For roughly 36 minutes on Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Lakers put forth a generally dreadful effort that warranted all the criticisms leveled on them.
For 12 minutes, they looked like the team that started the year 10-10.
The Lakers rallied from down 19 to within one point of the Denver Nuggets in the fourth quarter, but their comeback fell short as they lost 127-121.
Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell were miserable
Listen, the huge talking point after the last two games is D’Angelo Russell’s minutes. On Sunday, he missed most of the fourth quarter. Tuesday, he played 17 minutes and zero in the fourth.
His effort throughout the game was abysmal, as were much of the starters including Randle. Giving up 40 points in the first quarter is a sure sign of terrible defense and Luke was more than eager to yank his entire starting lineup on the night.
In the end, Randle and Russell were the two who sat the bench as Ivica Zubac (more on him to come) and Lou Williams lit the Earth on fire in the fourth quarter.
The ebb and flow of playing young guys big minutes is that the highs are really high and the lows are really low. We experienced some of the extreme highs both at the beginning of the season and even the beginning of January. This week seems to be the lowest of lows, specifically for Russell.
The good news? This happens to young players all the time. This isn’t new. They struggle, they’re inconsistent, they go through slumps and, you know what? They break out of them. If nothing else, at least Russell is aware of why he’s been sitting on the bench.
Ivica Zubac is a future All-Star
Most of that sentence isn’t a hyperbole. But in what amounted to Zubac’s first consistent, actual minutes on an NBA floor (not withstanding a couple of spot starts early in the year), Zubac looked amazing. He notched his first double-double with 11 points and 13 rebounds while adding three blocks and was second-best on the team with a plus-minus rating of +8.
There were some glaring weaknesses (like his inability to box out), but he provided energy to a despondent Laker team and earned not only playing time, but playing time late in a fourth quarter of a close game. He played 26 minutes and proved that he deserves a spot in the rotation going forward.
Youth is still being developed
There’s a lot of ways I could have went with this last point. Nick Young looked more like Good Nick Young than Bad Nick Young (22 points on 8/16 shooting). Lou Williams looked like the Earth-scorcher he was in the beginning of the season (24 points, 7 assists). Tarik Black was one of the few bright spots through the first three quarters (14 points, 8 rebounds in 19 minutes).
However, I think the big takeaway tonight is how good young players looked. Sure, most everyone will talk about Russell and Randle being benched. In fairness, those are likely the two most important young players for the Lakers moving forward.
However, what won’t be talked about is that Brandon Ingram played 36 minutes and looked fantastic or that Zubac had a career night in 26 minutes or that Jordan Clarkson had the second-best plus-minus on the team in 35 minutes.
There’s a lot of talk (mainly on Twitter) that Walton is somehow stunting the development of young guys, namely Russell, by playing veterans. Tonight, we saw how the two can mix when the effort is there.
Ingram continues to take monster steps forward seemingly each game. He finished with a stat-stuffing 15 points, five rebounds, four assist, three steals stat-line and made a handful of plays that only people with an 82-foot wingspan like he can.
Zubac showed the promised we heard he was displaying in practice and saw glimpses of in the D-League. He altered shots defensively even when he wasn’t blocking them, he had a high IQ and made the right reads on a couple plays and his soft hands allowed him to finish on dump-off passes.
Clarkson made a couple bone-headed plays, but for the most part played under control and within himself. He knocked down the big corner three to pull LA within one and was a vital part in their comeback.
The takeaway here is that while Russell (and Randle) did not play well tonight and is stuck in a slump, that doesn’t suddenly mean Walton and his staff can’t and aren’t developing players. It simply means, and I know I’ll sound like a broken record, that we have to have patience.
One day, when we’re hoisting our fifth NBA title trophy in a row, we’ll look back on these days and smile.