The current version of the Los Angeles Lakers are surrounded by perpetual uncertainty. With Kobe Bryant retiring and this summer’s draft pick very much up in the air, no one knows exactly what next year’s lineup is going to look like (or who the head coach will be, for that matter).
However, we do know that the legendary franchise has brought on board a mass of young talent over the past few years, and their development will play a large role in bringing the team back from the abyss.
In fact, in the modern NBA where rebuilding through the draft is nearly a must, it’s almost impossible to understate the importance that Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and D’Angelo Russell have for the Lakers franchise.
Yet, for much of the season, it didn’t appear that head coach Byron Scott agreed with this assessment. Scott continually criticized his young players off the court while shifting their roles on it. One day Russell and Randle were starters, the next they weren’t, with only vague explanations given. Clarkson, the most trusted of the trio due to the experienced he gained last season, has bounced back and forth between shooting guard and point guard so often that his head has to be spinning.
“I haven’t been the easiest man on (Russell) in the world,”
To many fans, Scott’s handling of the Lakers precious young core has been unforgivable, and calls for his head have only grown louder as the season has gone on. After all, Lakers fans are smart, and they understand just how crucial the growth of the young players is in the fight to get the team out of the mire. The easiest way to attract a superstar to fill the Kobe-sized spotlight is to already have one on the roster, so finding out if Clarkson, Russell, or Randle can be such a player has to be the top priority.
If Scott (or anyone else for that matter) appears to do something counter-productive to that end, they will feel the wrath of the largest fan base in the NBA.
From Scott’s perspective however, as a no-nonsense coach who played during the more-physical Showtime era, his efforts actually are developing the young players.
And he may be right.
Byron Scott came into the NBA under the tutelage of Pat Riley, the famed Lakers head coach renowned for his GQ look and tough-love style. Spartan-esque practice sessions were held in an effort to increase mental and physical durability (modern sports science tells us this can actually increase the likelihood of injuries), and needling players through the media in order to improve performance was the norm. Scott’s coaching techniques reflect this, even though his “man up” mantra can come across as dated and has alienated fans. Still, some appreciate his old-school sensibilities.
Whatever your opinion of Scott, there is no question that his on-court strategies haven’t been successful. Brought in to teach the defense that Mike D’Antoni couldn’t, Scott’s Lakers are currently dead last in the league in defensive rating, while simultaneously falling second-to-last in offensive rating. Any way you slice it, that’s bad and shockingly so.
However, while Scott’s on-court strategies clearly haven’t yielded results, the young Lakers do appear to be growing. While many panned the decision to move Russell and Randle to the bench, it appears that both players have now returned to their starting roles with a bang, and Clarkson continues to flourish.
Scott has attempted to impart the lesson that everything — even playing time — must be earned. Some may take issue with the way that he went about it, but on the surface, it isn’t a bad message for young players.
More importantly, it just may be finally resonating with them.
Randle was forced back into the starting lineup after a stint on the bench thanks to an injury to Larry Nance Jr. and over the last 30 days as a starter, he has averaged a double-double with nearly 13.5 points and 12 rebounds. Furthermore, Randle struggled mightily with his shot as a bench player, connecting on just 37 percent of his attempts, but since returning to the starting five, he has brought his shooting all the way up to a respectable 48 percent.
Even more impressive, when adjusted for minutes, Randle is currently the fifth-best rebounder in the entire league. Not bad for a de-facto rookie.
D’Angelo Russell’s improvement is even more pronounced. Since returning to the starting lineup four games ago, Russell is averaging 17 points, 5.3 assists, and just 1.3 turnovers compared to 12.4 points, 3.3 assists, and 2.5 turnovers off the bench.
While Scott did recently throw some thinly-veiled criticism Russell’s way for his lack of leadership, there is no question that the young guard is poised for a strong finish to the season.
In fact, Russell’s ascension is somewhat similar to the one that we witnessed last year from Clarkson, who was unleashed upon the starting lineup in January of 2015 and hasn’t looked back since. For his part, Clarkson has handled Scott’s ever-changing rotation admirably, and is the only member of the young core to have stuck as a starter all season.
Clarkson appeared in the Rising Stars challenge during All-Star weekend, and went on a three-point barrage that had him firmly in the running for MVP of the game (Zach LaVine ended up getting the award).
Since then, Clarkson has shot a scorching 47 percent from deep and upped his scoring average from 15.4 points to 18.2. Additionally, with Russell back into the lineup for good, Clarkson appears to be comfortably settling into his role as a shooting guard. While he still plays point guard whenever Russell is out, the pressure is off Clarkson to bring the ball up the floor for much of the game. This has allowed him to become a more effective playmaker by catching the ball and attacking rather than having to run an offense, and has caused his assists actually go up from 2.5 per game to 3.6.
It appears that even Clarkson has benefitted from the rigors of a mentally taxing season, and is now hitting his stride with a more-defined role.
Of course, the giant caveat here is that it’s difficult to ascertain just how much of the young player’s success Scott should get credit for. It’s always possible that their development came in spite of Scott’s methods rather than because of them, but considering the fact that Scott groomed both Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving, that appears unlikely. The players themselves absolutely take a large chunk of the credit for continuing to work hard, but Scott certainly deserves some praise as well.
Now, whether or not that success counterbalances the undeniable failures that the team has endured while in his charge is another question — one that will have to be answered by general manager Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss this summer.
Regardless, the bottom line is that Lakers fans can feel optimistic about the future. There will be plenty of time for nervousness between the end of the season and the draft lottery, but the final 22 games should provide a promising glimpse of the future. Byron Scott isn’t perfect, but if nothing else, the kids are growing up right before our eyes.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats