it, and his size and length allows him to take smaller players into the post.
Like most young players Russell has been extremely inconsistent. He went on a tear after the All-Star break, but has since cooled off, and he has the tendency to disappear for long stretches of play.
When he’s on, there are flashes of absolute brilliance. Against the Brooklyn Nets, he went bonkers, scoring a career-high 39 points and carrying the Lakers to victory with his heroics down the stretch.
Unfortunately, the Lakers aren’t at a point where they can expect these kinds of explosions from Russell on a nightly basis. In March he had six games of 20 points or more, but also had six where he failed to reach double-digits. Still, the fact that these eruptions are occurring at all is a good sign.
Maturity may be an issue with Russell, and his recent problems involving a leaked video of teammate Nick Young is certainly a concern. Still, the young man has something, a spark that can potentially be stoked into a flame. He’s already a leader on the court, and it’s only a matter of time before he becomes one off it as well.
When you add it all up, it appears that D’Angelo Russell has the best chance of any of the young Lakers of taking a seat on Kobe’s throne. He just isn’t ready for it yet, but then again neither was Kobe himself at the same age. It takes time, and an already anxious Lakers organization will have to practice patience.
In a sense, Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott are absolutely right. There isn’t a player on the Lakers roster prepared to carry the torch next season. However, there are two potential All-Stars and one player who could someday be truly special.
Not a terrible place to be building from after all.