The Lakers lost their 6th straight game and second in two nights on Saturday, falling to the Blazers 121-103 in Portland. While there were couple of good individual performances on offense, the team, as a whole, played poorly on both sides of the floor. This isn’t new for a team which ranked 29th and 30th (last) in the league in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively, heading into the contest.
What was new, however, was that Kobe Bryant took a break from the feel-good vibes of his retirement farewell tour to reportedly voice his displeasure about the loss and the team’s poor defense to his teammates during and after the game. Mark Medina of the LA Daily News has the report:
Twelve games ago Byron Scott decided he wanted to shake up his starting lineup. The move was a controversial one as he demoted Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell — the two players most considered cornerstones of the team’s rebuild and future — from the ranks of the starters to reserves. The young players have said all the right things, but when pressed have expressed a desire to start (at least Russell has – Randle has taken the “control what you can control” approach with the media).
With the change now 12 games deep and exactly three weeks old, now is as good a time as any to take stock and look at some of the numbers and trends which have emerged since the switch. Please note that while Randle has been a reserve for all 12 games, he has missed a contest with a sore ankle and that Russell did start two of the 12 contests while Jordan Clarkson sat out with his own ankle issue.
After a strong few games to start to the season, Julius Randle’s effectiveness has been as up and down as you might expect from a 20 year old player who, while technically in his 2nd season, is essentially a rookie. Players at his age rarely come into the league and dominate, instead they rely on the best parts of their game to try to work their way through and hope it is enough to remain effective against an unforgiving league that feasts on players’ weaknesses.
Randle is no different, using his quick first step and off the dribble work to get into the paint where he can finish over, around, and through opponents. Some nights, this works wonderfully. Other nights, especially when facing disciplined defenders with length, not as much. Based on this early trend, the obvious next steps to improving his chances against defenses loading up on his drives is to develop a reliable enough jumpshot to make defenders think twice about sagging off him to wall off the paint.
Julius Randle will be the first one to tell you he has a long way to go as a player. While his injury reduced rookie campaign offered a chance to view the game from a different perspective while soaking in the knowledge shared to him by Kobe Byrant, nothing can replace the development from actual court time and game action. Randle did not get that last season and he is trying to make up for lost time now.
Still, the strides are obvious. Randle, always an assertive player, has been playing more like a guy who has a plan. Even when the drives and open court jaunts skew towards the out of control, there is a purpose to his movement. He knows where he wants to get to and, at least this preseason, he has been getting there. His shot chart is a map of his mindset:
Randle wants to be at the rim. While the scouting reports about him harp on his short arms and question his finishing ability, Randle is disproving those doubts one bully ball move with a crafty finish at a time. The finishing is important, of course. After a summer league (and, honestly, last year’s preseason too) of getting to his spots but showing a lack of touch near the basket, there were some fears about whether those aforementioned scouting reports were right. Randle isn’t out of the woods yet — this is only preseason — but the denseness of the forest is diminishing.
Still, it’s not the finishing that has me excited, but the getting into position which has me hooked. Basketball, in its simplest form, is about angles and positioning. The player who can exploit these things best — whether on offense or defense — is likely to win the possession. Randle, with his combination of quickness and strength, is doing this more than his opponent and it is a sight to see.
We talked about this some when we highlighted his first step. Randle is taking what his defender is giving him and using it against him. It’s most obvious when Randle is crowded and he simply blows by his man to get to the rim:
Plays like that make the highlight reels, but it’s actually how he’s managing defenses that do not crowd him that is the real test. Against the Warriors, Randle took his match up with Draymond Green personal and tried to attack him at every opportunity. It led to plays like this one:
Randle’s confidence is nice and I like the fact he’ll jaw at his man some. It makes the game more fun. But the most fun part is how Randle decided that even when facing a sagging defender he would use his physical tools to his advantage. Rather than settling for a jumper, Randle turned on the jets, got his man on his heels, and then exploded to the rim. Look at the shot chart near the top of the post again. It’s plays like the one he made against Green that creates that type of chart.
It’s not just when creating his own shot, either. One of the great things about Randle is how he keeps his head about him when he’s working off the dribble, seeing the floor while trying to break down his man. Randle seems to understand that when his man is sagging off him, he can use that space to not only attack and get his man on his heels, but to maximize the passing angles that can lead to him getting his teammates open shots. Look at any reel of Randle’s highlights from this preseason and you will him leveraging his physical tools against the space his man is giving him to create shots for himself or others.
Like I said at the top, Randle has a ways to go. But the makings of an effective player aren’t just in sight, they’re here and in full practice.
While this is important news, it is also wholly expected. The recent high lottery picks — remember, Randle went 7th in his draft — to not have their 3rd year options exercised are Hasheem Thabeet and Anthony Bennett. Those two not only severely under-performed their draft status, the fact that they went number 2 and 1 overall in their respective drafts meant they carried very high costs in comparison to other rookies in their class*.
Even though Randle has already missed an entire season due to a serious injury, he’s actually showing he can play. His summer league stats — 12.8 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.2 steals — reflect positive steps from the glimpses we got in the past two summer leagues and last year’s preseason. At the money he will be slated to earn next season (roughly $3.26 million), he is a bargain. Especially as the cap makes its first in what could be multiple huge jumps due to the new national TV deal.
Ultimately, then, this is good business. But it also reflects where Randle is seen as going in his career. As I discussed with Nate Duncan, I think Randle’s game — especially offensively — is exactly what teams will be looking for from their PF’s in the years to come. The Lakers, then, are simply taking the steps in order to ensure he stays in house.
*For comparison’s sake, Randle, as the #7 pick last year will make $3.13 million this season. D’Angelo Russell, as the #2 pick from this year, will make $5.1 million. Already, you see the difference between guys picked as high as Russell vs. those picked in the 2nd half of the lottery like Randle.
I’m all for tempering expectations when it comes to young players. Being successful is hard in the NBA. Being successful when you’re not yet even 21 years old is even harder. Players this young not only need to physically mature, but they need to figure out how the strengths they do possess translate to playing against grown men. The same is true of the mental adjustments and getting to the point where they can react to the game in front of them rather than having to think through possessions.
However, just because the learning curve exists doesn’t mean young players don’t show us flashes of what they can become. I remember watching Jordan Clarkson’s first summer league games last year and thinking “this kid has something” even though it seemed like every other possession was him trying to go too fast or not recognizing what the rest of the players on the floor were doing.
This year is no different when it comes to Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell. They are only on the bottom levels of their respective development curves, but when watching them play it’s easy to see they have something to them. This “something” was on full display in Sunday’s win over Maccabi Haifa.
James Worthy’s hire to work with the Lakers’ big men was met with somewhat mixed reactions. While almost everyone recognizes Worthy’s greatness as a player, it’s also fair to question whether that greatness can translate into teaching and, maybe more importantly, whether his hire signals another case of the Lakers falling into the trap of seeking out candidates inside the organization (or Lakers Family) rather than going outside the castle walls for people who may be just as good (or better) to fill these roles.
It’s an interesting discussion and one worth having. But it’s also one for another day. James Worthy has been hired. He’s in Hawaii right now, going through practices and working with the team’s big men. The topic, then, shifts from how he may have gotten here to what he’s doing now that he is. If Worthy ends up being good at this job — something only time will tell — no one will really care that the Lakers turned to him rather than, say, somebody from a different organization with a stellar reputation. This is how it goes.
Before fans were obsessed with a top-5 protected pick, arguing over Jahlil Okafor vs. D’Angelo Russell, or getting overwhelmed with excitement over the growth displayed by Jordan Clarkson, the main cog in the Lakers’ future chances was Julius Randle. After being the team’s highest lottery pick since James Worthy went #1 overall in 1982, expectations were high for Randle and he seemed ready to try and live up to them.
Of course, nothing really went to plan for Randle in his rookie season. He flashed his enormous potential in the 2014 summer league, but also looked a bit out of shape and was prone to tiring after long stretches of minutes. Byron Scott prodded him in the press with minor slights and digs, almost always noting what he wasn’t doing rather than offering praise for what he was. And then came opening night when, on a late game drive to the hoop during garbage time, Randle broke his leg, ending his season in the process.
Since then, Randle is still looked at as a core player, but he’s fallen a bit behind in the pecking order. Russell and Clarkson makeup the “backcourt of the future” and Randle, while a prodigious talent, may not even start ahead of Brandon Bass when the season begins. Some of this is surely lingering cautiousness by an organization that is still not completely over the injury he suffered last year.