Throughout this season, fans have been clamoring for the Lakers to play their youth more time. Most fans wanted to see the youngsters succeed. They wanted to see them fail. They want them to play more. They just wanted the Lakers to put more trust and encouragement into moving forward to the future.
On Monday, Luke Walton did just that; he started Brandon Ingram and Tarik Black over Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov.
The lineup change came out of nowhere, especially when you consider that Deng and Mozgov are Lakers’ most expensive players on the team, worth a combined $136 million. Whether you approve of the signings or not, the closer you look at the production of Deng and Mozgov, the more you realize that the Lakers were bound to start their younger guys. They have nothing to lose.
Over the past few weeks or so, Walton has made it his mission to play the youngsters more, and to no surprise, they have delivered. Ivica Zubac became one of the recipients of those minutes. In the last three games of January, Zubac averaged 15 points and 8.6 rebounds with two double-doubles in that stretch. As his minutes became more consistent and steadily increasing, Zubac has shown flashes of brilliance and grace. On Monday night, he played 17 minutes and scored 10 points, grabbed seven rebounds, and swatted four shots.
Despite Brandon Ingram air balling a free throw in the first few minutes, he was decent and confident throughout the conclusion of the game. Ingram had 14 points on 45 percent shooting from the field and grabbed seven rebounds. Ingram led the team in minutes with 33. The forward had struggled in the prior months with his shooting; so far in the first week on February, Ingram is averaging 9.5 points per game on 46 percent shooting.
After coming back from his knee injury, D’Angelo Russell is finally finding his groove and rhythm on the court. In three games since his injury, Russell is averaging 19.7 points, 9 assists and 6.7 rebounds. In that stretch, Russell played over 30 minutes a game.
Since returning from his MCL sprain and strained calf, @Dloading is averaging 19.7 points, 9.0 assists and 6.7 rebounds in 3 games.
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) February 6, 2017
Although Russell only logged 20 minutes on Tuesday, he was still effective dishing out six assists and had no turnovers. In a blowout victory for the Lakers, Russell’s lack of playing time should not be concerning, considering that he played heavy minutes the week prior with a recent knee injury.
The shift to a younger starting lineup could foreshadow the Lakers’ willingness to move forward with their young core permanently. The decision to bench Deng and Mozgov was supported by the Lakers’ front office as well.
Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng together have contracts worth $136 million. Here's Luke Walton on the front office role in their benching. pic.twitter.com/5g4trgQF0Z
— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) February 6, 2017
Not only was the Lakers’ front office positive about the change, but more importantly, it seems that Deng and Mozgov are okay with it, too. Deng and Mozgov were brought to the Lakers to be leaders of the team. They were added to teach the young players how to be professionals, and their reactions to being benched exemplified their professionalism.
Deng on benching: “For me, the whole year I knew it’s about the young guys. I think everybody knew that."
— Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) February 7, 2017
It is never easy to go from being a starter for most of the season and then taking a step back to the bench. Mozgov didn’t play a single minute on Tuesday.
I caught Timofey Mozgov before he left the arena. He asked for time to process his benching. pic.twitter.com/22DswrLUag
— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) February 7, 2017
Since his arrival to Los Angeles, Walton has always preached that no one player is bigger than the team and in order to move forward as one, sacrifices have to be made. The Lakers played beautiful team basketball against the Knicks. They played faster, younger, and more fun. They blew the Knicks out the on their own court, but more importantly, they looked like they are ready to move forward with their future.