As the young core of the Lakers continues to grow and become more comfortable in the NBA, many questions will be asked about their abilities. That is entirely fair; no one knows if any of these young players will be great players in the league, even if they are currently playing at a high level in their rookie or sophomore seasons.
Among the questions most often asked will be whether D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson will be able to play together long-term. This is a valid concern, as both are high usage guards who do their best work when they are allowed to dominate the ball to this point in their careers. However, over the course of the season there has been enough evidence to suggest that the two young guards will be able to coexist in the future.
On the surface, playing Clarkson and Russell together seems like it would result in the two taking turns getting their own shot. However, numbers suggest that they have been able to work together within the offense. Thus far, Russell has assisted on 21 of Clarkson’s field goals, a solid 11.5% of the latter’s made baskets all season. This is in spite of Russell and Clarkson’s minutes being staggered as one has spent the last two weeks playing off the bench while the other has started.
That staggering of minutes may or may not follow the duo throughout their Lakers’ careers as a result of coaches wanting to leave one offensive playmaker on the floor at all times. However, the fact that the two have been able to connect at such a high level in the short amount of time spent playing together is a promising sign for their ability to coexist.
There are multiple causes for this slightly unpredicted attribute. For one, Russell has been an incredible playmaker even as a rookie. The rookie assists on 21.3% of made field goals when he is on the court, already good for being in the top quarter of the league among those who play at least 25 minutes per game. That number when compared to some of the better passers in the league today’s rookie seasons shows Russell’s worth as a playmaker, even if he is currently a step below those players (chart via the invaluable Basketball Reference):
It is worth mentioning here that the Lakers as a whole are a terrible assisting team in a system that values isolation play, not to mention that they seem to miss many open and easy looks (not that I can gauge this with any stats). Furthermore, Russell averages fewer minutes per game by far than all but one of those players. That Russell has been able to stay close to some very good passers while playing way too few and inconsistent minutes and contributing to a low-assist offense shows his worth as a playmaker quite clearly.
Not all of the credit should go to Russell and his playmaking, however. Clarkson deserves a ton of praise for noticeable changes to his game, leading to his being a capable teammate next to Russell. The sophomore guard has evolved into a good off-ball threat, especially as a result of his improved shooting. Clarkson is shooting 35% from three this season, a number that has dropped off from his start as a result of injuries and an expected regression to the mean. Nevertheless, that is a noticeable improvement from last year’s 31% mark.
Clarkson is now, at worst, a league average shooter from deep, something that should be an important quality of someone playing next to a great passer. He will almost certainly improve on his marksmanship in the next year or two, and if he can get close to a 40% accuracy rate, his game will flourish alongside Russell’s.
On top of Clarkson’s improvement in terms of his shooting has been progress in how he gets those shots. An incredible 97% of Clarkson’s three point field goals have been assisted. That shows great work as a spot-up threat and less ball domination. In fact, Clarkson is putting up a very solid effective field goal percentage of 59%. Despite his recent regression, the sophomore is still showing great accuracy when he is allowed to spot-up and fire away.
Perhaps the greatest sign of Clarkson getting the ball in positions where he can fire away at will is the following set of numbers: 11.5% of Clarkson’s shots come when he is wide open (characterized by the nearest defender being at least six feet away), 10.5% of his long range shots from at least ten feet away are in wide open scenarios, and an incredible 37.2% of his shots come when he holds the ball for fewer than two seconds. Unsurprisingly, his eFG% is greater than 57% in all three of those scenarios. With Russell at his side, Clarkson has become an efficient spot-up threat, able to get his improved shot up with no hesitation. That is a great indicator of how Clarkson and Russell can work together in the same backcourt for years to come.
While it is difficult to balance the load on two ball-dominant guards, finding that equality can be monumental for a team. With both players able to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, the offense can flourish. Having one player get to the rim to collapse the defense before passing out to the other can lead to open threes as well as multiple breakdowns of a scrambled defense frantically closing out. The Houston Rockets struggled at times last season because James Harden was the only player capable of consistently breaking down the defense while creating shot opportunities for himself and for others. The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, meanwhile, have multiple players who can both shoot and attack hard closeouts by dribbling the ball.
The Lakers are clearly far away from those elite teams, but they have the makeup of an elite offense once the young players are better developed and a more efficient and useful system is brought in. Having an elite playmaking prospect is fantastic. But having a player alongside him who can on occasion reverse the roles and become the playmaker is even more valuable:
Perhaps the dynamic between Russell and Clarkson never reaches its full potential. But that does not matter much right now. In the first and second season, respectively, for these guards, the Lakers have found a strong on-court relationship. Add to that Julius Randle, another effective ball-handler at a more unique position, and you have the makings of a deep offensive system. There should not be much doubt that there is potential for these building blocks to co-exist at a high level.
However, for that full potential to be reached, the Lakers must give it all the time possible to develop. They would be wise to allow the two guards to spend large portions of the game on the court together, especially in closing minutes. That has unfortunately not been the case over the course of the season, especially has Russell has been relegated to the bench. That slows down the progress and development of this dynamic, and who knows how long it would take for it to fulfill its full potential anyway. The important thing to note is that that potential does exist and it seems more than likely that it will be a key to the future success of the franchise if it is nurtured properly.
All stats from NBA.com unless otherwise stated