D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle spent their week at the Las Vegas Summer League trying to find their sea legs. But a much larger challenge lies ahead—these future stars will be largely responsible for restoring their team to its former glory.
Talk about pressure.
Headliners that were courted this summer but declined to hop aboard, include LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan and Greg Monroe .
Los Angeles has been caught in a catch-22 cycle in recent years, aging upward during its championship era before ultimately stripping down to one main asset. Kobe Bryant is the lone holdover from better days, and other established stars have not been quick to join him.
Without elite upgrades, management has resorted to cost-cutting ragtag rosters, rendered even more ineffectual through a seemingly endless injury curse. What has resulted from years of downward-trending seasons, however, is back-to-back trips to the draft lottery for just the second time in franchise history.
And without marquee free agents riding to the rescue, it’s going to be up to the new generation to set the tone.
Russell and Randle will get considerable assistance from All-NBA Rookie first-team selection Jordan Clarkson, as well as other recent draftees and young bloods.
And of course, the Lakers won’t be solely powered by NBA neophytes this season—not if superstar Bryant has anything to say about it. There can be little doubt, however, that the Mamba, in his 20th season, represents glories past, not those that are yet to come.
It’s not as if the front office has completely shot blanks during this summer’s free-agency period either, acquiring center Roy Hibbert from the Indiana Pacers while also signing sixth man Lou Williams and veteran power forward Brandon Bass. But those additions don’t represent cream-of-the-crop NBA stars.
Heading into summer-league action, there was an anticipation that fledgling greatness was about to unfold. Instead, Lakers fans were treated to a mixed bag of basketball headlined by Russell—the team’s 2015 No. 2 draft pick—trying too hard and showing he isn’t quite the ready-made superstar some were expecting.
“Every game matters to me,” the 19-year-old said recently, per Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding. “And me being competitive, I forget it's just summer league. I'm trying to get better so fast instead of being patient and letting it come to me.”
Russell gave the ball up 5.75 times per game on average over four appearances, including eight turnovers Monday night against the New York Knicks. L.A. went 1-3 with a close 88-86 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday and were eliminated from the tournament.
But despite the hiccups, there were also highlight-worthy moments as the newbie guard threaded the needle and found moving targets, including this in-traffic assist to Tarik Black:
Randle, meanwhile, played his first NBA ball since breaking his leg 14 minutes into his NBA debut last October. He was rusty and his timing was off, but it did get better and he did improve. The 6’9” forward concluded tournament play with a strong 17-point game in just 21 minutes Wednesday, including some nice coast-to-coast romps.
It should also be noted the highly mobile Lakers youth weren’t favored with any scintillating play-calling from NBA Summer League coach Mark Madsen, who instead delivered something vaguely resembling the Princeton system his boss, Byron Scott, used sporadically during the woeful regular season.
Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver wrote about Randle and Russell facing a tricky time ahead, with one player coming off a serious injury and both facing high expectations:
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.
This is where the Lakers find themselves as they aim toward training camp in the fall—a team with promising assets that is anchored to an out-of-date system. Whether Scott is willing to adapt his coaching philosophy to better suit the strengths of Russell and Randle will have to be an open question for now.
If this new crop of players can find a framework in which to adapt their individual talents to a company philosophy, they may eventually pave a welcoming highway for the arrival of star free agents—the kind that have so far spurned the Purple and Gold.
It’s all about the new guard taking over willingly in the post-Kobe era and restoring the team’s balance.
“Everything starts with me,” the 20-year-old Randle said, per Ding. “I’ve got to get better. End of story.”
Statements like that aren’t necessarily indicative of self-absorption—they can also be taken as levels of individual responsibility and of a road to NBA success that is so predicated on self-confidence.
Russell and Randle now represent the reality of investing in new talent and a potential Field of Dreams future.
“If you build it, they will come.”