By Will Reeve
The Los Angeles Lakers enter the 2015-16 season with more uncertainty about team expectations than ever before. Which begs the question, what would a successful season actually look like for the purple and gold?
The answer does not have much to do with Kobe Bryant nor the team’s win and loss record, or even a playoff berth — as hard as that is for fans to digest — it truly begins and ends with individual development of the team’s future core pieces.
From the moment D’Angelo Russell was drafted second overall he began the process of polarizing an entire fan-base; and his summer league performance only served to expand the gap. However, before you judge too harshly, let’s set some realistic expectations for the 19-year old out of Ohio State.
By the numbers, the most important stat for Russell isn’t points, assists, fouls or even the dreaded turnovers that plagued the youngster during Summer League play. It’s minutes-per-game. Not just for Russell, but for all of the Lakers young players.
If Russell is able to stay on the floor for 30-36 minutes per game for 82 games, that means his stats are likely in order but most importantly, it means he’s getting the playing time he needs to blossom and develop.
While this might sound overly simplistic for a guard selected so high, it is the reality of what the Lakers need to focus on. If he’s playing 30+ minutes every game the Lakers are insuring their top draft pick is: engaged, healthy, learning, while also giving the team the opportunity to see if he was the right pick. If the sample size is too small, the questions only begin to mount.
Just look at the case of Julius Randle, who many view more favorably as a long-term prospect over Russell, we simply still do not know what he brings. He didn’t play enough and now we are faced with more questions than answers.
Can he stay healthy? Does he understand that just because he can handle the ball that he doesn’t have to dribble from the top of the key into two guys waiting for him in the lane repetitively? Will he develop a consistent mid-range jumper? Does he have a great basketball IQ?
Again, none of these questions can be answered effectively without an ample sample size of playing time.
Which brings us to the final core piece, and surest bet in my opinion, for the Lakers future: Jordan Clarkson. Clarkson was the steal of the 2014 NBA Draft when he was selected at No. 46 overall.
While Clarkson only started 38 games last year on what was essentially a D-League roster, he made his presence known. If Clarkson, who averaged 25 minutes-per-game last year, had played 36 minutes-per-game his numbers would have looked like this in 2014: 17.1 points, 83 percent FT, 45 percent FG, 2 turnovers, 1 steal, 5 assists and 5 rebounds per.
You simply can’t afford to keep a 23 year-old player who is so explosive and productive off of the floor, which means that Kobe Bryant must play at small forward this year.
However, much like Summer League, Clarkson was playing alongside guys that are not NBA starters and we will not know what he truly brings to the table without him getting dedicated playing time for the entire year.
As a life-long Lakers fan, this new-found logic and focus is hard for even me to digest. However, it is the reality of the Lakers’ state. If Lakers Nation can take this focus into the year, they’ll likely save themselves a lot of headaches.
Will Reeve is a contributing writer to Lakers Outsiders, you can follow him on Twitter @WillReeveJr or connect with him on Facebook here.