The Lakers are coming off an encouraging loss — though a 113-110 loss nonetheless — against the Trailblazers in Portland Thursday night. A game that saw the Lakers battle back from a huge deficit and take the lead, only to have Damian Lillard crush their hopes with a last second game winner. I’ll take this effort, even if the end was pretty damn disappointing. The NBA is tough sledding that way and with a game only a night later in a different city, you either need a short memory, a lot of resolve, or both.
Archives For D’Angelo Russell
You know the drill. We did this last year and the series lives on with updates for the 2016-17 Lakers’ roster. Next up in our series is not just Julius Randle’s decision making, but making the right call as quickly as possible. Enjoy.
We’ve all been there. You just sent a text to someone you desperately want to hear back from after several edits and versions. Being the sadists they are, Apple decided they’d let you see when said message is read.received and when that person is replying so you sit there and try to act as if your very life doesn’t rely upon that incoming message with three little dots.
You know what I’m talking about. This right here:
Maddening. Absolutely maddening. Thanks, Apple.
So, what’s the point of bringing up some of life’s most stressful moments? Well, watching Julius Randle at the free throw line after receiving a pocket pass from D’Angelo Russell was similarly maddening last season. Randle had the ball in space, with momentum and the defense back on its heels, but with one problem: those infuriating dots above his head. By the time he was ready to make a decision, those advantages would disappear and with them typically went the opportunity to make a scoring play.
The Lakers’ Summer League Opener was everything fans could’ve hoped for. The team looked organized. Sets and general playing style was tailored for whoever was on the court. I didn’t want to walk down from the stands and try coaching the team, myself. It was really night-and-day from what we had to watch a year ago.
And lost in the Zubanity and Brandon Ingram’s debut, D’Angelo Russell put together a quiet double-double. He took over the game for one stretch and was the guiding force in the half-court with vastly more confidence than we saw for most of last season. There were some issues with his game, but he was impressive.
We’ll start with the few negatives I noticed. There weren’t many, but a couple things stood out to me.
Welcome to a new off-season series focused on how players currently under contract with the Lakers can improve their games from last season to this one. Whether they are young players or veterans, there are always things that can be bettered withing the context of what the Lakers want to do on both sides of the ball. Our second installment is on Julius Randle.
Julius Randle was 14 minutes away from playing his rookie season last year. There were always going to be growing pains, especially considering the general youth surrounding him as he embarked on what essentially was the beginning of his NBA career. All in all, it was a pretty successful campaign, though there are obviously aspects of the game he’ll need to improve to fulfill his role on a budding core. Most notably among those necessary improvements: His handling of the pick-and-roll (from here on, PNR).
Randle is by no means the typical elite finisher one thinks of in PNRs. He’s not as long or athletic as DeAndre Jordan nor can he shoot in pick-and-pop sets anywhere near as well as Dirk Nowitzki. What he can offer, however, is ball-handling neither of the aforementioned prototypes do. To go with those skills, he’ll need to develop the level of decision-making and rolling technique Luke Walton can trust in PNR sets.
All too often, spacing suffered as Randle would roll either too slowly or in too close of proximity to the ball handler. D’Angelo Russell is very good at turning the corner on screens, putting his defender directly on his back with space in front of him. The result, unfortunately, is he would turn into space with his screener (in this case, Randle) standing basically shoulder-to-shoulder to him. Now, part of this comes from technique on the part of those partaking in the PNR, and some of the issue came as a result of Byron Scott’s constipated offense.
In that regard, players on the team improving from three-point range and Luke Walton bringing over some of his schemes currently on display in the finals might help Randle take a step forward on their own, but he definitely needs to improve if he wants that responsibility in the offense next season.
The stats speak to his inefficiencies (numbers from NBA.com):
- Randle was used in 103 PNR possessions, second most on the Lakers to only Brandon Bass.
- Those plays resulted in .73 points per possession, placing him in the 10th percentile throughout the league.
- Randle shot 37% from the field and turnovers were the result in 10.7% of those plays.
- Randle only drew a shooting foul 5.8% of the time. By comparison, Bass drew a shooting foul 20.5% of the time.
Those numbers aren’t good. Not good at all.
Now, getting better in the PNR often comes down to a number of improvements throughout his game. First and foremost, Randle’s decision-making must improve. All too often, the PNR would result in basically another isolation set at the elbow and, given Randle’s inability to shoot or do really anything with his right hand (more on this in a bit), he is fairly easy to guard over a larger sample size and with proper scouting. If Randle can make quicker decisions, he and the offense around him becomes much harder to defend.
As I alluded to earlier, Walton can aid in some of those issues with scheming. Randle catching the ball on the left elbow makes it tough for him to do much of anything. If Walton can plan for PNRs to end with Randle handling the basketball on the right elbow, where his strong hand takes him toward the center of the defense, Randle can more naturally drive with the intent to either score or pass with that dominant left hand of his.
Scheming aside, Randle spending time on becoming a more effective catch-and-shoot threat is absolutely necessary. His right hand has been covered ad nausea, but that doesn’t change the fact that without improvement there, Randle remains just as easy to defend as ever. It’s doubtful he’ll ever boast full ambidexterity, but he’ll need to develop a comfort with even trying to finish at the rim. Another trick he might be able to learn is the ability to gain enough separation with his right hand to bring it back to his left against NBA defense. Watch any clip of Manu Ginobli and you’ll get a good picture of this technique.
Randle has the tools to make all these improvements and if he’s able to add to his game, he makes the lives of all his teammates much easier as well. He heads into this season as one of the more important pieces to what the Lakers want to do, as many from the organization have spoken to. Improvement has to occur throughout the roster, but Randle’s strides are as crucial as just about anyone’s on the team.
I’m here to eat some crow. Yes, one of the Lakers’ toughest critics is here to admit it that I might have been too hard on the organization. This isn’t to say they never made mistakes, but for the most part, the Lakers’ offseason thus far is off to quite literally the best possible start.
The lesson: While it’s easy to see each mistake and show immediate concern in the moment, the bigger picture must remain in focus.