Going into this past season the Lakers goal should have been first and foremost to develop the youth on the team. With four rookies and a “sophomore” in Julius Randle the roster was full of young, inexperienced players. While some have exceeded expectations, there are also others who have not quite adapted to the game as quickly in their first season in the league.
With the season finally wrapped up, now is a good time to evaluate each rookie season for the Lakers youngsters. The grades given will not be based entirely on production in the stat sheets or even on the court, but also on how players improved or regressed over the course of the year.
23pts/14reb/.563 FG% vs LAC (1.29.16)
13pts/18reb/10ast/.600 FG% vs DEN (3.25.16)
22pts/15reb/4ast/4stl/.529 FG% vs DAL (11.1.15)
While Julius Randle is technically a second year player, I have him on this list because this was his first real NBA action after suffering a leg injury in the 2014 season opener. This was Laker fans first look at the former seventh overall pick and it was quite a promising year, although there were some ups and downs throughout the season. The chemistry that was built between Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and D’Angelo Russell will go a long way in rebuilding the franchise. Despite dealing with being benched early in the year and constantly being called out by head coach Byron Scott for maturity issues, Randle was able to salvage his season.
Julius managed to dominate the boards all year long on his way to finishing 6th in the league in total rebounds. Rebounding was the most impressive part of his season but Randle showed the capability of putting up large scoring/rebounding outputs but consistenly scored at a solid rate finishing second only behind Karl Anthony-Towns for double-doubles and rebounds for first & second year players. With Julius’ aptitude for rebounding he also found it easy to run in transition and use his speed, strength, and ball handling to score or create for others.
Randle was able to force mismatches with his quickness, inside scoring ability, and bully ball attitude. Although he isn’t a prolific passer and struggles with tunnel vision while driving, Randle showed more promise as a distributer than I imagined he would and it’s something he can build on in the future.
There were many moments during the year where Randle looked every bit as dominating as the Lakers hope he will be, but there are also glaring weaknesses in his game at this point.
Julius struggled from the field and and mightily from mid range, shooting just .362 percent and .227 percent from 3-10 and 10-16 feet respectively. In order to complete his offensive game and create more opportunities attacking the basket he will need to improve on his jump shot. A promising sign was that as the season went along Randle was able to raise his field goal percentage vastly from .353 percent in October to .479 percent in March.
Staying with the theme of shooting, with the way the NBA is shifting to being more perimeter oriented adding reliable 3 point range is what I would like to see Randle do for the upcoming season.
Lastly, one of the biggest issues young players tend to face is on the defensive end of the floor. Coming out of Kentucky Randle wasn’t a highly touted defender which could have proven to be problematic in his rookie season but for the most part he held his own. While there were some lapses and head-scratching moments he was able to use his athleticism and lateral quickness to challenge shots, get in the passing lanes, and display promise as a defender.
Julius has the commitment to become a terrific player for a long time and offered Laker fans a reason to be excited about the future.
39pts/6reb/3ast/8 3’s/.667 FG% vs BKN (3.1.16)
32pts/2reb/2ast/.563 FG% vs NOP (4.8.16)
22pts/4reb/8ast/ .421 FG% vs MEM (2.24.16)
Wow. D’Angelo Russell had to endure one of the most chaotic rookie seasons that I can remember, and above all he dealt with it in an inspiring way. Whether it was the turbulent relationship with Byron Scott, being a highly touted rookie during the Kobe farewell tour, or the incident with Nick Young, there was nothing boring about his rookie season.
When the Lakers took Russell second overall in the 2015 NBA Draft they showed forward thinking and acknowledged the way the NBA is becoming more guard dominant. In his first season D’Angelo came in with a natural feel for the game on the offensive end. There were numerous jaw-dropping passes throughout the year but also he often made the right read on offense when deciding to attack or create.
Additionally, given the roster it’s no surprise that Russell had an absurd amount of assists lost due to teammates missing close shots or simply not catching the ball cleanly. The takeaway there should be that he can make those difficult passes and find open teammates regularly, with hopeful roster improvements those mishandled passes will turn into points soon.
Russell is a larger guard and uses his size to fend off opponents exceptionally well for a rookie. At 6’5 D’Angelo was extremely efficient in the post on smaller guards. Whether it’s drawing contact and getting to the line or finishing with his length over defenders, posting up should become a staple of his game going forward.
Three point shooting was somewhat up and down for him during his rookie year but we can chalk that up to adjusting to the NBA distance. Russell did flash deadly shooting potential throughout the season though, in the month of February he shot .462 percent from distance, splashed 8 threes against Brooklyn in a 39 point game in March, and set a Laker rookie record with 130 threes during the season. I just mentioned the 39 point game which was the highest output of any rookie this season but it wasn’t just a flash in the pan, the rookie added another 30 point game and had thirteen 20 point games during the season, showing that he is capable of breaking out and scoring with high volume.
Entering the season, the knock on Russell was that he wouldn’t be able to defend other guards on a nightly basis. While he will never be a lock-down defender by any means and he got caught falling asleep off the ball at times, there were signs that he could hold his own on that end of the floor. Russell managed to finish 2nd in steals for the rookie class only behind TJ McConnell. He will never have to be an elite defender, but becoming average defensively can certainly help Russell’s confidence going forward.
With Kobe Bryant gone, the most vital player on the Lakers’ roster is D’Angelo Russell. The team took him second overall in hopes that he would become a star, and if he continues on this path the future is bright for Russell.
LARRY NANCE, JR.
17pts/11reb/2stl/.667 FG% vs MEM (12.27.15)
15pts/14reb/1stl/.700 FG% vs PHO (1.3.16)
The Lakers surprised a few people when they took Larry Nance, Jr. in the first round last year but by the end of the season it looks like they made a nice pick. In his first season he proved to be a hard working, energetic big that can give the team added production off the bench.
His exceptionally long frame and leaping ability led to numerous highlight reel dunks and finishes from the rookie out of Wyoming (R.I.P. Festus Ezeli). I am officially starting the petition to get Larry Nance, Jr. to the 2017 dunk contest. In addition to his inside game, he was also able to hit .467 percent and .345 percent from 3-10 and 10-16 feet respectively to provide a possible threat from mid range. Another facet of the game that Nance, Jr. really thrived in was rebounding (8.9 per 36 minutes) and hustling, as he was able to snag countless 50-50 balls that don’t show up in the stat sheet but are significant during the course of a game.
At 6’9 I believe there will be opportunities for Larry to play minutes as a small-ball center under Luke Walton next year. As I noted earlier, he has massive length and athleticism to be able to defend and score while playing the 5.
The most worrisome part of Nance, Jr.’s rookie season was his health, he did manage to play in 63 games but was hindered by a knee injury for some time. In his junior season at Wyoming suffered a torn ACL to that knee and should be a cause for concern if he can’t shake those issues.
If all goes well and health isn’t a problem down the road, Larry contributes in multiple ways which gives him a chance at being a terrific role player going forward.
9pts/7reb/3 3’s/1.000 3p% vs UTA (1.16.16)
10pts/2reb/.400 3p% vs HOU (1.17.16)
When the Lakers selected Anthony Brown out of Stanford with the 34th pick last June, I thought he could develop into a possible 3-and-D role player. Unfortunately, Brown didn’t have the best season as a rookie. The Southern California native only appeared in 29 games for the Lakers (7 with D-Fenders) due to a right foot injury health was a nagging issue all year long.
On the court Brown didn’t seem exceedingly comfortable, he was hesitant shooting the ball and when he did shoot it was with little confidence. Shooting only .286 percent from 3 and .310 percent from the field I’m sure this was a season he’d rather forget.
While offensively the rookie could not find a rhythm, his defense did live up to expectations. Brown utilized his length and athleticism on the wing to contest shots with tremendous consistency. Brown is an intelligent young player and understands where to be on the floor defensively.
The Lakers need a wing that can defend and stretch the floor, and Brown could potentially be that guy in the future, but the importance of next season is substantial.
Marcelo “The Catalyst” Huertas
10pts/9ast/1stl/1blk/.667 FG% vs GSW (3.6.16)
13pts/5ast/3reb/2blk/.600 FG% vs CLE (3.10.16)
Coming in to this season Marcelo Huertas was definitely a major unknown on the roster. The 32-year old rookie spent his last three seasons playing for Barcelona of the Spanish League before coming over to the NBA.
Marcelo was advertised as an incredible passer with a knack for finding open teammates, and he lived up to that in every way during his rookie year.
Even with an offense devoid of movement and few great finishing bigs Huertas was still able to average 7.5 assists per 36 min. A pleasant takeaway came during the last two months of the season when he was able to play well alongside of D’Angelo Russell. With Russell being a bigger guard the Lakers were capable of playing him off the ball and Huertas found the cutting Russell on a number of occasions.
The obvious downside to Marcelo is his inability to show even minimal resistance defensively. He is not a big or physical guard and lacks lateral quickness and athleticism so playing big minutes will never be in the cards for him. If Huertas wants to solidify a spot as a role player he will have to be far more dependable from the 3 point line as well, he only shot .262 percent last season.
While his future with the Lakers is murky, he was always complimentary of the young players and a stand up locker room presence which was refreshing this year.
With all of the ups and downs for the rookies on the roster, the season was inarguably a learning experience in a variety of different facets of being a pro. Next year should provide an opportunity for each of these players to take a step forward under an entirely new head voach in Luke Walton who should be able to get more out of the players on the roster. While they all have certain areas of their individual games to develop and weaknesses to address as a team, there were bright spots throughout the year and next season will surely present even more.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com