The game was entertaining and well played for the most part. The Lakers competed well early and even held a lead late. Their defense forced turnovers early and their offense was capable throughout. In the end, though, the Lakers could not slow Kemba Walker and the team lost to the Hornets 109-104.
All in all, it was likely what most fans want out of a game as this season winds down. Julius Randle was a monster, hitting 10 of his 14 shots on his way to 23 points, 18 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks. D’Angelo Russell was also very good, scoring 23 points of his own while dishing out 9 assists to only 3 turnovers. Russell was especially dynamic in the 3rd quarter where, despite only making 1 of his 3 shots, he tallied 6 assists in a fantastic display of passing and decision making when running the team’s offense.
Beyond the good play of those two, Clarkson had a nice showing as the primary ball handler for the 2nd unit, posting 16 points on 7-14 shooting while chipping in 3 assists and 3 rebounds. And while Ingram did not play well offensively, he led the team with 42 minutes played and was his normal steady self providing solid defense and intangibles (ball moving, cuts, etc).
The production from the team’s young core aside, what stood out most to me was how this game was a real signal to a new era for the Lakers. These games, since the All-Star break, represent the first time in these players’ careers that they are undoubtedly the focus of the franchise and are being put into positions most players of their draft status (save for 2nd round pick Clarkson) would expect them to be in from the start of their careers.
Let me explain further…
The life cycle of most lottery picks is pretty straight forward. These players are almost exclusively drafted onto bad teams. Those teams then give these players outsized roles, grooming them to become foundational pieces of the future. These players experience varying levels of success in those roles to the point where teams can make informed decisions about how to manage them — hopefully gathering enough information by the time these players reach their 2nd contracts. Some players become the franchise altering players they were supposed to be, some fail miserably, and the rest fall somewhere within that range either as good rotation players for the team who drafted them or guys who drift from team to team because they did not show enough to justify being retained.
The Lakers young players, however, were put into a different and unique situation. Two years ago, in his rookie season, Julius Randle broke his leg in the first game of the year and did not play the rest of the year. Jordan Clarkson got lots of run that year, but that experience was skewed more towards the 2nd half of the season after Kobe Bryant was shut down due to injury.
The following season (last year), both Julius Randle and (then rookie) D’Angelo Russell played key roles, but also had their minutes and rotation spots jerked around by Byron Scott who also catered to Kobe Bryant who was in his farewell season. Kobe led the team in usage rate and, during the 2nd half of the season, it was no secret that the focus of the team was to get Kobe the ball to let him go to work. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this approach was in direct competition to developing the young players.
Fast forward to this year and while there have been huge strides forward in prioritizing the development of Russell, Randle, and rookie Brandon Ingram, it’s also not a stretch to say Lou Williams and the career year he’s been having became another variable in how the young players were used, deployed, and the context of the roles. Lou wasn’t exactly Kobe from a “name” perspective, but his play and production was such that he took on a very similar role as offensive hub and key closer.
Now that Williams has been traded, though, all that is left are the young players (and Nick Young). It’s the young guys who now have the reins and they will succeed or fail in roles which mirror where they were selected in the draft. For example, in his last 3 games Russell has posted a usage rate over 30 when his season rate was around 27. He’s showing more aggressive tendencies as a scorer and his assist numbers have been strong. Against the Hornets, Randle was similarly aggressive in looking for his own offense and post game Walton said he wanted Randle to show that type of assertiveness more often.
Now, to be fair, these are things Walton has said all year so this isn’t a departure from earlier points or a shift in rhetoric from him. But, saying those things and executing them within the context of the roster construction don’t always align. This was even more true in season’s past as highlighted above.
But now, those hurdles are gone and these young players are in the spotlight to perform nightly without any shield to deflect from them. I’m guessing, though, this is exactly how they like it even if it’s a year or two later than what most others drafted into similar positions would have experienced.