As Rihanna has made clear, finding light in the darkness is difficult, but rewarding. This belief should be heeded by Los Angeles Lakers fans during this NBA season.
No questions asked, it is tough to be a Lakers fan right now. Kobe Bryant is retiring but also having the worst shooting year of his career, Byron Scott is effectively a lame-duck coach, the Clippers are a significantly better team, and your team may very well lose what will be an undeniably high draft pick in the next NBA draft.
So what can Lakers fans get excited about? For starters, their team has an excellent young core.
Now, has this group underperformed? Slightly. But dismissing it as failed is just as foolhardy as declaring the core a new group of superstars. Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr. and Marcelo Huertas all have a bright future.
First, let’s begin with the latter two, who are generally more unknown. Larry Nance Jr. has been a model of consistency for a wildly inconsistent Lakers team. In fact, Hannah Kulik of Fansided has argued exactly that point. Moreover, his total rebound percentage is a respectable 12.2%. Finally, he is averaging a double-double with 11.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Overall, though, Nance’s scoring and defense have left much to be desired. Nonetheless, due to his effort and size, it seems he does have a limited role in the NBA.
More to the point, Marcelo Huertas has proven to be entertaining and effective. He was making some fancy passes this preseason:
This playmaking ability has translated empirically throughout the regular season. Let’s look at a player’s assists per 100 possessions below.
What Figure 1 suggests is that Huertas is fourth in the NBA in assists per 100 possessions amongst guards. If he can develop other areas of his game, Huertas will be a key cog in the NBA for a long time. When you watch him play, he is reminiscent of a young Ricky Rubio or Rajon Rondo, who each struggled at shooting, but could create for others with ease.
Now, moving on to the main group. Most fans of the NBA believe Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, and D’Angelo Russell are the Lakers’ true core, and that is valid. Significant numbers of analysts have suggested these players have underperformed, but in doing so, ignore aspects of their respective games that are clearly effective.
First, Jordan Clarkson. Drafted in the second round of the 2014 draft, Clarkson has clearly surpassed expectations. Clarkson’s potential ranges from a sixth man to a starting two-guard in the NBA. He has continued to improve for the Lakers and should continue to do so. So, just how important is he for the team?
Figure 2 Stats via NBA.com/Stats
Therefore, Clarkson is present in eight of the Lakers top-nine three-man lineups. That is crucial, because it demonstrates his undeniable effectiveness and importance to the team.
If the Lakers want to maximize Clarkson’s value, they should seek to play him with Kobe Bryant as little as possible. Per NBA.com, the Lakers are 7.4 points per 100 possessions better when Clarkson is playing without Kobe Bryant than when they are on the court together. This is partially a reflection on Kobe, but also suggests Clarkson’s role may require more ball handling in the two-guard role, as opposed to being a strict facilitator. Nevertheless, Clarkson’s scoring prowess is demonstrably entertaining, and his consistently strong performances should excite Laker fans.
Moving on to the player who this writer thinks has the most potential on the Lakers: Julius Randle. Randle had a rough first season when he was injured in the opening game. Thus, considering 2015-16 is truly Randle’s rookie season, he has played well, especially in regards to toughness and effort. Due to his position as an interior forward, let’s first examine his defense on post-up plays:
Figure 3 Stats via Synergy
What Figure 3 shows is that Randle has the eighteenth best post-up defense amongst forwards. This is an incredible stat for what is effectively a rookie forward. Additionally, his effort is even more impressive.
Figure 4 Stats via NBA.com/Stats
As you can see, Randle has the seventh best rebound percentage amongst forwards. These two aforementioned stats suggest that Randle’s toughness is unquestionable. Nonetheless, the 2014 lottery pick has struggled defensively on every other play outside of post-ups. Moreover, his offensive skill set is incredibly limited. These major issues have justifiably resulted in his benching. If he fixes these two problems, which he has the athleticism to do, Randle could become a top-three player from his own draft class, one which boasts talents such as Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Dante Exum.
Finally, discussing D’Angelo Russell, disappointment abounds with his NBA rookie season. The point guard’s numbers just have not been that good. Ultimately, though, there has been significant improvement over the past month. First, he is finally turning into a playmaker. Let’s examine his potential assists over this time period:
Figure 5 Stats via NBA.com/Stats
Once one examines guards that average similar passing numbers over the past month, Russell’s improvement is noticeable, as he has created the sixth most assist opportunities in the NBA. Furthermore, Avith Sarikonda of YardBarker suggests the majority of D’Angelo’s passes have gone to a struggling Kobe Bryant, followed by an offensively deficient Julius Randle, and finally to Jordan Clarkson. Consequently, as the Lakers’ young core improves offensively, one should expect Russell’s assist percentage to rise significantly.
Additionally, over the past month, one must be impressed with D’Angelo Russell’s fantastic defense. Opponents are 3.4 points and 8 percentage points worse respectively when Russell guards them on shots greater than fifteen feet and three pointers. Subsequently, D’Angelo Russell is nowhere near the bust certain analysts posit him to be, and moreover, he has actually demonstrated flashes of brilliance. If this can happen more consistently, and if he can develop into a go-to scorer, Russell very well may become an elite NBA point guard.
The Lakers are bad. Very bad. But many of their young core have certain traits necessary for championship teams. Moreover, their essential three-man core has shown flashes of brilliance and nearly limitless potential.
Thus, especially considering the Lakers could very well lose their next draft pick, expect Byron Scott to start playing his young players more minutes. They need game time to develop a better feel for the NBA and continue to improve their respective weaknesses. Nonetheless, this young core is unmistakably impressive, and they absolutely should give fans hope in a hopeless season.
How do you think the Lakers’ future looks? Let us know in the comments section!