Following this season, the Lakers will be moving on from a historic era in their franchise’s history with Kobe Bryant retiring, but the young core in LA is something to look forward to.
After 19 years of donning a Lakers uniform, Kobe Bryant is retiring at the end of this season. He leaves behind a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten by basketball fans everywhere. But Bryant is also leaving behind a pretty terrible Lakers team that, after last night’s loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, is 14-52. But the last thing that Kobe is leaving behind might be the most important to his Lakers; and that something is their budding young core.
The core four of Larry Nance Jr.(23), Jordan Clarkson (23), Julius Randle (21), and rookie D’Angelo Russell (20), all have the potential to be stars in the NBA. Not to mention the Lakers will likely have a top five pick in the draft this year. Although each has played a secondary role to Kobe, they have all looked impressive at different points in the season.
Larry Nance Jr. is the son of former NBA Dunk Contest Champion Larry Nance, and certainly got his dad’s athleticism and hops. Nance starred at Wyoming before being selected by the Lakers 27th overall in last years draft. Nance has gotten his fair share of starts this year, but averages only 19.5 minutes per game. Despite that low number, Nance has shown some solid production, and averages respectable totals of 5.6 points per game and five rebounds per game.
Nance shows some solid touch around the hoop and easily finishes lobs and put-backs with his length and bounce. Despite being a bit old for a rookie at 23, Nance is still very much growing as a player and should only continue as he learns the speed and nuances of the NBA game. Nance has the looks of a great bench player and could even become a solid starter at his peak.
Jordan Clarkson is in his second year out of Missouri, and has made some positive strides this season. He’s raised his scoring average from 11.9 points per game to 15.9, which is second on the team to Bryant. His two biggest improvements this season has been his improved stroke from three and his consistency. After shooting just 31% from deep as a rookie, he’s raised that number to a respectable 37%. As a rookie, Clarkson would drop a 20 spot, then go silent the next time out.
This year, that has rarely happened. And like many of the players name above, he’s been better in March, discounting a forgetful performance against Cleveland. Down the line, Clarkson could be one of the better combo guards in the league, as his size and athleticism will allow him to play either guard spot, but he’ll have to improve his playmaking ability.
After breaking his foot in his first NBA game last season, Julius Randle has enjoyed a nice year in LA. The fourth overall pick out of Kentucky has been a force for the Lakers all year, as is averaging a double-double for his efforts. Randle drops in 11.7 points per game and snares a team leading 10.1 rebounds a game. Randle is a truck when driving into the lane, but doesn’t really go to his right hand all that often, which makes him extremely predictable on the blocks. But Randle is mobile and athletic enough to go coast to coast on a defensive rebound.
He’s best facing up against his man and driving, which shows his strength and toughness to finish in traffic. Randle may never be a standout on the defensive end as he’s a bit undersized at just 6’8″ and lacks length to get shot blocks, but will find success as a face up athletic four. Another positive for Randle is that he’s shown some promise from outside. He may only be shooting 29%, but his stroke looks good and he shoots it with confidence, and it could become strength of his at some point in his career.
What a rookie year it’s been for D’Angelo Russell. After struggling to get consistent minutes early in the year, Russell has been LA’s best player for a month now. Highlighted by a 39 point game against the Sacramento Kings, Russell has had a spectacular month of March. In six games, Russell is shooting a red hot 42% from three after shooting it at a 46% clip in February.
He’s showing all the skills that he displayed in college that made him the second overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. The rookie from THE Ohio State University is averaging 13.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, which leads the team. On the defensive end, he averages a team high 1.2 steals a game.
But where Russell will make is money, literally, is on the offensive end. Russell displays some nasty handles that allow him to create his own shot, drive and pass with ease. Russell has only gotten better as the season wears on, and it’s tough to tell where he would be had he received consistent minutes in November and December. Russell will find himself on the All-Rookie First Team, and should find himself on a couple of All-Star teams down the line.
The Lakers are losing a living legend in Kobe Bryant in a little over a month, but the skills shown by Russell, Clarkson, Randle and Nance Jr. should all be positive signs of things to come for this team down the line. It’s only a matter of time before the Lakers are among the NBA’s elite once again.
Cover Photo via SilverScreenAndRoll