You can’t hear people talk about the Lakers without at some point catching one word: excitement. It makes sense, new is exciting. Youth is exciting. Fun is exciting, especially when the humor about the team is not of the ironic type. You know what makes this young core all the more thrilling? Given the franchise’s, history, there’s a great chance most — or even all — these guys will work out.
Before we start, an important note should be made about how rare it is that players taken near the top of the draft don’t pan out. Typically, whoever is taken with early lottery picks has the talent to make it work. It happens (Anthony Bennett and Hasheem Thabeet nod glumly), but on the whole, it is pretty rare.
Furthermore, most of the guys I’ll talk about were drafted into winning situations whereas this current crop of young talent will probably see at least another couple years of losing before things really turn around. That matters greatly, and puts more of the onus on each player to continue to grow individually versus having to catch up to the quality of talent that already exists on a good team.
Now, with that said, take a look at the Lakers’ history of drafting guys in the lottery, especially as you get closer to the top pick overall. There are basically no outright busts whatsoever (damn you, Javaris Crittenton). It’s somewhat incredible.
For one thing, outside of this current stretch, the Lakers have almost never drafted inside the top five historically. Even still, they’ve selected almost innumerable players who went on to have very long, productive careers elsewhere, if not with the Lakers themselves. Before the lottery was instituted in 1985, the Lakers had already drafted seven players who would were/would become Hall of Famers and five other players who played at least one all star game. Since then, the Lakers have only made six lottery picks:
- George Lynch (12) – At the time, this wasn’t a lottery pick, as the lottery only went to the 11th pick. Still, it’s in the general lottery range, so I’m counting it.
- Eddie Jones (10)
- Kobe Bryant (13, in a trade)
- Andrew Bynum (10)
- Julius Randle (7)
- D’Angelo Russell (2)
- Brandon Ingram (2)
Of those guys who are not still playing, only Lynch “failed” to make an all star team, but even he went on to play for more than a decade and spent most of that time as at least a solid rotation-caliber player. You take that career in that spot anytime you can. Bynum is something of a punchline now, but he made an all star team and was a key part of multiple title teams. Eddie Jones is freakin’ Eddie Jones. Nothing else need be said.
Oh, and Kobe turned out pretty well in his own right.
Outside of the lottery, look at this résumé:
- AC Green (23)
- Vlade Divac (26)
- Elden Campbell (27)
- Anthony Peeler (15)
- Nick Van Exel (37)
- Derek Fisher (24)
- Ruben Patterson (21)
- Devean George (23)
- Mark Madsen (29)
- Brian Cook (24)
- Luuuuuuuke (32)
- Sasha Vujacic (27)
- Ronny Turiaf (37)
- Von Wafer (39)
- Jordan Farmar (26)
All those guys played at least a game with the Lakers and had careers which lasted beyond their rookie deals. For some of those spots, that’s basically all you can ask for. Green, Divac and Van Exel made an all star game. The vast majority of those guys played varying roles on playoff — it not title — teams. Only Wafer failed to last longer than six years in the NBA. That’s insane.
Hell, even Ruben Patterson’s career might’ve reached the decade mark had Kobe not murdered and buried him in the Portland woods.
You hear it all the time: a player’s development is highly circumstantial. All players enter the NBA with at least some talent; then it’s on the team to nurture and develop said talent. What we’ve learned, therefore, is that some franchises are better historically at (a) evaluating talent and (b) developing it. Lakers fans should feel pretty good about their franchise going the route of rebuilding via the draft.
The question begs asking: What have the Lakers done differently other franchises might have with their youth to ensure proper development? If we are to feel confident in this current rebuild, we should try to understand what led to previous success.
For one thing, when the Lakers feel they have a star, they do whatever they can to ensure that guy has everything he might need to reach his potential. This seems pretty straightforward, but as we’ve seen with various organizations’ levels of success, not everyone agrees on how best to do that, or has executed their plan as well as the Lakers have.
Take a look at coaching decisions with regards to actual superstars or guys who look like they might be able to make that leap. The second it looks as if a coach might not be the best option to groom that player (or players), they’re gone. Paul Westhead, Del Harris, and Byron Scott were shown the door rather unceremoniously when questions arose about their relationship with Magic, Kobe, and now Russell.
The first few years of a player’s career are absolutely critical for how things might turn out years down the road. Wasting time with a coach who you aren’t absolutely sure is the best fit can be incredibly detrimental and the Lakers’ proclivity for (a) noticing a suboptimal relationship and (b) acting upon it has been critical throughout the franchise’s history.
Next, have you ever noticed how quickly players find themselves on different teams if they might get in the way of a superstar’s development? Norm Nixon, Eddie Jones, hell even Shaq were gone to create more room for growth for Magic and Kobe. We haven’t seen that situation arise quite yet, but you definitely should notice how quickly Jordan Clarkson found himself off the ball (and even off the starting unit) to give Russell as much freedom as possible. The front office is invested in Russell. They believe in him. You probably should be, too.
Those are only a couple factors in talent, but they remain important all the same. Just as it requires great habits for an individual to reach their ceiling, habitually making such decisions is at least a foundation upon which to build an organizational résumé.
It’s important to note that on top of the quality of the roster surrounding this young core, this is a different organization from top to bottom than we saw groom the guys mentioned above. Dr. Jerry Buss famously wanted Magic and was around for every step of his career and the vast majority of Kobe’s. The Buss siblings, who haven’t gotten off to a great start in running the organization without their father, are tasked with watching over Russell, Ingram, Randle & Co. But, as noted above, they’re picking up on old habits, which can’t hurt.
We know what’s at stake. As unfair as it might be, the weight of one of America’s great sports franchises is riding on a few kids who (outside of Clarkson) would be looking at — at most — their senior years in college right now. All the excitement is due largely in part to the new-ness of everything. But look at L.A.’s history as a sports town. If we watch you grow to greatness from day one, you’re an icon. Kobe had an entire day devoted to him. Magic has become a mogul. Just wait ’til Kershaw hangs ’em up. If we get to watch an entire group of kids grow up to something close to those levels (a tall order, I admit), man, the closeness the city might feel to this team could be magical.
Here’s to hoping history repeats itself.