The Los Angeles Lakers are just past the halfway point of the 2015-16 NBA season and it’s time to take stock of who is performing and who isn’t. Yesterday, we passed out grades for the veterans and now it’s the prospects’ turn. Keep in mind that contracts matter, so a player performing poorly on a long-term deal will get a lower grade than one on an expiring contract.
Ryan Kelly: The man-bun rocking Kelly was drafted by the Lakers three summers ago in the second round, and it was thought that he could eventually develop into the prototypical stretch-four that then head coach Mike D’Antoni loves. After a promising rookie season, D’Antoni was shown the door and Kelly hasn’t been able to gain any traction with his replacement, Byron Scott.
He has only appeared in 15 games this season for the Lakers, and has had multiple stints in the D-League playing for the D-Fenders. Kelly is a skilled player and lights up the D-League, but Larry Nance Jr., Julius Randle, and Brandon Bass are all ahead of him on the depth chart for the Lakers. It also doesn’t help that his main skill is stretching the floor, but he is only shooting 19 percent from three this season, although the sample size is extremely small due to limited playing time.
If they can find a taker, the Lakers may look to move Kelly’s relatively cheap expiring contract at the trade deadline, so he has an opportunity for a fresh start. He is still young enough (24) to reignite his career in the Association, but it’s likely going to take a change of scenery to do so.
Tarik Black: After a solid rookie season in Houston and Los Angeles last year, it appeared that Tarik Black had the inside track to become the backup center of the future. While he is a bit lacking in the height department for a center (6’9”), Black makes up for it with brute strength and surprising athleticism. He gets off the floor quickly and excels at finishing out of the pick-and-roll, which figures to make him an ideal running mate for D’Angelo Russell. However, Lakers fans have been frustrated to watch Black, who posted an impressive PER of 14.76 last year, spend most of this season in Scott’s doghouse.
He has appeared in just 12 games, and has seen an even shorter player in Brandon Bass usurp his role as the team’s reserve center. Black does have some shortcomings, as he struggles to defend taller players and his midrange game is virtually non-existent.
Scott reportedly told Black last summer that he needs to solely focus on rebounding and defense, using former Detroit big man Ben Wallace as a model (Scott told him to “be a beast”). Apparently Black hasn’t been able to meet those goals just yet, which explains his limited playing time. Whether or not he can become that style of player is a mystery, and we won’t know for sure until he starts receiving consistent minutes. If the Lakers do indeed trade Brandon Bass and/or Roy Hibbert as they are rumored to be trying to do, then maybe Tarik Black will finally get his chance.
Julius Randle: The seventh pick from the 2014 Draft had Lakers fans in a frenzy at the start of the season as he held his own against some of the NBA’s best. Within the first few weeks, he has stood up to Kevin Garnett, killed Dirk Nowitzki inside, and matched Kenneth Faried’s athleticism. All this after he famously proclaimed “He can’t guard me” during a preseason duel with Draymond Green.
Unfortunately, a lot has changed since those early days of the season. Randle has been in free-fall, losing his starting job to Larry Nance Jr. as well as the confidence and bravado that he displayed early on. This is partially due to opponents catching on to Randle’s weaknesses and exploiting them mercilessly. Defenders sag off him on the perimeter, begging him to shoot open 15-foot jumpers that he can’t yet make consistently. They do everything they can to take away the drive and when he does get into the paint, his shot is often blocked or altered because he always brings the ball back to his left hand, sometimes awkwardly contorting his body to do so.
Defensively, he has been slow to react at times, and doesn’t look locked in. Recently, Willie Cauley-Stein stole multiple rebounds away from Randle and scored over him thanks to superior height and length. His transition game has also all but disappeared. There was a time when Randle grabbed defensive rebounds and took off down the floor, using his ball handling and passing skills to ignite an instant fast break. Now the majority of the time, he simply tosses the ball to a guard and jogs down into a half court set, though it isn’t clear if that’s a choice he is making or the coaching staff — or both.
Of course, it’s not all bad. Randle still has an extremely quick first step, is a monstrous rebounder, and is essentially still a rookie after missing all of last year with a leg injury. He has a lot of growing to do. If he can even get his jumper to a passable level over the summer and work on finishing with his right hand, the game will open up for him and we should see Randle return to the player he was at the start of this season.
Larry Nance Jr.: Quite a few jaws hit the floor when the Lakers selected Wyoming senior Larry Nance Jr. with the 27th pick in the draft. The vast majority of mock drafts had him being drafted near the end of the second round and more well-known players like R.J. Hunter and Kevon Looney were still on the board. Yet, Nance has spent much of the season proving that the Lakers made the right decision in selecting him. His quick feet and active hands make him a capable defender and on the offensive end, he has just enough range to help spread the floor. Nance has quickly become a fan favorite thanks to his hustle and the highlight-reel dunks he unleashes don’t hurt either. While many criticized the Lakers for taking Nance in the first round rather than the second, they now have him locked up on a steal of a contract long-term.
Anthony Brown: With the 34th pick in the draft, the Lakers selected Brown, another senior. The pick made a lot of sense, as Los Angeles was light on wing defenders and Brown was the best one available. His defense is far ahead of his offense at this point, but he may already be the best defender on the team. His long limbs and agility allow him to comfortably defend most perimeter players, and the hope is that eventually he can become the prototypical “3-and-D” wing player that the Lakers have lacked. He has had multiple stints in the D-League this year, but with Byron Scott committed to finding minutes for Brown over the second half of the season, he will have plenty of opportunity to grow.
Jordan Clarkson: Jordan Clarkson was one of the few bright spots for Los Angeles during the difficult 2014-2015 season, and this year he has cemented his spot as part of the future core. Clarkson is lightning-quick and can be very difficult to deal with out of the pick-and-roll thanks to his ability to hit the midrange jumper. His size (6’5”) allows him to float between either guard position, and the experience Clarkson gained running the team down the stretch last year has resulted in him being the most consistent young player this season. He still needs to improve his shooting from three, and his ball handling and passing skills could use refinement, but Clarkson has already become known for his hard work and should continue to develop nicely.
Clarkson isn’t locked up on a cheap, long-term deal like Nance is. Fortunately, he will be a restricted free agent this summer, which will give the Lakers the ability to match any offer and retain his services. Additionally, his deal should still be a bargain thanks to the league’s “Gilbert Arenas rule”, which limits the amount of money second round picks can make
D’Angelo Russell: Along with Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell makes up the other half of the backcourt of the future. As the second pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Russell has had massive expectations placed on him from Day 1. He received a mountain of criticism when he didn’t come out of the gate looking like an All-Star the way fellow rookies Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis did, but making the transition to the professional level at just 19 years old is extremely difficult.
Still, Russell has shown flashes of absolute brilliance, using both his scoring and passing to help stage multiple second-half comebacks this year. He can thread the needle with a look-away pass on one possession and then come down and bury a three on the next. Russell lacks the quickness that Clarkson brings, but he is learning how to use his body to create space to make up for it. On paper, Russell’s shooting and passing figures to compliment Clarkson’s skill set, but they are still a work in progress both individually and as a tandem.
Like Julius Randle, Russell lost his starting job earlier this year, but it doesn’t appear to have negatively impacted his confidence. After dropping a career-high 27 points on Sacramento earlier this month, he said,”Y’all ain’t seen nothing yet that’s all I’m going to say. They (Kings) got lucky but the world hasn’t seen anything yet.”
Certainly no lack of confidence there.
Accordingly, Russell’s production has slowly but surely improved every month, and it feels like it’s just a matter of time before explosive performances become more common. Russell does still struggle with turnovers on occasion, and has a lot to learn about running an offense and playing tough defense, but he will get there. He may require a bit more patience than Lakers fans would ideally like, but D’Angelo Russell appears to be well on his way to becoming a very good player.