Charting the progress of the Lakers’ young guards is made harder by the circumstances under which D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson play.
Fully evaluating the young prospects on a team like the 76ers is impossible for how little that team’s circumstances simulate a standard NBA environment. What is Nerlens Noel without a serviceable point guard? What is Jahlil Okafor to do without sufficient perimeter shooting around him? And what of lesser players like Jerami Grant or JaKarr Sampson? Every team has contextual factors that need to be understood, but Philadelphia has taken that caveat to the extreme by again cultivating a historically bad offense.
The same scouting obstruction exists, despite a significantly more talented and experienced roster, for the Lakers. The coincidence of Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour and Byron Scott’s complete detachment from basketball reality have moved Los Angeles into a universe all its own. The combination is both dreadful from a competitive standpoint and murky from an evaluative one. Whatever the Lakers have in their young core is obscured by poor defensive infrastructure and an offense that can be hijacked at Bryant’s will.
These are crummy conditions in which to evaluate D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, a pair of guards who could be the backcourt of L.A.’s future. Those two have played just 110 minutes together this season without Bryant on the floor and thus without practicing an active deference. Russell, in particular, shifts his playing style dramatically whenever he plays alongside Kobe; while Russell has benefited from the attention Bryant draws, their minutes together turn the No. 2 overall pick into an accessory. Scott has also seen to it to quash his rookie guard’s natural momentum whenever possible by pulling him for fourth quarters in blowouts and close games alike and then communicating his wishes poorly, if at all. On Wednesday night, it was Bryant who broke the developmental stalemate by offering to sit down the stretch against Minnesota to let Russell go—a shocking bit of altruism given how Bryant so relishes those moments.
Russell delivered with 13 fourth-quarter points, including three on a gutsy jab-step three-pointer with a minute remaining and two more on a game-tying runner after sliding past Andrew Wiggins. Things weren’t exactly as smooth as could be for Russell and the Lakers in overtime, though allowing him to work out pressure situations is exactly the point of a lost season like this one. Wins are inconsequential to the Lakers. Practical learning experiences are not.
Scott has said and done many of the wrong things when it comes to his young players, but he’s quite right in asserting that Russell falls short of the Chris Paul-Kyrie Irving standard of rookie point guard readiness. Russell’s skill level is clear; few point guards of any kind are even regularly attempting the corkscrewing, needle-threading passes that seem natural to him. Where Russell comes up short is in the more nuanced work of actually running an offense. Having the feel to find the open man is a very different thing than having the feel to actually orchestrate.
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Russell’s offensive game is riddled with these kinds of translational issues. He’s a talented shooter who isn’t yet taking the right attempts or giving himself a good, balanced base. His work away from the ball is stale despite the fact that his cuts and curls could bring a useful element. None of this is too concerning for a 19-year-old guard thrust into a situation as strange as this.
Worth monitoring, however, is the way Russell’s foot speed—which is fairly pedestrian by NBA standards—shapes his career. You’re not getting lottery-level athleticism with Russell, which could be a problem if other areas of his game don’t develop as expected. There’s still room for him to be a dazzling point guard even without an explosive off-the-dribble game. Getting there will take an added sharpness in Russell’s shooting game, greater precision in his movement, and an extra layer of misdirection we haven’t seen from him yet. Seeking out driving opportunities whenever they manifest (and not just out of high pick-and-rolls) will be especially important if Russell struggles with breaking opponents down consistently, and he’s already attacking more off the dribble than he was at the beginning of the season.
It could be helpful to get Russell involved in a consistent dribble hand-off game, allowing him to fire around screens into what is essentially a pick-and-roll. This same mechanism turns players without explosive speed (like Atlanta’s Kyle Korver) loose to make plays for their teams. Russell could be killer if he took a hand-off with a head of steam, using some basic choreography to put his defender a step behind the play from the jump. Just look at the separation Russell gets here:
Of course, there’s only so much the Lakers could possibly do to compensate for those problems on defense. Russell might always be a bit outmatched in checking opposing point guards; while one shouldn’t expect a rookie (especially one this young) to defend well from day one, Russell is neither the fastest nor the most intuitive defender. What’s reassuring is that he’s trying. The focus may not always be there, nor the needed physicality. Yet Russell is making an effort to lock and trail, work around screens, and scramble to recover back into plays. Considering that his best defensive tools are his height and reach, that kind of commitment can make a difference in getting Russell into the thick of the action even after losing his mark.
Cross-matching will be an option given his size, though Russell is the kind of player the Lakers would be switching out of difficult assignments rather than into them. In that sense, his baseline performance suggests he may wind up being only somewhat limiting to his team’s defensive strategy. A good defensive team may have no problem at all incorporating Russell once he gets his legs under him. The key is matching him with the kind of flexible backcourt partner who can compensate for all that Russell cannot (or should not) do.
The jury is out on whether Clarkson could ultimately fill that role, though the evidence to date isn’t exactly encouraging. Clarkson is young, too—just 23 years old and in his second NBA season—with plenty of room to develop. Thus far, however, Clarkson hasn’t shown much aptitude for ball pressure and hasn’t quite found the cadence of in-possession recovery. This could change. It’s hard to peg Clarkson’s defensive prospects too exactly given all that goes wrong around him on that end. It also doesn’t help that his only pro coach hasn’t coached even an average defensive team since 2009.
Clarkson may be fine, in time, though ‘fine’ won’t likely round out the backcourt in the way the Lakers need. A team puts itself at a considerable disadvantage if it relies on so-so defenders at both guard spots. That kind of construction might support improvement to a point, though it comes apart under the rigor of high-level competition.
Fortunately, the Lakers reserve the right—and every reason—to wait and see. Clarkson’s restricted free agency will need to be resolved next summer, but the Lakers aren’t in any position to give up a player of his caliber. Options and assets are crucial to a rebuild like theirs. They don’t come by giving up a player like Clarkson without some clear, attainable alternative in mind. Both players are talented enough that their pairing deserves a fair shot outside of Kobe’s shadow, especially given how well Clarkson’s game could lend itself to a sixth-man role if the chemistry isn’t quite right.
As it stands, Clarkson is definitively the more capable scorer of the two. The midrange game that earned him opportunity last season is still on point and easily accessible. When he pushes his drives deeper, Clarkson shows great touch and clever decision-making on his runners and floaters. There’s always just enough of a threat that Clarkson might blow by his man to keep the defense off balance, opening up windows like this one:
If Clarkson keeps pushing himself as a driver, he and Russell could attack opponents with a swirling, dual pick-and-roll game. Russell has the vision to fire off skip passes and exploit pre-rotating defenders. Clarkson has the ability to change speeds and exploit mismatches, and the opening to drive-and-kick if not always the inclination. That Russell projects to improve as a shooter and Clarkson seemingly already has (he’s up to 41.1% shooting on threes, nearly all spot-ups) also bodes well for how they would pair in a ball-sharing offense.
What Russell and Clarkson need is a system that trusts them to be the players they are. That might not be possible in a season that seems tailored to servicing Kobe’s twilight, and when not is still complicated by a team of ball-stopping characters. It’s up to Scott and his staff, then, to do a better job of finding opportunity for his young guards without Bryant’s prompting. A retiring legend really shouldn’t be the voice on the bench mindful of this team’s future. Yet here Scott’s Lakers are, still operating as if the small stakes of any game this season mean a damn thing.