Los Angeles Lakers lottery picks D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle play through a tricky purgatory.
LAS VEGAS—With his first Summer League action less than an hour away, Lakers forward Julius Randle walked deliberately through the Thomas & Mack stands, as lines of young fans formed like comet trails behind him and sections of gawking adult fans rose to their feet respectfully, as if he was presenting the flag. A few days later, Lakers rookie guard D'Angelo Russell sat at a table signing autographs, with overwhelmed staffers going up and down letting the waiting crowd of hundreds know that there would only be time for signatures, not selfies.
There's no better place than Summer League to get in on the ground floor of a rebuilding effort, and this week's action has made it abundantly clear that Lakers fans are ready for the future. What's not quite as clear: Are the Lakers' future building blocks ready for primetime?
The event's opening weekend set attendance records—drawing more than 12,000 fans on Saturday and 11,000 fans Sunday—thanks to the anticipation surrounding L.A.'s lottery pick duo of Randle and Russell. So many Lakers fans filled up the Thomas & Mack's lower bowl that the public address announcer asked the general admission audience to squeeze together to free up seats for late-arriving fans, and arena workers removed curtains covering the upper decks so that the usually empty sections could be used as overflow seating.
Although the Summer Lakers were welcomed to the court for their first game with a hearty standing ovation, the reception hasn't always been positive. Following a five-point first quarter stinker against the Knicks, the Lakers were loudly booed as they returned to their bench. Through Wednesday, L.A. had a 1-3 record, with the only victory coming against Philadelphia, who is winless in Las Vegas. Both Randle and Russell have struggled more than they have thrived this week, and Wednesday's last-second loss to Dallas ended in disheartening fashion for the pair. Randle was unable to get off a potential game-winning before the buzzer sounded, while Russell committed a crucial turnover with less than 30 seconds left.
The fans in attendance groaned at another loss, and media members chuckled loudly at coach Mark Madsen's final play design, which produced a 40-foot heave for Randle, who made only three three-pointers during his entire freshman season at Kentucky. Madsen immediately rushed to the defense of his two prospects, using his post-game press conference to throw himself under the bus for the final play and his misuse of timeouts.
"I was trying to get a deep pindown, to get the ball to Julius," Madsen explained, rushing through the words. "With 1.4 [seconds], have him make a play. Bad play. Bad play. I told that to Julius after the game. Julius did everything he was supposed to do. I drew up a bad play. ... The late-game clock management was very poor by myself. I want to give the players more and better."
Of course, a botched play design during an offseason scrimmage isn't the end of the world. But Madsen's over-enthusiastic self-immolation hinted at the impatience his franchise is facing after two straight lottery trips. Lakers fans expect to win, always, even if two of their key drivers are 20 (Randle) and 19 (Russell) years young. This week's takeaway: it's a good idea to pump the brakes.
The slow go was part of the plan for Randle, who continues to work back from a season-ending leg injury suffered on opening night. In Las Vegas, he has been limited to 20 minutes per game and he was held out on the second night of a back-to-back. His numbers—11.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.3 turnovers, and 39.3% shooting—haven't been particularly pretty. The good news: Randle hasn't played with obvious hesitancy after the injury, he hasn't suffered a setback or appeared to drag because of his leg injury, and he told reporters Wednesday that the minutes limit is "killing me" because he wants to show more.
Nevertheless, the lost season has put Randle's progress on pause. The strength of his game is his offense, and there he remains very, very predictable. His preference for directly attacking the basket is obvious, his reliance upon his left hand is even more obvious, and his finishing ability has been lacking. "I've got to be better," he said after going 2-for-8 in the loss to the Knicks. "End of story."
Randle's comfort with the ball in his hands and natural scoring drive help him draw lots of contact, and he's been a regular at the free-throw line. But for much of this week, he has been a one-tricky pony, albeit a very muscular and determined pony.
"Everything he does is going left," said one NBA talent evaluator in attendance on Wednesday. "If he drives right, he just spins back left. He looks to drop-step left every time. He's had a few dunks but he doesn't consistently get above the defense to finish. He's used to being the strongest guy on the court and bullying his way to lay-ups."
Smart NBA-level defenders will easily gameplan for this version of Randle, setting up to take charges, ignoring his fakes and spins to contest his shots at the rim, and daring him to shoot from midrange. L.A.'s trade for Roy Hibbert also presents complications for Randle, as L.A.'s offense was already space-deprived. Hibbert's arrival ensures that Randle will be driving into clogged lanes against multiple defenders, without a reliable dump-off outlet when he collapses the defense.
"If he stays on this track, there's going to need to be a transition where he shifts his mentality to become a valuable complementary scorer rather than the lead guy he has been," the talent evaluator continued. "He needs to develop more options or he will need to move back in line."
One obvious question here is how much freedom Randle will have to pursue life as a primary scorer in the short term. The Lakers have a host of high-usage players on the roster (Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, and offseason addition Lou Williams, among others) and their top backcourt options are inexperienced (Russell and Jordan Clarkson). That's not exactly a recipe for a loose leash.
Plus, Randle faces a possible positional identity crisis going forward because he's not built or wired to dominate as a traditional four. His ability to face up and drive make him a more natural spread four option, but his comfort zone doesn't reach out to the three-point line, which has become the default expectation for small-ball power forwards. To his credit, Randle understands that his jumper—even if it's just from the elbow—needs to get significantly better so that he can get to the basket more easily and set up a drive-and-kick game for his teammates.
"[My jumper] has to be a consistent part of my game," he said. "For me to reach my potential and be as effective as I want to be, it has to be a consistent part of my game. It's something I've been working on all offseason."
As for Russell, the draft night hype has dissolved into an off-kilter adjustment period endured by many young point guards. The Ohio State product is averaging 9.5 points, 3.8 assists and 5.8 turnovers while shooting 31.7% overall and 7.7% from deep. Russell's unsightly assist-to-turnover ratio bottomed out at 1-to-8 during a loss to the Knicks, as he missed cutters, got stuck in the air, found himself boxed in by crowds and had quality passes fumbled away through no fault of his own. Madsen actually pulled Russell from the game down the stretch, a decision the rookie said he "applauded" because he wasn't performing to the necessary standard.
"D'Angelo was a little bit out of sorts tonight," Madsen admitted after the loss. "Today was a game where D'Angelo wasn't D'Angelo. That's OK. This is his first experience at this level. He works hard, he wants to be great and he will be great. People have off games."
There were plenty of confidence-killing elements at play: Russell is facing better competition, his outside shot just hasn't been falling, he's found himself doing a lot of dribbling on the perimeter without getting anywhere, and the roster pieces around him aren't really anything to write home about.
"It's an adjustment trying to be relaxed, poised and patient at the same time as running the offense and keeping guys interested," Russell said of his struggles against New York. "I forget that it's just Summer League. I'm trying to get better so fast instead of being patient and letting it come to me. ... In college, I remember struggling a little bit in the beginning. I'm glad I'm getting it out so I know what to prepare for when the season comes."
Russell got a touch snappy when asked if perhaps the passing windows were closing more quickly than they did at the NCAA level.
"Hell no," Russell said. "I'm forcing it. I'm trying to make something out of nothing. Guys aren't open when I'm trying or our guys aren't expecting it."
He looked better against Dallas on Wednesday, posting five assists against three turnovers and producing one beautiful dime. Working his way through a high screen in his trademark style, a smooth herky-jerky movement that looks like James Harden on fast forward, Russell got to the foul line, faked a jumper, and split two defenders with a bounce pass that led to a Tarik Brown dunk. This was the type of play that had Lakers executives and fans drooling during the pre-draft period.
"I'm just settling down," Russell said Wednesday night. "A lot of those turnovers are from risk-taking. It's successful sometimes, but at this level it doesn't work all the time. Just slowing down and being patient."
Like Randle, the regular-season roster fit for Russell isn't as clear as it should be: Clarkson enjoyed a solid rookie season and will spend some time at the one, Williams received $21 million over three years this summer and is a capable ball-handler, and Bryant looms as a ball-demanding, ball-stopping possession sponge. Often, a No. 2 overall pick can expect the keys to the car, but that approach would require trust from coach Byron Scott and space from Russell's veteran teammates. A more likely alternative might see Russell eased into his responsibilities more gradually, and Madsen has been using him off the ball this week.
"D'Angelo can play the one, D'Angelo can play the two, and D'Angelo can play the three in some situations," Madsen said. "[Moving him off the ball is] just giving D'Angelo the full breadth of the spacing and spots he might find himself on the floor."
While positional versatility is generally a desirable quality, this approach feels more like a crutch that should go away sooner than later. If Russell is going to deliver on his draft position, he will need the ball in his hands and he will need to play at his natural spot, where he can use his excellent vision and play-making instincts to lead an offense. How long will it take for that transition to unfold?
"[Russell] hasn't taken the league by storm but that's okay," said a second talent evaluator. "Don't kill the guy yet just because [the Nuggets' No. 7 pick Emmanuel Mudiay] has outplayed him. Mudiay should look better here."
Such calls for patience in mid-July are almost always correct, and the extenuating circumstances surrounding both Randle and Russell are obvious. Randle is stuck balancing his recovery with his desire and need to grow as a player. Russell is a pass-first player wedged into a shoot-first summer environment without NBA-caliber pass recipients. It should get better, and soon.
Together, though, Randle and Russell enter the 2015-16 season facing a tricky purgatory: The next era of Lakers basketball, their era, is still a hypothetical out there on the horizon rather than a training camp reality. As the rabid fans wait anxiously on them, they wait too.