Despite loss to Minnesota, Laker youth shows tremendous promise in summer league opener

The moment Laker fans have had circled on their calendars for several weeks has finally arrived. The NBA Summer League in Las Vegas is officially underway, with the league’s young talent gathered to give fans a glimpse of what the future may hold.

Virtually all of the Lakers’ youthful talent, and a large portion of their projected opening night roster, is on this year’s summer league roster. With that comes high expectations, although such is always the case with this franchise.

The team fell short on the scoreboard in their Vegas opener, losing 81-68 to the Minnesota Timberwolves, headlined by No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and last year’s slam dunk contest champion — Zach LaVine.

However, the performances of each individual player expected to be on the roster this season were beyond encouraging, and should give the fan base plenty to be excited about moving forward.

Jordan Clarkson provided everyone an inordinate amount of optimism last season with his stellar rookie campaign, earning NBA All-Rookie first team honors in the process. On Friday, he picked up right where he left off, duking it out with LaVine for the title of “best player on the floor”. Clarkson tallied 23 points by scoring in a multitude of ways in his 32 minutes of action. Seemingly every time he got the ball in transition, something positive resulted from it.

It seems pretty clear that a giant chip is still on his shoulder from watching 45 players get selected before him in last year’s draft.

His backcourt running mate, D’Angelo Russell, showed flashes of brilliance, especially with his passing and vision. The No. 2 overall pick stuffed the stat sheet with 8 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals. He had some bumps along the way (5 turnovers, 7 personal fouls), but gave us a peek at how great not only he can be as an individual player, but also how dynamic him and Clarkson could be together, because the initial chemistry looks fantastic.

Friday also marked the highly anticipated return of Julius Randle after his devastating injury on opening night last October. Even though he struggled overall (3-9 shooting, only one rebound), Randle was able to get to his spots effectively and get good looks at the basket. His inefficient shooting night shouldn’t be a cause for concern, considering it was his first game action in about 9 months.

The rust was evident, but he seemed to shake some of it off in the second half. Of course, a 20-minute limit meant long periods of sitting on the bench, thus making it more difficult for him to develop a rhythm. It still didn’t stop him from blowing by and dropping the hammer on Adreian Payne with a thunderous second half dunk, though. Physically, Randle looked terrific, which is probably the most important thing at this point.

Tarik Black reminded everyone of his incredible motor and activity. He registered 13 rebounds, along with his 9 points, which included a left-handed slam after he went right by Towns off the dribble. At times, he contested shots extremely well. Other times, he committed far too many fouls. I mean, you need 10 fouls to foul out of a summer league game, and he managed to do so. Granted, referees were calling a foul for any sort of contact at all, on or off the ball, for both teams. But overall, Black showed exactly why he’ll be a rotation player once again this season.

Anthony Brown is expected to have an extremely limited role in his rookie season. He got plenty of burn in his summer league debut, however. Brown had a game-high 34 minutes of playing time, which is indicative of the lack of depth the Lakers will have at the small forward position this season.

His numbers don’t jump off the stat sheet, but Brown played a well-composed game. He didn’t force much, scoring 9 points on 4-8 shooting. Although he definitely has room for improvement defensively, he showed flashes of his potential on that end with his size and length on the wing. Obviously, we know the value of his ability to shoot from the perimeter. What stood out to me was his floor spacing. Brown seemed to really understand the best spots on the floor to be to give his teammates room to operate.

It was a bit of a rough go for Larry Nance, Jr., as he seemed to suffer a minor injury after slipping in the first half. He played 12 minutes, giving us just a brief look at what he might bring to the table right away. At the very least, he’ll provide the Lakers with another high-motor, energetic option. Nance worked relentlessly on the glass, despite only being credited with three boards. He also gave us a preview of his athleticism with a drive to the basket, where he tried to go all Blake Griffin-like on the Timberwolves, but was fouled on the attempt.

Last but not least is the man of the hour, Robert Upshaw, who has reportedly agreed to a two-year deal that will allow him to don a purple and gold uniform. Upshaw was a fan favorite at Thomas and Mack, garnering cheers from a pro-Laker audience every time he went to check-in, or any instance where he was involved in a play.

There were moments where his need for improved conditioning was very clear, allowing an opposing player in for an offensive rebound or simply committing some avoidable fouls. But the vast majority of his time on the court was spent showing us why he is a solidified first-round talent.

Upshaw’s size was daunting for any Timberwolves players with plans to go to the rim. There was one play that Tyus Jones got in the lane, saw Upshaw waiting for him, and he got rid of the ball in a hurry. The big man’s best sequence came in the second half where he swatted away back-to-back shot attempts at the rim, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

Once he’s able to get into better shape, it’ll be very interesting to see everything that he has to offer. The fact that it took the team one look of game action before inking a deal with him is telling. There’s a ton of potential there, and fans should be ecstatic that the Lakers officially have his rights.

Don’t forget that Jabari Brown wasn’t able to play because of an eye injury, either. If they are able to get him back for any of these games in Vegas, it just adds to the dynamic of what is already a fun team to watch.

Despite losing the game, nobody should be discouraged. The players that are expected to be on the regular season roster all showed us why. They gave us a glimpse of what the future of the storied franchise may hold, and it’s one that looks very, very bright.

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