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The Lakers wrap up their summer league play today, taking on the Jazz. This will be their 5th game in seven days, or basically enough time to get a rhythm and be a bit worn down after not likely playing much full court basketball of any import over the previous few months. Of course, one could argue the import of these games as well, so…

In any event, the Lakers are 1-3 to this point but are coming off their best game of the tournament in Wednesday’s loss to the Mavs. That game saw Julius Randle breakout, D’Angelo Russell show some fantastic playmaking instincts, Jabari Brown show off his all court scoring game, and Jordan Clarkson continue to look impressive as a shot creator and finisher. Add in the better flow offensively and a more team oriented approach to their sets and I think fans got a lot out of the game even thought it was a loss.

Heading into today’s game, my biggest hope is that these kids are able to build on some of those positive steps forward. As I wrote about heading into this process, I’m not so concerned about wins and losses or even the individual statistics of the players. I’m looking for positives in their games that can be carried forward into the regular season and whatever negatives exhibited are ones that can be worked on, learned from, and minimized going forward.

So far, I’ve seen little to really be overly concerned about while also seeing some positives that can be built upon. Yes, it would be nice if Russell shot better or if Randle did more work on the glass. I’d have liked to see Nance bury a mid-range jumper or two and for Anthony Brown to get a bit more burn (and get some more spot up chances). I’m not going to worry about these things, though. These are young players and we’re playing the long game, not looking for short term gains on players who are very far from finished products.

With that, enjoy the game today folks. It will be the last Lakers’ basketball we see for at least a couple of months. Hopefully the team can go out with a W powered by some strong performances from players they have so much hope for. But, even if they don’t, trust that the work will be put in so they can be better the next time we see them.

To call the Lakers’ summer league performance to this point a bit disappointing would be totally fair. Even if ignoring some of the talent on the team, the players aren’t working together and it is leading to a disjointed brand of basketball that is not aesthetically pleasing. Bring the talent back into the equation and the frustrations of the team’s 1-2 record through three games is understanding.

However, while many are using the results to focus their anger on the under-performing players, my ire actually has little to do with the stat-lines being produced by D’Angelo Russell or Julius Randle (or any other player). No, my focus is more about how this team is not playing like a team at all.

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For the third time in four days the Lakers will play a summer league game at the Thomas & Mack center. They were able split those first two games — losing to the T-Wolves but recovering against the 76ers — and now find themselves taking on the Knicks.

To this point, as their record indicates, the team’s performance has been a bit of a mixed bag. The only consistent performer has been Jordan Clarkson with every other player mixing flashes of their potential with moments I’m sure they would want a do-over on. This is what summer league is about, though. Even the young players — especially the rookies — who get their numbers will likely find more than a few mistakes and learning moments when dissecting their game on film.

The point is to get your feet went and, in the process, hopefully show enough positives to build on heading into training camp. From the Lakers’ side, things are certainly moving well in that direction. I can understand fans wanting to see more, but, in reality, this is what summer league is about. With that, here are a handful of things I’ll be looking for when the team takes the floor against the Knicks:

  • I do not believe D’Angelo Russell is so much more athletic than he’s shown in the first two games, but I also do not think he has his legs fully under him right now. The team was having heavy practices leading up to Summer League and then played games on back to back nights where he logged 27 and than 33 minutes. Yes, he’s young, but after not playing in meaningful games since March, getting back on the floor into full bore practices has probably had some affect on him. I am interested in seeing how he plays today after a day off.
  • Keeping on the Russell theme, my thoughts on him have not really wavered since he was drafted. His passing and court vision are special. His jumper, though not falling at the rate anyone would want, looks pure with a great release point. He plays with a poise and confidence beyond his 19 years. In saying all that, he’s mostly only using the P&R when orchestrating the offense and hasn’t yet gotten many (any?) opportunities to run off screens or attack a defense closing out on him when he’s spotting up on the weakside. In other words, we’ve seen a fraction of what his game actually is (and what I think it will be down the line). In other words, I know some fans are getting antsy. I’d advise against putting too much into what we’re seeing since what the team is running offensively in the half court really isn’t doing much to highlight any of his skills beyond his passing ability.
  • Speaking of the Lakers’ sets, I don’t expect them to change much in this environment, but I would like to see them play with a bit more tempo in the actions they are running. Certainly some of this is the product of them not knowing each other or having a firm grasp of the sets. But, as the deeper we get into the summer, it would be nice to see them start to work off the ball with more urgency and start to be tighter in how they execute. Yes, I know, it’s the summer, but a man can hope, right?
  • The match up I am looking forward to most is Julius Randle against Kristaps Porzingis. Randle was clearly disappointed in having to sit out Saturday’s game. I expect him to come out active and aggressive. Matching his strength and physicality against Porzingis’ slender frame and length will be an interesting contrast to watch. Porzingis should be able to shoot over the top of Randle when match up in space. But Randle will likely try to bully him into the paint and take away his length advantage on the other end. It should be fun to watch them go at it.
  • Will we get more “Larry!” chants? Nance Jr. has shown off the skill set and energy that surely caught the front office’s eye in the lead up to selecting him in the first round. His athleticism stands out in a major way and he’s flashing the type of value he can bring to a team should he continue to refine his game (making a couple of jumpers when the ball is kicked out to him would be a nice place to start).
  • I’ve only caught a little bit of the Knicks to this point, but they are sticking with their Triangle offense even in the summer. Filling the post, quick cuts off the post entry, and some nice off-ball movement was the norm in the few glimpses I got of them. It will be interesting to see how the Lakers’ defense responds to ball and player movement after seeing a lot of P&R against the Wolves and a post heavy attack from the Sixers.

Though this is the summer of D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, the player currently making the biggest impression to fans in Las Vegas is Jordan Clarkson. Though he is a self identified “work in progress”, the progress he has made from a year ago this time is clear. We don’t need to go down his list of accomplishments now, but when Byron Scott mentioned during an in game interview on Saturday that Clarkson has made major strides as a player and that his work ethic is “tremendous” it is easy to see those statements quantified via his on court play. Simply put, Clarkson looks like he has outgrown this environment.

Heading into the regular season, then, things seem to be on track for Clarkson. A first team all-rookie performer last season, Clarkson is showing the exact type of progress you want to see in a player his age. His jumper is improving. His handle is tighter. His strength is improved and his athleticism is being better applied to produce actual results. It has led to statements like this being thrown around on twitter:

That’s high praise, but it really is true. Clarkson looks to be on a trajectory that far outpaces his draft status. He will be looked to as a key contributor and folks are already clamoring for him to be a starter next to Russell in the backcourt with Kobe sliding up to small forward in the process. Yeah, I know Kobe is diminished as a player, but tell me the last time any player on the roster came in and showed enough promise to inspire thoughts of displacing Kobe to a new position on the team. I’ll wait.

The road is ahead is about to get bumpier, though. If forecasting what his role will be this season, Clarkson will not just be asked to be the starting shooting guard, but also the team’s back up point guard. Wearing both hats doesn’t seem like a big deal on the surface, but we shouldn’t act like it’s no deal at all, either. Clarkson did prove capable of being a full time point guard last season. He started every game he appeared in to close the season at that spot and the numbers produced and the level of play provided earned him his all-rookie team status.

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Friday’s Lakers’ LVSL opener offered glimpses of what is and, maybe more important, what might be when it comes to the prospects of some key players. And even though the Lakers lost the game, there were some good takeaways to be had.

Heading into Saturday’s game, we already know that Julius Randle will not play as the coaches prefer to ease him back into the action after not playing any meaningful basketball in nearly 10 months. Even without Randle, though, there will be plenty to evaluate and more add to our knowledge base about the young guys on the team.

With that, here are five thoughts and things I’ll be watching closely in this match up against the 76ers:

1. Will the team look any more comfortable non-pick and roll sets? Whenever the team tried to run any of the pure Princeton actions, they looked like they just learned the stuff last week. That, of course, is true. So, in a way, we shouldn’t have high expectations for how well they execute these actions. That said, the hope is that with more reps, the comfort level will increase and the players can start to find good looks within the structure of these sets. In order to make this happen, the off-ball screens must be better and the players must move with more certainty and tempo. We’ll see how it goes.

2. I’m interested in seeing if Russell tries to create any looks for himself in isolation. On Friday, nearly every one of his shots came out of the P&R or in semi transition. I’m not complaining about the lack of iso’s, but considering one of the knocks on Russell coming out of college was his lack of athleticism, I’m interested in seeing if he can create separation using his handle and craft to either get into the paint or to find his mid-range jumper. He did this fine in college, of course. But this is no longer college.

3. Well hello there, Jahlil Okafor. I don’t need to remind folks that when it was time for the Lakers to make their draft pick, many thought Okafor would be the guy instead of Russell. Well, Okafor gets his first shot at revenge today and it will be interesting to see how he manages. Okafor’s already had games this summer and he’s looked pretty good in all the ways you’d expect. Will he do the same against Tarik Black and Robert Upshaw? How will he manage when the Lakers put him in P&R’s defensively? Russell and Clarkson are sure to find ways to pick on him in this action and I’m interested in seeing how he does.

4. Speaking of Upshaw, he will no longer be a free agent after the Lakers will reportedly sign him to a two-year contract after he made his pro debut Friday’s game. The deal, reportedly, carries a partial guarantee for this upcoming season and is fully non-guaranteed for the second year. He will make the league minimum for both years. This is a good gamble for the Lakers and offers little risk. Upshaw is clearly not yet ready to be contributor, but you can see the tools he possesses and he has an on-court demeanor I can appreciate. He plays with passion, but is under control and is clearly competitive as you could see his desire to go toe-to-toe with #1 overall pick Karl Towns. I imagine he’ll have a similar approach when battling Okafor in this game.

5. Tony Mitchell is a guy who intrigues me. He has good size for a wing, is clearly athletic, and has reasonable skill with the ball in his hands. Of the guys who are looking to catch on, he impressed me much more than Dwight Buycks who, once again, seemed to be a guy who did a lot of dribbling to not really get anywhere with the ball. If Mitchell could play some SG as well as some SF for this summer team, his utility goes up a ton with Jabari Brown out until at least Monday. I’d like to see Mitchell more today, especially in lineups with Anthony Brown and Russell to see how he takes advantage of the extra space on the wing.

Writing about this year’s Lakers’ summer league team brings a bit of a strange feeling. In a normal Lakers’ summer session, there might be one or two key players worth watching; players who we think might end up being a rotation player or someone with a bright future. This season, though, is radically different and offers fans a chance to see players they will be fully invested in come October.

Despite Kobe returning and the additions of Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass, and Lou Williams to the main team, there are at least four players — D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Tariq Black — heading to Vegas who can expect to have a key role when the regular season rolls around. Add to this group Anthony Brown (who, as it stands today, is probably 3rd on the depth chart at SF behind Kobe and Nick Young), Larry Nance Jr. (who, as a first round pick, may also see some minutes this year as deep reserve/energy player), and Robert Upshaw (a project big man who has first round talent with undrafted free agent baggage) there are a lot of reasons to be excited.

This is a talented group of players — almost surely the most talented summer league team the Lakers have ever fielded — and I’m interested in seeing what they can do against other touted rookies and second year players. After all, it’s one thing to play 5-on-5 in practice where the guys on the opposite side are teammates, know all your plays, and have seen all your tendencies for the last week plus. It’s quite another to face off against a fairly stacked T-Wolves team (like they will on Friday) that includes this year’s #1 overall pick and last year’s slam dunk contest winner.

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The moratorium has been lifted and free agents are able to sign the contracts they verbally agreed to during the dead period of July 1st through the 8th. If you’re logged onto twitter, expect to see a lot of team accounts posting pictures of players putting pen to paper, making the deals official. We’ve already seen some of that with Anthony Davis’ extension, Ed Davis going to Portland, and DeAndre Jordan going back to the Clippers.

Speaking of Jordan, his drama filled situation kept everyone plugged into the final hours of the moratorium in a way not quite ever seen and sets us up perfectly for our fast break thoughts. Let’s get to it…

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Just when all the Lakers’ free agent chips were down, they managed to get back in the game with their trade for Roy Hibbert. Considering the Lakers’ roster needs, their approach in free agency, and the fallout from missing out on all their top targets, acquiring Hibbert in the manner and at the juncture they did comes as more than just a bit of a relief.

The optics of the move aside, though, the true analysis of this deal comes on what Hibbert brings to the court, not as a reprieve from the early free agency fallout. And when it comes to fit, Hibbert seems to be a mixed bag, providing some things the team certainly needs while grating against some of what they hope to be.

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