There is a different vibe around the Lakers these days, and it’s not just because they’ve managed to win three of their past five games, with all three of those wins coming by at least 14 points. After all, the Lakers are just 15-27, and while that puts them only three games out for the West’s final playoff spot, the postseason is very much a long shot.
That doesn’t much matter. Here’s what one Western Conference scout said about the state of the Lakers: “If you made a list of the 20 best players who are 22 or under, I think you’d have to have all three of the Lakers’ young guys on there. They’re three of the best young guys in the league. There’s really not a lot of teams can say that, and I think a lot of mediocre teams would like to swap rosters with the Lakers right now.”
The three young guys, of course, are 19-year-old Brandon Ingram, 20-year-old D’Angelo Russell and 22-year-old Julius Randle, all of whom appear to have their sea legs after a wobbly start this season. Ingram, Randle and Russell are in the top 16 in minutes among 22-and-under players, the only such trio from one team other than Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns from Minnesota.
Randle has been the most consistent of the three, averaging 13.7 points and 8.7 rebounds, while seeing big improvements in his passing (3.8 assists per game) and shooting (49.2 percent, up from 42.9 percent last year). Randle is taking fewer mid-range jumpers this year, but his percentages have bumped up on shots from 10 feet out to the arc, showing promise that he eventually could stretch into a 3-point shooter.
Russell has seen his shot improve and regress in fits and starts, in part because of a knee injury that kept him out from late November into mid-December. But his confidence and ability to lead the team has taken hold in L.A., after a year of suffering from a lack of development under coach Byron Scott and in the shadow of retiring Kobe Bryant. It’s only six games, but since the New Year, Russell has averaged 18.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists.
Most encouraging, though, has been the way that Ingram has begun to break through, scoring in double digits in each of his past four games and shooting 50 percent or better from the field in five straight. Ingram is loaded with talent, and sometimes displays so much versatility that he doesn’t know on which area of his game he should focus.
But, the scout said, “He is probably going to be the best of the three. When you look at his physical assets and what he is capable of just from a raw potential perspective, the sky is the limit. He has to be developed;that’s obvious. He looks to me like he is learning to assert himself more out on the floor. He’s got to figure out where he fits between Randle and Russell. But they’re so young, there will be plenty of time to make that smoother.”
Indeed, it looks like there will be a good deal of time. That’s because the Lakers are not moving any of the three, even as we enter the silly season of NBA trade discussions. According to league sources, the Lakers have not included any of the three into trade discussions, and do not figure to change that. They’re unlikely to consider moves involving their two other young role players, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., who figure to be key parts of the rotation in the near future.
The Lakers have inserted themselves on trade talks this season and will continue to do so. They had talks with Atlanta about Paul Millsap and expressed interest in Nerlens Noel, if the Sixers decide to go ahead with a deal for him. But the best asset the Lakers can put forth is a future draft pick, probably not until 2021 depending on how the lottery plays out this May. That’s going to limit their activity on the market, and there is a chance they could even be a seller with a veteran such as Luol Deng.
The draft pick issue has become a fascinating one. The Lakers owe the 76ers their 2017 selection unless it lands in the top three via lottery. That means they either will have another terrific young prospect, from a loaded draft —albeit one short on centers, the Lakers’ biggest need — or nothing. If the Lakers keep the pick, though, they have to give the Sixers their 2018 selection with no protections at all. The value of that pick hinges on how quickly this core can start winning.
The team has long sought a big-time name to lure to L.A.and struck out on LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard in free agency. But the buzzword now is patience. The Lakers’ ability to pursue free agents in the last few years was hindered by the presence of Bryant because potential signees knew that Bryant’s injury-addled, end-of-career seasons were going to be a struggle.
Bryant’s gone now, so the hope is that free agents can look afresh at the Lakers now with a rebuilt core of young players and Walton, who also is making his mark as a coach well-liked by players and respected despite his own youth (36). That will be the approach going forward.
It might not come immediately, but the Lakers have pulled themselves off the immediate-gratification carousel. They’re opting for patience. They’ve got three young players — three of the best young talents in the league — worthy of it.