The early-season shine is off the Baby Lakers. Now losers of eight straight, it's become abundantly clear at this point that they are exactly who we thought they were: a young team that may be fun and interesting, but is also not quite ready to win consistently—mostly because young teams generally don't know how to play defense. (The Lakers are 29th in the NBA in defensive efficiency heading into Thursday's games.) As they fall further back in the standings (they now have the eighth-worst record in the league), the season will become less about wins and losses and more about silver linings, primarily as it concerns the continued development of the players who comprise the Lakers' young core.
While that realization may be somewhat disappointing for fans and the team itself after they got off to a better-than-expected 10-10 start, it's actually quite all right. The skill sets and the role delineation of the group of players the Lakers expect to lead them into the future are beginning to take shape, but it's probably going to take some time for these guys to coalesce into whatever they're going to be. The Lakers have a league-high five players aged 24 or younger playing at least 20 minutes a night, but they're all progressing in fits and starts and flashing their skills at different rates. There's a reason Luke Walton has allowed them to share the floor for only five minutes all season.
D'Angelo Russell is the team's lead ball-handler and primary creator, but he's in more of a time share in that role than one might have expected given the team Walton's former employer and Russell's "Curry-lite"(-ish) skill set. He suffered an early injury and has seen his shooting decline from almost every area of the floor except beyond the arc, but he's also shown that the increased burden isn't altogether too much for him to handle. His presumptive backcourt partner, Jordan Clarkson, has instead come off the bench for most of the season behind Lou Williams. Williams has been scorching-hot all year, while Clarkson's adjustment to the role of off-the-bench microwave is still a work in progress.
Brandon Ingram and Larry Nance Jr. are coming off the bench as well, and both are primarily making use of their athleticism to help the team. Ingram has done surprisingly solid work as a perimeter defender, a testament to his long arms and quick feet. While he's struggled with his shot, he's shown the ability to get to spots on the floor against all kinds of defenders. Nance may or may not have pogo sticks for legs (let's check with Brook Lopez); he's doing good work on the boards, and especially in passing lanes and around the rim. Only 20 players league-wide have steal and block rates over 2 percent—Nance is one of them.
Last but not least is Julius Randle, who as a player doesn't seem to fit in the modern NBA but has found a way to succeed anyway. Randle basically looks like a tight end. He doesn't have a stretchy jumper. (He's 13 of 53 from three-point range in 107 games.) His arms are kind of short, so he can't really protect the rim. (Among 80 players challenging at least four shots per game, per SportVU data on NBA.com, Randle ranks 70th in opponent's field-goal percentage.) And yet it would be difficult to argue that he hasn't taken a sizable step forward this season, largely because he's figured out a way to be effective offensively despite not being able to stretch the floor. Randle has a well-rounded skill set that is taking shape, and it starts with Walton allowing him to operate from areas on the floor in which he's comfortable, and in actions that put him in position to succeed.
Randle's strong and crafty, but his height (6'9'') and short arms mean taller defenders can smother him in the post. He shot 32 percent on post-ups last season, per Synergy Sports, and is only at 40 percent this year. Give him some space and allow him to take his man off the dribble from the perimeter, however, and he finds much more success. He's got that quick-twitch first step some big men just can't handle, and this year he's shown an improved feel for reading the defense when he's on his way to the basket.
What Randle loves to do in iso situations is face his man up, give a quick jab step to put the idea of a drive toward his left (strong) hand in their head, then burst by them with a drive to the right before stopping on a dime and wheeling back around with a spin move so he can finish the play left-handed. It's a move that works well for him a lot of the time, but also one that smart defenders know he wants to get to—so they'll try to wait on it and spring a trap. "If they sit on it, I'll just go right or to a jump shot or my up-shoulder fake," Randle says. "It doesn't really matter."
Last year, there were 38 players in the NBA who finished at least two isolation possessions per game, per Synergy Sports data on NBA.com. Randle ranked in the bottom third (26th) in field-goal percentage on isolations among that group. This year, there are 41 players handling a similar helping of isos, and Randle has jumped into the top third (14th) in field-goal percentage. So, those counters—as well as the willingness to pass out entirely if they don't generate a look he likes—have helped him become a much more effective player off the drive this season.
Finishing around the basket is something Randle specifically targeted for improvement during the summer between his first and second seasons. "I worked on it, found out ways to be crafty down there," he says. That craftiness has paid off. Randle made just south of 57 percent of his shots within three feet of the rim as a rookie; that number has jumped to nearly 69 percent this year, making him one of the best interior finishers in the league. That's helped his overall efficiency creep up even while his shot-making from the back half of the paint has gone by the wayside.
That uptick in the passing department, meanwhile, is one that's filtered throughout his entire game this season. "I think playmaking fours are where it's at right now," Randle says. "Me being able to be versatile and do a lot of different things helps us be successful."
Randle isn't necessarily the quickest decision-maker in the world, but if you afford him the time and space to scan the floor, he sees a lot of lanes that other players don't typically scope out. He ranks eighth among all forwards in potential assists per game, per the SportVU data on NBA.com; were it not for the fact that his passes get converted into baskets at a lower rate than all but eight of the 50 forwards creating at least 3.5 a night, he'd be averaging much more than his 3.2 assists per game. (Only 45.9 percent of Randle's potential assists have turned into baskets. Compare that to, say, Matt Barnes, who at 56.6 percent has the eighth-highest assist-conversion rate among the group. That's the difference between Randle's current 3.2 assists per game clip and an average of 3.9 a night. It's not insignificant.)
Nevertheless, Randle has nearly doubled his per-36-minutes average in assists, and he's one of only 13 qualified power forwards or centers assisting on at least 17 percent of their teammates' baskets while on the floor. The improved assist numbers have brought with them a corresponding spike in turnovers this year, but that's unsurprising for a 22-year old attempting to stretch himself as a passer. As Randle continues to learn what does and does not constitute a productive passing attempt, those figures should diverge, to the benefit of the Lakers.
The next step for Randle, as is true for nearly everyone on the team, is figuring out what to do on the other side of the floor. Naturally, he pinpoints communication as the thing both he and the Lakers need to improve the most. "We don't have guys that talk a lot on the court. We don't have guys that are very vocal. Not selfishly—there just aren't really guys like that. It's just [a lack of] communication," he says. As for whether it'll just take time for them to mesh or whether it'll take someone stepping up to be the communication hub on defense, Randle thinks "it's a little bit of both," and that's probably true.
For much of their history, the Lakers have been a quick-fix franchise, partly because those fixes were always readily available to them. They've always had stars, and there have always been other stars elsewhere in the league who wanted to come to L.A. and join them. The current version of the team is going about things a little bit differently (at least for now), allowing a group of youngsters to make mistakes and learn from them in real time. It's a plan that'll take some patience, but one that, if all goes well, could bear great fruit. If and when it does, there will be plenty of players around the league who want to hitch a ride.
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