The Lakers finished up their first three games of the Las Vegas Summer League on Monday with a 1-2 record and amidst the many storylines, the main conversation has surrounded the play of second overall pick D’Angelo Russell. Russell’s numbers have not been anything to rave about nor have we seen much of what was highlighted prior to the draft. His apparent slow start has gotten Lakers fans antsy, but a piece by Nate Parham for Warriors blog Golden State of Mind can calm the minds of Laker faithful as he chronicles how Russell’s natural gifts and unbelievable poise flashed glimpses of potential greatness. Here’s a brief look:

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We hear the term, “It’s just Summer League,” all the time. We try not to overreact on everything. So let’s do our best not to do that.

There is hardly anything positive to take away from their 76-66 loss to the New York Knicks. The Lakers offense was as dry as the desert here as they only scored a whopping five points in the first quarter. They did come back from that deficit but could never get quite over the hump.

Jabari Brown scored 20 points in his first Summer League game to lead the Lakers in scoring. But the team shot only 31 percent from the field, while only going 3/16 (I can hear the glass shatter) from behind the arc. D’Angelo Russell, who didn’t go back at the end of the game, continued to struggle in terms of taking care of the ball (eight turnovers) and he lamented that in his postgame comments. The Lakers were booed by the Vegas fans after their slow start but Russell pointed out “that he didn’t hear them.”

Summer League head coach Mark Madsen defended Russell saying that everyone has a down game. He thought that giving his players the day off in Vegas “was probably a mistake.” Regardless, the team never got into a good rhythm on both ends of the floor. Madsen pointed out the 20 turnovers and that “it does not work at this level.” He pointed out that Julius Randle had “excellent playmaking” after a “slow start.” Coach went on to say that D’Angelo was a “little out of sorts” but praised his work ethic and emphasized that “he WILL be great.”

After an excellent two games, Jordan Clarkson didn’t have a great game as he finished with 13 points off 3 of 14 shooting. Clarkson pointed out the horrendous start and their lack of stops on defense. He also talked about the lack of ball movement (SIX assists overall by the team). Jordan thinks the chemistry is right around what he expected with D’Angelo Russell.

As for Julius Randle (seven points, 2/8 shooting), he was clearly frustrated after the game. He said he couldn’t get into a rhythm and that “he had to be better.” Randle said that he knew he could get to whatever spot he wanted on the floor but, as we all saw, he just couldn’t finish. He mentioned how “extremely frustrating” it was to get a rhythm going, especially since he’s playing in “five-minute spurts.” But Julius did say that he’ll work through it and that the goal was “the first game of the season.” He said he’s not worried about his physical state when he’s out playing so that’s definitely a good sign after having such a devastating injury.

Overall, though, not a good showing. We probably shouldn’t look into the rotations too much since the coaches tend to try to play everyone. But they did look lost once their offense broke down and that slow start really killed the team. They do get another chance on Wednesday and all you can ask for them is to get better.

Yes, they looked like the worst team ever on Monday. And some people are calling for D’Angelo Russell’s head already. Let’s also remember that this is only July. It’s Summer League. It’s really the offseason. Let’s all not get too heated.

The Lakers finished their weekend as many who travel to Las Vegas typically do: quietly. They lost to the new York Knicks and aside from a few bursts, were never particularly close. Winning or losing in the summer league isn’t a huge issue, the more important outcome is progress, and it’s kinda hard to find progress in a game where the Lakers scored five points in the first quarter.

Russell took a minor step back in this game, still looking tentative in attacking quickly. It’s fairly obvious he’s till getting used to creases in the defense closing as quickly as they do at this level. Mark Madsen opted for Jabari Brown instead of Russell down the stretch of a single-digit game.

Read that sentence again. That’s not ideal.

The rotation on the whole was confusing. Part of that might have to do with getting a rotation player back, so figuring out how to dole those minutes out can take some adjusting by the coaches. One would think it’s at least fairly simple, though. Dwight Buycks’ minutes should go to Jabari Brown. We’ll see how that plays out as the team gets into the tournament format.

Brown did play pretty well. He hit the open threes he’ll need to if he wants consistent minutes. It would be nice to see him improve his decision making in transition. He tends to put his head down and charge forward, versus keeping his head up to find a teammate with a better chance at scoring than he has jumping into defenders.

One thing stood out more than anything else: When the Lakers play with pace, they looked like a much better team. Madsen and Byron Scott’s Princeton sets move at a glacial pace, so when the play doesn’t work out, guys are forced to run isolations, which rarely went well. Tarik Black’s inability to find outlet guards severely slows the team down, so he and the rest of the Lakers’ bigs will have to work on getting the pass out more quickly moving forward.

Julius Randle again struggled to finish at the basket today. It’s great to see him get to the spots he wants to attack from, but the finishing has been an issue all weekend. We could chalk it up to rust, which is completely fair, but if the issue continues, running isolation sets for him won’t make much sense. As the game went on, it become clear defenders were comfortable giving Randle space, so at some point, Randle will probably need to add some kind of midrange jumper to keep defenses honest.

Stat of the Day: Jabari Brown and Louis Labeyrie combined for one of the most random NBA feuds of all time. On a day where Peja Stojakovic was walking around the arena, it was pretty hilarious to find Labeyrie draw the ire of Lakers fans.

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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I thought that Game 1’s crowd couldn’t be beat. Boy, was I wrong. They opened up the upper deck AGAIN for the game between the Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers (who had the jilted, could-have-been Laker Jahlil Okafor).

Summer League produces a lot of bad NBA-caliber basketball so when I say this one is hard on the eyes, it’s really, REALLY ugly. But the highlight of this game was definitely late first-rounder Larry Nance, Jr. He finished with eight points, five rebounds, three steals, and two blocked shots. He also finished with the highest +/- stat at +20 and won the Thomas & Mack crowd with his relentless play. He got “LARRY” chants from the people more than once (which is also hilariously ironic coming from Laker fans… and if you don’t get it, I’m not even sure if you know basketball). The game was won by the Lakers, 68-60.

After the game, Nance mentioned that “he knew his role.” He knows he’s “the athletic, energy guy” on the team and “he’ll lock you up on defense.” He was asked when he accepted that role as an energy guy and he answered that he knew that while he was playing in college (Wyoming). Nance said that he wants to get his hands on a loose ball whenever possible. He said that “energy” is a skill nowadays in the NBA and teams are looking for that. I like the fact that Nance seems like the type of guy that would do whatever is asked from him by the team. If that means being the energy guy or scoring 20 points a game, he’ll do it. He buys into the team and that is excellent. Nance also noted that he talked to his dad (Larry Nance, who is the 1984 Slam Dunk champion) and the advice that he got was to “rebound more.” He definitely enjoyed the Larry chants.

Jordan Clarkson looked great yet again, finishing with 19 points off 8 of 16 shooting. He mentioned that he was working on a “little bit of everything” but he did note about his pull-up jumpers. He said he was getting more comfortable shooting jumpers after going off a pick. It’s nice to see his confidence continue to grow. He said he’s not looking for any individual goals and “just wants to play his best.” Clarkson said that hearing the chants for Nance was “dope and real cool” and that he talks to D’Angelo Russell “all the time” and said that he’s gonna be a “great player.” Laker fans are hoping for that, I’m sure.

D’Angelo Russell (14 points, 4/15 shooting, eight rebounds, seven turnovers) said that the difference in this game from the previous one was slowing it down and focusing on stops on defense. Russell didn’t seem to have as much legs in this game but he was a little better defensively in terms of making rotations and not ball-watching. When I asked him about his defense, he gave himself a C or a C+. He mentioned both individual and team defense and that he/they had to be better on following up on rotations. Russell was then asked about Clarkson and he said that he was a “great leader” and that he was “growing and getting better every day.”

Summer League coach Mark Madsen was definitely a bit more pepped up with the win. He talked about the defensive intensity and communication being much better than the previous game. Mad Dog said that Laker coach Byron Scott’s little pep talk contributed to the team getting in rhythm earlier. Madsen also was glowing about Jordan Clarkson’s “knowledge of the game”; he especially pointed out Clarkson’s adjusting from the point to the shooting guard and helping his teammates get to the right spots. Madsen complimented Larry Nance and called him a “special player.” I’m gonna pump the brakes a little bit on that but I do think Nance can help a team. As for getting the assists up (ONLY FIVE), Madsen answered that they just needed to make more shots and move the ball a little bit more.

All in all, pretty encouraging stuff. Julius Randle was given the game off for precautionary reasons but he’s expected to play in the next game. Again, I expect most of these guys in this Summer League team to be the core of the next few years so I would pay a little bit more attention to them.

Final Score: Lakers: 68, Sixers: 60

I guess we could call this one a defensive struggle. Both the Lakers and Sixers looked like two teams who met just outside the gym before the game. The end result: Some of the ugliest basketball you’d continue watching.

There were bright spots, though. For one, D’Angelo Russell looked a lot more comfortable for longer stretches of the game. As I said yesterday, rhythm should continue to improve as the players he runs pick-and-roll sets with are come accustomed to the spots he prefers on the court. A minor criticism is his tendency to dribble himself into awkward situations. He’ll need to adjust to the smaller attack spaces as he competes more against NBA athleticism.

Jordan Clarkson continued his stellar play, again distancing himself as the best player on the court. Something I’ve noticed these last couple days: At least at this level: Clarkson in transition is good for at least a couple free throws. Usually, though, he finds a way to finish. If the Lakers do play with pace this season, Clarkson will spearhead much of that style of play.

Larry Nance’s third quarter is easily the best he’s looked all weekend. For much of that period, he was contesting everything at the rim and wreaking havoc with any kind of loose ball. If he hopes to earn a rotation spot, he’ll have to do so with all the “little things.” At one ppoint during that quarter, Nance earned “La-rry, La-rry, La-rry” chants. We can add that o the list of things I did not expect to hear in Las Vegas.

Heading into the game, I wanted to pay closer attention to Robert Upshaw. He signed a two-year deal with the Lakers last night and would be matched up against Jahlil Okafor – easily the best offensive post presence in Vegas. Okafor definitely got his, though Upshaw’s length appeared to bother Okafor, especially compared to Tarik Black, who, again racked up five fouls in the first half. Okafor definitely impressed, tallying 19 points and 11 rebounds.

The Lakers won the game, as they found ways to score down the stretch as the Sixers’ one-dimensional offense sputtered in the final minutes. The fans were out in droves again Saturday, at one point cheering “We want La-kers” repeatedly as the game before the one they were there to see apparently was taking too long to end. Gotta love Lakers fans.

Stat of the day: At one point, Clarkson and Russell combined for 23 of the Lakers 33 points.

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.