Lakers youngsters giving fans something to cheer about

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Los Angeles Lakers, Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell

 

Los Angeles Lakers, Jordan Clarkson, D'Angelo Russell
Photo via: Lakers.com

This season has been nothing short of a calamity for the Los Angeles Lakers, but fans can find solace in the fact that the team’s youngsters have been playing stellar basketball in the latter part of the season, proving that they’re capable of navigating the ship in the post-Kobe Bryant seas. 

Here are the numbers of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson in the month of March:

Russell: 23.6 points, 4.4 assists, 2.8 rebounds per game, 47% FG, 43% 3PT FG.

Randle: 16.4 points, 1.4 assists, 11 rebounds per game, 50% FG, 20% 3PT FG.

Clarkson: 19.5 points, 2.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds per game, 44% FG, 42% 3PT FG.

In Tuesday night’s 107-98 win over the Orlando Magic all three players scored 20+ points, the first time that’s happened since the trios been assembled. Each player is beginning to carve out their niche, and it looks as if these three are primed to thrivingly succeed the Black Mamba. 

Since the All-Star break, D’Angelo Russell is third in scoring amongst rookies playing at least 25 minutes a night with 19.4 points per game, and he’s second in three-point field goal percentage at 47.4% with that same minute qualification latched on. Lastly, Russell is 3rd on Offensive Rating at 106.8 amongst rooks logging at least 25 minutes a night since the break. He’s first in assist percentage over Emmanuel Mudiay at 26.1% since the ASB (Mudiay is at 26.0%), and his post-ASB 60.4 TS% ranks him in at fourth amongst first-year players.

And if you peel back the calendars even further, Russell is still at the summit in majority of the aforementioned statistical categories. I theorize that Russell’s recent stretch of brilliant play can be accredited to the All-Star break.

Byron Scott had spewed out a lot of head-scratching verbiage regarding Russell prior to the break, but one thing that he did do that I thought was important prior to the league’s week-long hiatus was name Russell a starter for the remainder of the season. If Russell did indeed have any qualms, he was able to go into the break knowing he’d come back and finally be able to steer the ship.

Los Angeles Lakers, Byron Scott, D'Angelo Russell
Photo via: USA Today

He was able to kick back and relax in Toronto with his fellow rookies and his buddy Clarkson, a duo that has been harmonizing since Russell was selected by the Lakers with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft last June. 

According to NBA.com/stats, the Russell and Clarkson pairing has yielded positive offensive results for the Lakers, but horrid defensive ones as well. In 180 minutes together since the break, the duo has an Offensive Rating of 106.6, but a Defensive Rating 117.8. 

Anyone who watches the Lakers knows these two need major improvements on the defensive end, especially Clarkson who has troubles operating through and around screens, and often gets lulled to sleep on that side of the ball. Clarkson has the quickness and athletic ability to round himself into a serviceable defender, but his instincts and discipline need some refining before we label him a factor on that end. 

I’d be interested to see how Clarkson would look in a more stable defensive scheme, but that may be addressed if the Lakers choose to axe Scott this offseason. But while Clarkson has his defensive misgivings, he’s been an offensive dynamo since the New Year and his production has been magnificent for most of the season but particularly as of late. 

Again amongst sophomores playing at least 25 minutes a night since the All-Star Break, Clarkson is third in scoring at 18.8 points per game behind only whom you may ask? Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, the first two guys selected in the draft in which Clarkson was chosen with the 46th overall pick.

If you run that same data for the entire season, Clarkson comes in at 2nd amongst second-year players in scoring at 15.9 points per game, again trailing only Wiggins’ 20.7 points a night. We may have seen regression from Clarkson in the playmaking department, but that can be accredited to the fact that he’s playing on a team with a slew of ball-dominant guards (Bryant, Lou Williams, Russell and Marcelo Huertas  just to name a few), and two more shot-happy players in Randle and Nick Young.

The opportunities to be a playmaker in the capacity he was last season are scarce, but Clarkson’s role is becoming more defined: a scoring two-guard who can man point guard duties for short stretches if need be. Knowing that he’d have to get accustomed to off-ball work, Clarkson toyed with his jumper this offseason and the results are reflected in his field goal percentages, most notably from behind the arc.

With the exception of December (21%) and January (32%), Clarkson has shot over 40% from downtown in each month, and he’s already made more threes this season (84) than he did all of last year (38) in only three more games played. He’s tied with the Brooklyn Nets’ Bojan Bogdanovic for second in three-point field goal percentage amongst sophomores (37.3%), and he’s fifth amongst all sophomores in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage behind marksmen such as Bogdanovic, Rodney Hood and Doug McDermott.

Los Angeles Lakers, Jordan Clarkson
Photo via: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Clarkson further diversifying his offensive game is something I’d like to see, and it’s something thats feasible after what we’ve seen during his short two-year tenure in the Association thus far. Adding a post-game is something I wouldn’t mind seeing, and he’s stopped shooting that floater we saw much of last season. 

And last but certainly not least, I’d like to see some modification in Randle’s game, as he’s a huge proponent of left-hand attacks of the basket (which makes sense because it’s his strong hand), but has cowered away from using his right hand and shooting from the perimeter, although he’s began embracing launching from the outside as of late.

Randle is an elite rebounder, and there are several metrics that coincide with this notion. He and DeAndre Jordan are tied second league-wide in defensive rebounding percentage (32.5%), and he’s 7th in rebounding percentage at 19.8%, ahead of glass guys such as Tristan Thompson, Kenneth Faried and Rudy Gobert.

Randle’s snagging down 10.1 boards a night, which makes him the 9th best rebounder in the Association and the best amongst sophomores.

Some may express concern about the handful of inefficient performances Randle has registered, but I assure you there is no reason to fret. Although the NBA acknowledges this season as Randle’s sophomore campaign, essentially he’s a rookie and first-year players tend to shoot gaudy percentages, especially one who currently has some major offensive limitations. 

Los Angeles Lakers, Julius Randle
Photo via: AP Photo

It’s not as if these restraints can’t be corrected, and the Lakers already recognize the importance in reconfiguring Randle’s game, most importantly his jumper. 

In the middle of this season, I found watching the Lakers to be such a headache. I had grown weary of Kobe chucking mercilessly, Byron’s buffoonery + his mishandling of Russell and Randle, and just about everything else that contributed to ugly showings and lopsided losses.

But sprinkled in those twenty-point shellackings were flashes that left me salivating for more, such as the Lakers’ (almost) epic comeback pioneered by Clarkson and Russell against the Sacramento Kings in a January road game or Russell’s late game heroics against the Minnesota Timberwolves a few months back.

I had wondered when Scott would loosen the leashes of the Lakers’ young pups and let them together roam freely, and the time appears to be now as the season winds down and Kobe grapples with an old and achy shoulder. This year is all about paying homage to the Black Mamba, and rightfully so, but fans have also been afforded a peek into the future, one that’s more blinding than what people may have initially thought. 

There has been excitement infused into the Los Angeles Lakers organization again, and watching their games is beginning to resemble that of a luxury thanks to Russell, Clarkson and Randle. Factor in youngsters Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown, and you’re looking at a team destined for Western Conference supremacy in the future. 

It may be time to say farewell to Kobe, but with this new era that is being ushered in, that becomes easier to stomach. D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle are the future of Los Angeles Basketball, and if that doesn’t elicit fear in the opposition, it certainly will soon. 

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