The Lakers of 2015-16 will open their season with young talent holding the keys. Optimism is what the organization is clinging to as they hope with fingers crossed that by the All-Star break their young players will have developed enough and the Lakers will be in contention for a playoff spot. It seems, on the face of it, a steep hurdle to climb with unproven players at positions that are stacked in the Western Conference. Young players either sink or swim. Nevertheless, this is the new era of the NBA where the draft and player development is key to success.
Outside of the playoff loop several years ago, the Golden State Warriors drafted and developed Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. The Clippers drafted and developed Blake Griffin. Ditto for the Blazers and Damian Lillard, the Pelicans and Anthony Davis, the Grizzlies and Mike Conley, the Thunder and Kevin Durant and Russ Westbrook. All have been in the playoffs. All have taken their organizations to new heights, modeling a pattern of success the Lakers hope to follow.
What is happening in this particular cycle of the NBA is a heavy emphasis on the drafting of talent and then surrounding them, as they develop, with proven veterans, not the reverse. Respectfully, the order must be adhered to. No longer can the Lakers build their team backwards with dynamic stars first and then role players. To that end, the Lakers have done a decent job of talent selection which is the really tough part that gets some organizations confused (see: Philadelphia 76ers).
It has been a long time since the Lakers had a young and athletic backcourt but D’angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, 19 and 23 years old respectively, can operate on every part of their floor. Clarkson has an advantage since he started 38 games last year and was Rookie of the Month for March. He is a driven, high work-ethic player who figured the NBA game out mid-way through last season when he had the green light on a bad team. It served him well and the work he put in during the early summer has paid off in the summer league. Hands down, he is the Lakers best player in Las Vegas.
Russell has a long way to go because he is a rookie who has never played a NBA game. His talent is pure but talent is a small part of the equation. Since he will be thrown into the deep end on day one, Russell’s challenge will not just be to move the ball and get his teammates shots but to play within himself and not fall into the rookie trap of trying to prove he is worthy of the number two pick. Turnovers are key for Russell as he tries to acclimate himself to this level of play at 19 year of age.
Julius Randle, 20 years old, coming off a season in which he broke his leg has a lot to prove. There are two separate camps. Some believe Randle will never be an All-Star, he’s an undersized power forward who can’t finish at the rim. Others use Hawks forward Paul Millsap as an example of who Randle can become, a tough and aggressive power forward who uses his aggression to make up for his size. Randle has to prove he can stay healthy and handle the rigors of a NBA season at a position that is the most physically taxing on the body.
Anthony Brown, a four year player from Stanford, at 22, is a two way player who can stroke threes and play defense. The latter part of his game is the one that will get him a lot of minutes on the court for Byron Scott. If you can count on one thing this season, it is that Nick Young will be in the Byron Scott doghouse for not defending off-ball and for traditional Nick Young laziness which opens up opportunities for Anthony Brown.
Tarik Black was a Lakers pick up last season from Houston, an undrafted player who is a ferocious rebounder. He lacks explosiveness around the rim but he tracks the ball off the rim extremely well and is physical in the paint. He is 23 years old. Rookie Larry Nance, Jr. is the opposite. The 22 year old is explosive around the rim but isn’t very skilled and his ability to grab offensive rebounds, convert them into dunks and points, beat his man in transition and do the small things without getting into foul trouble will determine how many minutes he gets.
21 year old Robert Upshaw is a calculated risk only in the sense that he has a history of addiction and off court behavior that has gotten him kicked off teams. A seven foot talent, Fresno State and Washington let him walk and he hasn’t been on a team since January as he has been taking care of his personal issues. But it is not debatable what he can do on defense as far as blocking shots and defending in the paint. It makes him the kind of resurrection story that the NBA loves to promote and one that will restore his confidence in himself. Impressively, in the summer league he blocked Karl Anthony Towns shot. Twice. Immediately the Lakers signed him to a partially guaranteed contract.
Jabari Brown, a 22 year old, will fight for the back-up shooting guard position. He was in the D-league last year and played some games at the end of the season for the Lakers and has a nice shooting stroke and decent defense. The work he put in this summer to improve his game will determine what shot he has in the rotation.
All in all, the young guys out number the veterans. Young players need to learn habits, understand routine, respect the NBA work ethic regimen, get enough sleep, deal with social media critique. At their disposal will be Nick Young, Brandon Bass, Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams and Kobe Bryant. How well the young guys and the veterans mesh will tell a lot about the potential the Lakers have for a quality season. One thing is for sure. The Lakers of 2015-16 will never be called old, non-athletic or boring. They may or may not make the playoffs, but their brand of basketball will be a welcome change from the routinely dull product they put on the floor with players of marginal talent that sunk the organization into an abyss. In 2015-16, the excitment quotient will expectedly rise but will the wins? Stay tuned.
photo via basket4us.com