(VIA Bleacher Report) The Los Angeles Lakers, with D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson at the backcourt controls, didn’t have to wait long for their first bout with the boo birds. After the first quarter of their third game at the Las Vegas Summer League, Russell and Clarkson (and the rest of their teammates) got an earful from a house packed with Lakers partisans.
Russell, a supposed ace passer, had turned the ball over twice. Clarkson, an All-Rookie first-teamer known for getting to the cup, settled for jump shots—four without a make. By the end of the afternoon, Russell had tracked up eight turnovers against a single assist, Clarkson had nailed just three of this 14 field-goal attempts and the Lakers had slumped away with a 10-point loss to the New York Knicks.
It was an inauspicious showing amid an altogether unsatisfactory stint at summer league for the Lakers’ presumptive backcourt of the future. But as poorly as that pair played at times in Sin City, those who observed the most rudimentary glimpses of what’s to come in L.A. had (mostly) positive things to say about Russell and Clarkson.
“I think they’ll fit well together,” said one scout in attendance who works for an independent scouting service. “They can both shoot, pass and dribble. They can play both positions and split duties. They just need time to develop.”
This is especially true of Russell. At 19 and with a single year of seasoning at Ohio State, Russell is much further from reaching his considerable ceiling than the 23-year-old Clarkson, who spent two years at the University of Tulsa and another at the University of Missouri before turning pro.
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“Clarkson is who he is,” said another scout from an independent scouting service. “Russell will get there. He can be good, but they have to be patient with him.”
The need for restraint in Russell’s case was evident throughout summer league. In three of his five outings, he wound up with more turnovers than assists. Russell gave the ball away 27.4 percent of the time—the sixth-highest such rate in Las Vegas among players who used at least 50 of their teams’ possessions, per Synergy Sports (via Bleacher Report’s Dylan Murphy).
But Russell’s miscues weren’t for a lack of effort. If anything, he may have tried too hard to hit his teammates by fitting the ball into tight spots. To succeed at the NBA level, Russell will have to strike a more comfortable balance between pulling off the spectacular play and making the safe (and effective) one without sacrificing too much of his signature flair.
“I’m trying to make something out of nothing and guys aren’t open and I’m trying or, a lot of the times, our guys aren’t expecting it,” Russell said at summer league. “It’s just an adjustment.”
Part of Russell’s struggles stemmed from the caliber of competition and the sorts of schemes he faced. The Louisville native attracted an inordinate amount of defensive attention toward the end of his lone season at Ohio State, but most of those collegiate defenders paled in comparison even to the fringe NBA types that populate summer league rosters. Those higher-level opponents were quick to trap him off pick-and-rolls, adding even more discomfort to an already unfamiliar equation.
“I think he’s surprised with the physicality and the aggressiveness that NBA guys are going to trap those pick-and-rolls,” said one front office executive at summer league. “I think he has to learn where the coverages are coming from, and he also has to make his decision and turn that corner with a little more passion to make plays.”
Russell will need time to figure all of that out. “Summer league’s great for the adjustment process,” Russell added. “I’m young. I feel like I’m going to get better every game, every practice. Once I get under the system and get the hang of it a little better, I feel like the better I’ll possibly be.”
Once the real action gets underway, Russell will have to contend with defenders who are longer, stronger, more disciplined and better schooled than anyone he saw in Sin City.
“With D’Angelo, you just want to see him play,” said an NBA scout. “He’s great in transition. You want to see him play in the half court. You want to see him complement Jordan a little bit.”
That’s where having a safety valve like Clarkson will come in particularly handy for a young floor general like Russell. Clarkson made his mark as a high-flying basket attacker with a quick first step during his rookie season and put those same traits on strong display against inexperienced competition at summer league.
Clarkson finished summer league averaging 16.8 points per game, thanks in no small part to his aggression. For Clarkson, the key will be figuring out just how aggressive to be when he’s sharing the floor with Russell. If he’s patient and doesn’t force the issue, Clarkson can be sure that Russell, with his supremely sharp eye, will find him in strong scoring positions. As Bleacher Report’s Stephen Babb wrote:
By contrast, passing the rock is Russell’s bread and butter, the thing that’s drawn comparisons between him and the likes of Magic Johnson. Premature though it may be, the analogy isn’t entirely without merit. Russell sees plays develop before the rest of us mere mortals, and that makes him a dangerous man with the ball in his hands.
In due course, Russell-to-Clarkson could start to sound like another of Bill Macdonald’s verbal ticks on Lakers broadcasts. At the outset of the Lakers’ latest buddy cop flick, though, there figure to be plenty of the same sights that churned stomachs at summer league: Russell missing Clarkson, Clarkson finding Russell’s passes too hot to handle, the two young guards taking turns attacking like dueling banjos in the Georgia wilderness.
Playing alongside a noted shooting enthusiast like Kobe Bryant could be a problem for the young guards. Chances are Bryant won’t be shy to let it fly, not after watching his last three seasons end in injury and with retirement likely around the corner. That may mean fewer touches for Russell and Clarkson, who will need all the reps they can get to adapt to one another and to the NBA at large.
The good news is Russell and Clarkson are expected to start in 2015-16, with Bryant moving to the 3, per the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike Bresnahan:
Bryant, for his part, isn’t worried about the move.
“I don’t see what the big deal is about it, honestly,” he told Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears. “What does that even mean anyway? Everyone plays [expletive] small ball anyway. You got forwards that play like [guards]. [Centers] that play like [small forwards]. What’s the difference? Find me some actual [small forwards] and [power forwards] that actually post up now and then.”
The bad news for the Lakers is Bryant, who’ll be 37 when the new season tips off, will be tasked with guarding younger, faster wings while Russell and Clarkson try to find their bearings on that end.
“Long term, they’ll be alright,” said a scout. “They’ll be able to score, but I’d be worried about them defensively. They’re decently athletic, but young guards struggle defensively.”
As if the Lakers defense wasn’t already a mess. According to NBA.com, L.A. ranked 29th in defensive efficiency in 2013-14, surrendering 108 points per 100 possessions. The arrival of Roy Hibbert, a defensive ace at center, should help in that regard, but there’s only so much he’ll be able to do to alter shots if his teammates on the perimeter don’t hold up their end of the bargain.
The Lakers, then, can only hope Russell and Clarkson will be quick studies on that end from Bryant, a 12-time All-Defensive performer, and head coach Byron Scott, a hard-nosed defender in his own right. And if Bryant does call it quits after this coming season, L.A. might not falter defensively at his spot for long and won’t have as much difficulty allocating touches to its younger constituents.
In the meantime, there’s plenty that Russell and Clarkson can and should learn from Bryant while he’s sharing a locker room with them.
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“Kobe’s the ultimate professional,” said the executive. “What he’s going to teach those guys is work ethic and also how to win. Kobe’s won a championship. He’s been MVP, leading scorer in the league. He’s going to show them what it takes to get to that next level.”
Evidently, they’re not waiting around for Bryant to show them the way. Russell cut down considerably on his turnovers over the last two games—from eight in Game 3 to three apiece in Games 4 and 5—and closed out his time in Las Vegas with a 21-point eruption. Clarkson never quite recaptured his scoring magic from Games 1 (23 points) and 2 (19 points), but he did bounce back from an inefficient outing against the Knicks and had less to prove in Vegas than did Russell.
The Lakers are counting on Russell and Clarkson to continue to improve, as well they should. Players of their age and limited experience typically have tons of room to grow, albeit with the attendant pains. So far, with months to go until the start of the regular season, the Purple and Gold appear to have plenty of reason for such optimism.