In a new short series for Lakers Outsiders, I will be reviewing all of the young players currently on the Lakers’ roster who project to be part of the team’s future going forward. I’ll be looking at their play in the 2015-16 season as well as predicting how they will fare next year with development and a new coaching staff.
As I’ve written about each member of the Lakers’ incumbent youth movement, I have realized one thing. Each of these players has a floor and ceiling that spans a wide range of possibilities for how their careers turn out.
Jordan Clarkson could be a sixth man that solely provides scoring or he could become a very nice complementary piece on a starting lineup.
Julius Randle could only be an energy big off the bench who rebounds at a high rate, or he could become one of the most unique players in the league as a do-it-all forward.
Larry Nance, Jr. could be a player known solely for his athleticism and dunking ability, or he could become the ultimate Swiss Army knife that perfectly complements the rest of the core.
Anthony Brown may become the highly coveted three-and-D wing he was drafted to be; he may also be a solid defender whose lack of offense makes him borderline unplayable.
Even Tarik Black could become a legitimate rotational piece on a good team as a rim protector and pick-and-roll threat, or he could be just a 15th man for another couple of seasons before fading away into obscurity.
The Lakers as a whole follow that same model. There is one scenario in which every player gets extremely close to their ceiling and the team as a whole rides their success. There is another in which nearly every player shows little to no growth, and the team suffers and becomes destined for mediocrity.
This is all to say: nothing about the Lakers is a given. Now entering the fourth season since they lost Dwight Howard to free agency, they are still very much in the midst of a rebuild. There is no telling how long the rebuild will last, how long management will stay the same, or how long until ownership becomes frustrated and tries to trade for a star in an effort to win right away.
But even in the midst of the load of questions placed on and around LAL, they may have found one sure thing: D’Angelo Russell.
Russell had one of the most up-and-down rookie seasons in recent memory. He had struggles on the court, he was berated by his coach, and he was the butt of endless jokes and drama after a mistake off the court.
Yet somehow, in the middle of all the uncertainty about him and the Lakers, Russell managed to have himself a more than solid first year in the NBA.
In a season that went mostly unnoticed, Russell put up some shocking stats. He made 130 threes in his first season, the most by any Lakers’ rookie and the 15th most by any rookie in NBA history. He was one of nine rookies, age 20 or younger, ever to put up 16 points, four rebounds, and four assists per 36 minutes. In some ways, what D’Angelo did one year removed from high school was historic.
Nevertheless, those numbers are often noisy and do not prove much. Russell’s positives were great but there are plenty of negative takeaways as well. Russell’s defense, especially off the ball, was often subpar. Many times, he was careless with the ball both in dribbling and passing it, leading to unnecessary turnovers. His shooting was inconsistent, with the point guard finishing at 41% from the field for the year. That’s not a terrible mark for a rookie, but something he needs to improve upon, to say the least.
Fortunately, most of Russell’s issues are easily fixable. With more time and experience under his belt, Russell should grow only more comfortable. He showed that against lower competition in the Las Vegas Summer League. Now, he will have the opportunity to do so in the NBA.
The biggest takeaway from D’Angelo Russell’s rookie year was not the numbers (you have no idea how hard it is for me to type that). What really stood out about Russell were the numerous NBA-level skills that he already possesses to some extent so early in his career.
Russell’s pick-and-roll game was seen as his strong-point before even entering the league, but he proved it to a great extent in the 2015-16 season. Most notable among Russell’s skills out of the PNR was his veteran-like ability to create and keep space using his body.
Russell routinely drove inside off of a pick and kept his defender on his hip. That move allowed him to draw fouls on numerous occasions. More importantly, it put pressure on the big man help-defender to either leave Russell with an open look in the mid-range or give up a lane to cutters behind him.
This is a move that Chris Paul has made a living off of. Russell’s size could allow him to do so with even more success in the near future.
The PNR was where Russell shined throughout the season. His passing in those scenarios, especially, was a blessing for the Lakers. While he did not rack up assists at the high level that many wanted, he did flash some elite passes when given the opportunity.
Another surprising aspect of Russell’s game was his proficiency in the post. Coming into the league at just 19 years old, no one expected the point guard to have a strong low-post game.
Most assume that the post-up is dead in the NBA, but there is certainly a place for it in certain situations. Russell’s size at the point guard position will create numerous mismatches down low.
More importantly, Luke Walton’s system in Los Angeles will create post up opportunities through ball movement with players cutting around it. D’Angelo showed the ability to make quick decisions in the post which is crucial in order to prevent a stagnant offense and turnovers in the face of double teams. Russell’s size and vision combined with his proficient scoring down low can become a huge weapon for an efficient offense.
Yeah, Kobe likes it.
Defensively, Russell showed signs of proficiency but was inconsistent. His biggest issue was off the ball, where he routinely watched the ball instead of his man.
D’Angelo’s on-ball defense was much better. He stayed in front of opponents in iso sets. In the pick-and-roll, Russell was usually proficient in fighting over screens. When he did get lost, which is common for young players, his length allowed Russell to get back into plays.
Russell improved on that end during Summer League, as well, and showed his potential for being a two-way juggernaut if improvements keep coming.
Like every other player on the Lakers’ roster, D’Angelo Russell has much to prove. But more than every other member of the young core, he has already shown the potential to become the leader of this roster moving forward.
The on-the-court aspects are crucial, of course. Russell has a tantalizing combination of skills. He is a score-first guard with elite passing ability. He lacks high-level explosiveness but is able to create space with his size and handling. He is one of a few point guards who often gets a defensive rebound and turns it into a fastbreak opportunity in an instant. And if everything goes right, Russell possesses the tools to become a very good defender as well.
Perhaps more important than those aspects of the young guard’s game, however, is his mentality. Russell was routinely criticized for being immature by his coach, the media, and fans alike. Some of that criticism was warranted. Since the season ended, however, Russell has been working to make amends.
While in Las Vegas, the point guard took on a role as a vocal leader. He not only was the best player on the floor, but he helped his teammates to understand their roles and play within the team concept.
Off the court, Russell has reportedly been working hard to gain strength and tune up his skills. His interviews have seen him express his desire to “dominate” the game, and he has impressed the likes of Gregg Popovich and Paul George as a member of the USA Select Team.
That is the biggest evidence pointing to a bright future for Russell. That he is carrying a proverbial chip on his shoulder and is hungry to prove everyone that doubted him wrong is a great sign for him and the Lakers.
The mentality to want to be the man on this team but to do so while elevating his teammates makes Russell all the more likely to become the Lakers’ star of the future.
Los Angeles is ready to take a stride forward with the young Lakers. They are far away from contending, but they have found a core that could potentially usher in the next golden age for the franchise. As talented as that core is, however, it will only go as far as D’Angelo Russell takes it.
Fortunately, he is not backing away from the challenge.