The Los Angeles Lakers are somehow getting younger and growing up before our eyes at the very same time. Thursday’s selection of guard D’Angelo Russell with the No. 2 overall pick has taken the Purple and Gold narrative to a happier place, a meditation on the future rather than preoccupation with an unlucky and injury-riddled recent history.
The organization has its youth movement to thank for the rosier outlook, including the now-healthy Julius Randle, who enters the season as the club’s ostensible starting power forward. Elder statesman and all-around icon Kobe Bryant just might add a little something to the equation after recovering from rotator cuff surgery to repair his right shoulder.
Generally speaking, things are getting better in L.A.—all the more so if free agency yields a prized acquisition or two.
But for the moment, the real excitement pertains to what’s become of a young backcourt that suddenly includes two oversized point guards with all kinds of upside. Their promise is so intriguing that Bryant may spend some time at the 3 spot this season, leaving Russell and 23-year-old Jordan Clarkson to handle guard duties.
It would be premature to predict any starting lineups (particularly in light of pending moves in free agency), but we can reasonably assume that head coach Byron Scott will look to make the most of his young talent—even if that means resorting to a creative lineup or two.
At least one half of the young pairing believes they can play together rather than subbing in and out for one another, per Bleacher Report’s Jared Zwerling:
Indeed, a backcourt combination of Russell and Clarkson would be dynamic on both ends of the floor, which is potentially great news for a club that ranked 29th league-wide last season in defensive (in)efficiency, yielding 108 points per 100 possessions, according to Hollinger Team Stats.
The sheer size of the two guards should create problems for opponents’ passing lanes and scoring opportunities alike. Length is pretty nifty that way. Russell and Clarkson are both 6’5″—ideal height for a shooting guard but well above average for a point guard. Regardless of who comprises the Lakers frontcourt (and thereby supplies the rim protection), L.A.’s new-look backcourt should at least make opposing floor generals work a little harder.
The positional interchangeability should also pay dividends when it comes to switching on the defensive end, an increasingly preferred strategy in a basketball world dictated by the pick-and-roll.
Russell and Clarkson can guard virtually any perimeter player, allowing them to stay in front of ball-handlers after a screen. It’s a strategy the reigning champion Golden State Warriors employed consistently by virtue of their seemingly position-less lineups.
The Lakers have a ways to go before one can seriously compare them to Golden State (on either end of the floor), but imitation is more than just flattery here. It could also be L.A.’s best hope of slowing down opposing offenses—or at least starting to.
On the other end of the floor, these guys could complement each other effectively. That’s no small thing. As bad as the Lakers were defensively, they ranked 23rd in offensive efficiency with just 100.8 points per 100 possessions, per Hollinger Team Stats. Bryant and Randle will correct that to a large degree, but they’ll need help.
Without help from the young guards, L.A.’s predicament is predictable enough. Bryant catches the ball; he sizes up the defense; he puts up a difficult shot while his teammates look on in starstruck appreciation and awe. It’s happened before, and it could well happen again—particularly if general manager Mitch Kupchak comes up short in his pursuit of quality free-agent talent.
Averting such a catastrophe requires another source of playmaking, and that’s where Russell comes in. Clarkson can do his part, too, but that part only entailed 3.5 assists in 25 minutes per contest last season.
By contrast, passing the rock is Russell’s bread and butter, the thing that’s drawn comparisons between him and the likes of Magic Johnson. Premature though it may be, the analogy isn’t entirely without merit. Russell sees plays develop before the rest of us mere mortals, and that makes him a dangerous man with the ball in his hands.
As the Los Angeles Times‘ Eric Pincus recently noted, “Via the use of eye-tracking technology, D’Angelo Russell was able to recognize passing targets in .241 second, about 10 percent quicker than any athlete [ESPN’s] Sport Science has measured including Washington Wizards guard John Wall, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and IndyCar driver Will Power.”
The crazy part is that Russell is still just 19 years old. This stuff is innate.
“He has gifts that you can work really hard and long on, and still not acquire those gifts,” Kupchak told reporters after the draft. “Some of them you’re just born with or somebody sprinkles a little gold dust on you at some point—it’s just there.”
The Ohio State product averaged 5.0 assists per game last season, but one should keep in mind that he was also expected to carry the scoring load—to the tune of 14.7 field-goal attempts per contest. It’s not hard to imagine him becoming an even more active facilitator when surrounded by NBA-level scorers.
Then there’s the shooting ability. Russell made 41.1 percent of his three-point attempts last season, and his stroke is about as good as it gets among rookie prospects. So when Clarkson uses the word “dynamic” to describe this tandem’s potential, he isn’t lying. As much as the Lakers will want the ball in Russell’s hands, they’ll also use him off the ball and put him in situations where he can catch and shoot.
Russell may not be a certified stopper defensively, but Lakers fans will forget all about that as soon as they see him creating for himself and others alike.
By comparison, Jordan Clarkson isn’t as skilled in either the passing or shooting phases of the game. He only made 31.4 percent of his three-point field goal attempts during his inaugural campaign with the Lakers, a sore spot for an otherwise efficient contributor.
Clarkson is quite the slasher, however, and his in-between game was better than one might have expected from a guy who was selected with the No. 46 overall pick in the second round of 2014’s draft. And at age 23, there’s still plenty to like about his potential. This won’t just be the Russell show.
Frankly, it remains to be seen just what kind of show it’ll be. We know that Bryant will play a lot. We know another star—whether it’s DeMarcus Cousins or LaMarcus Aldridge—would be instrumental in accelerating the organization’s rebuilding process. Barring the inclusion of Russell or Clarkson in any trades, we can also assume they’ll each be key pieces one way or another.
But rest assured that nothing is final until Scott issues the final verdict. Clarkson may like the idea of playing Bryant at small forward, but—then again—of course he would. That’s the scenario in which he inherits the most playing time and a potential starting role.
So some patience is certainly in order for now.
However Russell and Clarkson figure into the rotation, though, this much is almost certain: There will likely be opportunities for the two floor generals to coexist on the floor, and that’s a good thing for Los Angeles—both today and well into a potentially bright future.