The Los Angeles Lakers can officially say they have beaten an NBA team this preseason in a full, four-quarter game. Their two previous wins were against Maccabi Haifa and the Golden State Warriors in a game called just before the end of the third quarter because of court conditions.
Tonight, they defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 104-102, courtesy of Ryan Kelly’s drive and slam over Noah Vonleh with two seconds left. Yes, you read that correctly. Aside from the Kelly heroics, there were some key takeaways from tonight’s game as the Lakers draw closer to wrapping up their preseason campaign.
Marcelo Mania: If someone told me before training camp that the Lakers would have a rookie point guard dazzle in the preseason with his tremendous court vision and creative passing ability, I — along with everyone else — would have said D’Angelo Russell, without hesitation. After all, he was the No. 2 pick in the draft. Instead, the 32-year-old rookie, Marcelo Huertas, has been stealing the show.
Huertas has operated effectively out of high pick-and-roll sets, manipulating defenders and creating passing lanes that seemingly did not exist. He has had several stretches where he creates and finds an open shot for a teammate, possession after possession. His wizardry with the basketball has people resembling his game to a similar style of Steve Nash’s, although let’s be sure not to get carried away with that.
After missing the first five preseason games due to a few different reasons, Huertas has quickly gone from unknown to a virtual lock for the final 15-man roster. Along with his ability to create offense for others, his experience and knowledge could be a tremendous mentorship tool for Russell and his development this season. That is certainly something to keep an eye on.
Agg-Russ-ive: Russell has had his fair share of struggles early on in both summer league and preseason play, as many would expect from a 19-year-old playing probably the toughest position there is in the game of basketball. At times, it looks like he has it in his brain that he absolutely has to make a play whenever he gets the ball. Whether it be by scoring or setting up a teammate, there are times that Russell puts too much responsibility on his own shoulders, instead of just initiating the offense and playing within it.
Obviously, the ability to make plays is why his name was called second overall back in June, so it needs to be a primary force in his game. With that being said, the challenge for him moving forward will be to find the right balance between being a playmaker and allowing others to create for him. Naturally, it should come over time, as he has shown flashes of both aspects at different points of these games.
Tonight, he looked to score, especially in the fourth quarter. He finished with 12 points on five-of-eight shooting, with eight points coming in the final 3:29. Running pick-and-roll action, he was very effective coming off the screen and utilizing his pull-up jumper. One of them, he had to double-clutch to prevent the shot from being blocked, but still knocked it down. Russell also took a smaller defender into the post and hit a fadeaway jumper, showing the versatility that his size at the point guard position may present.
Who makes the cut?: As the preseason winds down, the Lakers will now have to make a few roster cuts to get down to the maximum limit of 15 players. Jonathan Holmes finally got back into the action tonight, only to have his night — and hopes of making the roster — cut short because of a separated shoulder. He sustained the injury after deflecting a pass and diving on the floor for the loose ball. Holmes then somehow passed the ball with said shoulder and his efforts resulted in a bucket in transition for Tarik Black. An outstanding effort by Holmes, but a tough break for the rookie.
Michael Frazier played 12 minutes tonight, missing both of his shot attempts. Along with Holmes, he seems to be a certain roster cut at this point, leaving two more to be made.
It seems as though either one of Robert Upshaw or Robert Sacre will make the final roster, but it is a toss up as to which one it will be. Sacre is an established player that can provide his contributions right now, while Upshaw is a project with a higher ceiling down the road, but currently very raw and needing a lot of refinement.
That would leave only one roster spot available for probably Kelly, Jabari Brown, or Metta World Peace. Will Kelly’s heroics be enough to maintain his place on the roster? Do the Lakers feel they need more depth at guard with Brown? Should World Peace be on the roster to continue his mentorship of Julius Randle? These are all questions the front office and coaching staff will have to address over the next few days as they trim the roster to 15 players.