The last few years have not been kind to the Los Angeles Lakers outside of some ping pong ball luck which resulted in landing consecutive top-2 draft selections. The team is in the process of completing their fourth straight season without a playoff birth and the fourth straight year in which they will end with a losing record. When you look at the roster you will not find any All-Stars or any MVP candidates, but one thing you will find is potential. This team is loaded with young talent and a few of them have the promise to become the elite level players that Laker fans are used to seeing.
When you look at the roster you will not find any All-Stars or any MVP candidates, but one thing you will find is potential. This team is loaded with young talent and a few of them have the promise to become the elite level players that Laker fans are used to seeing.
As for now, the team is among the bottom teams in the league with just over 20 wins on the season and are in a semi-favorable position to keep their top-3 protected pick by the time the draft lottery rolls around. Adding another prospect in a draft that many believe is one of the best in recent memory would be a huge boost for Los Angeles, but their ability to draft exceptionally well has set already set them up for the future.
Even if the luck runs out for the purple and gold and they have to ship their first round pick out to Philadelphia, the team is in great hands. This has been evident with the play of guys like D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Ivica Zubac, Julius Randle, and Brandon Ingram since the All-Star break.
Since Nick Young was robbed in the three-point shootout during All-Star weekend, Luke Walton has handed over the keys to the young guys and they have responded in a way that should excite Laker fans. Even though their play has not resulted in many wins for the team, with extended minutes, the kids are showing they are capable of being cornerstone pieces going forward.
Let’s take a look at how each of them has improved.
Once the Lakers decided to cash in on Lou Williams’ trade value, all eyes were pointed at Jordan Clarkson to respond with a change in his play. Williams was arguably a detriment to Clarkson’s game while they were on the court together, enabling Jordan to become more of a ball-stopper.
It seems like he has answered some questions surrounding his season as Clarkson has been able to improve on the offensive end. Now with a new role as a starter alongside D’Angelo Russell, he has boosted his scoring to almost 19 points a game, including his career-high 35 point performance, all while being relatively efficient with a .530 true shooting percentage. That number is actually quite impressive for a perimeter player who does not have a reliable three-point shot at this point. Clarkson has shown more as a playmaker and distributor (although, not quite at the level he was as a rookie) since the break as well with his assist percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, and assists per game trending in the right direction.
There was controversy when Luke Walton decided to start Jordan Clarkson in favor of D’Angelo Russell for a few games in the middle of Russell’s stretch of big games. That controversy was rather short lived as both are starting together now and playing better together with each game. Hopefully, this version of Clarkson is something that is more of a constant and gives him the opportunity to improve heading into next season.
So far this year has been a roller coaster for D’Angelo Russell. He led the team to a 10-10 start, he’s missed time with injuries, and he’s been en fuego since the All-Star break. The second year “lead guard” (wait, that is a safe positional assumption, right?) has been the team’s best player since returning from New Orleans and he’s improved his game in myriad ways.
With his increased minutes, D’Angelo has increased both his scoring and his efficiency. His scoring has jumped up to nearly 20 points per game while shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 37.9 percent from three, and he is still maintaining his assist numbers. Russell has been able to get to his spots on the floor a lot easier and hitting on his jumper more consistently which opens up the game for everyone else around him. Simply put, the team revolves around his success on offense. You can see proof of this in the fact that with his improved play, it contributes to every other starter having a better offensive rating post-All-Star break.
He has been holding his own against some of the best guards in the league with 28 points, six rebounds, and nine assists against John Wall, and a career-high 40 points, six assists, and seven threes against Kyrie Irving. Those are insane games against top tier point guards and will boost his confidence heading into his third season. If you still don’t believe me about how good he’s been, look at his ranks since the break.
Russell's ranks among starting guards since the break:
— Reed (@Reed_nba) March 29, 2017
Last, Russell's rank among 23/under PGs since break:
Best young PG in the league
— Reed (@Reed_nba) March 30, 2017
Now, we arrive at the best young big man in the game. Ivica Zubac has been a pleasant surprise in year one with most thinking that he was still too raw to contribute right away. He has been unfortunately sidelined for the rest of the year with a high ankle sprain but the 14 games he played in after the All-Star break really gave Laker fans a glimpse of what the potential could be for this kid.
He did have some trouble staying on the court with early foul issues but when he was out there he provided a real offensive threat for the team. Zubac tallied double-digit points in nine of the 14 games he played, with a career-high of 25 points on 12/15 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds coming against the Denver Nuggets. Basically, the biggest difference in his play from before the break was the playing time that he was getting. With increased minutes his play was more consistent and this shows with his improvement in both his offensive and defensive ratings as well as other categories.
The 20-year old Croatian center makes a difference on offense with his ability to set effective screens and he has the IQ to know what to do with the ball as a roll man. The disappointment of not getting to watch Zubac play anymore this year really sucks but he showed enough to warrant consideration for the starting center spot next season.
Julius Randle has been one of the players who has impressed me the most this entire year. He still has things to clean up on both sides of the ball but coming into this season there was uncertainty surrounding his ceiling and while there still is, we know it is quite a bit higher than imagined.
Again, like all of the others on this list, his numbers have improved with a little more playing time. But the two things that I’ve loved about his play since the break is his willingness to expand his range as a shooter and the contact he is now making when he sets screens. Randle has been a consistently solid midrange shooter this season but if he is able to become even respectable from deep then he is going to be a real problem in this league. Being able to threaten the defense as a shooter would open up driving and passing lanes for Julius which are areas he thrives in. His comfort level with taking threes has risen and his confidence is turning into decent success in the month of March as he’s shooting 9 of 26 for .346 percent.
Another thing that has stood out lately is the decision making of Randle; his assist percentage has come up while his turnover ratio has decreased. With Randle being a player that controls the ball as much as he does this improvement is a reason to think he is gaining control over his game.
As Brandon Ingram closes out the last few weeks of his rookie season there has been an obvious theme for him: constant improvement. The former second-overall pick has become more and more comfortable with each passing month and that hasn’t changed following the All-Star break.
Ingram is finding it easier to get to the spots he wants on offense and this shows with his .503 field goal percentage, which is a major difference from before the break. Over his last 14 games, Brandon has scored in double figures in 12 contests and scored 20+ in two games, including his career-high 22 against San Antonio. For a rookie who had struggled with his shot to the degree that Ingram did, you can see his confidence building as his efficiency continues rising.
There have also been a number of reasons to be excited about the defensive ability of the 19-year old. The length that he has is something that you can’t teach but he is finding himself in better positions on defense allowing him to maximize that advantage he has. Sometimes those little tweaks don’t show up on the stat sheet but contesting shots consistently will help the team try to figure out its defensive woes.
The biggest thing for Brandon is that he had been raising his game leading up to the break and since then, he has pretty much flipped it to the next level. After being held out of the last two games due to knee tendinitis, there are only a couple weeks left in his rookie season. Ending it the way he has will surely go a long way toward his development this summer.
No matter how the team finishes the season, no matter how many more wins they pick up, no matter if they keep their first round pick or not, the last half of the season should give everyone inside the organization a reason to continue this rebuild with these pieces. They have all shown the ability to compete against contending teams and that the potential level of talent they can reach is as good as anyone. While rebuilding is not fun to wait through, and it is uncharted territory for the franchise, the more time these young guys get to develop together, the better the results will be.