Giant steps are needed for a Los Angeles Lakers team trying to find its way back to prominence. In some cases, it’s a matter of developing embryonic talent, and in others, it’s about partaking in the free-agent market.
And then there’s the players who seem poised for a breakout season—either the next evolutionary jump in their matriculation process, an improvement from what might have seemed like a lost cause or simply an unexpected gift.
Three current members of the purple and gold brigade offer intriguing examples of those potential betterment arcs.
Jordan Clarkson represented a potential sleeper hit when the Lakers drafted him at No. 46 in 2014, purchasing the rights to the pick from the Washington Wizards.
The athletic 6’5” prospect from Tulsa and Missouri felt he had something to prove after slipping deep into the second round.
“I got a chip on my shoulder from the draft,” he said, per Trevor Wong of Lakers.com. “I’m just going to come in and work.”
Clarkson’s early role entailed sparse minutes off the bench as a shooting guard and multiple D-League assignments. But midway through the season, Lakers coach Byron Scott switched the speedster over to the point. And there he thrived—a rapid ascent included 38 starts and NBA All-Rookie First Team honors.
It was something of a surprise, then, when L.A. selected Ohio State wunderkind point guard D’Angelo Russell as the second overall pick in June, raising an obvious question: What would the future hold for Clarkson?
Russell had voiced the same concern when Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak brought him in for a second workout. The answer was simple:
“The reason we’re bringing you in a second time is we feel like you can play together,” Kupchak said, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News.
Switching Clarkson back to the off-guard position allows him to use his natural scoring abilities, with Russell as the primary ball-handler. So far, the change doesn’t seem to have fazed the sophomore, who has continued blazing a path with highlight-reel results.
Clarkson has averaged 12.0 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 22.2 minutes while starting in all eight preseason games. And while most of his minutes have been at the 2, the slasher from Mizzou has also seen action as the Lakers' lead guard.
Beyond the stats, Clarkson has looked self-assured early on, while Russell has, at times, appeared overly cautious—perhaps too afraid of making rookie mistakes.
Expect Clarkson to take another major leap forward this season as a complete package with the size and skill set to be a successful multiposition player in the league.
Before training camp, Ryan Kelly was viewed as a possible waiver candidate. But to the surprise of many, he has come on strong throughout the preseason, including—weirdly enough—some authoritative drive-and-dunks at the basket.
Mr. Kelly, are you serious?
After a promising rookie campaign as a stretch 4 under then Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, the 48th overall pick in the 2014 draft did an about-face. His sophomore season under D’Antoni’s successor, Byron Scott, was a mixture of hamstring injuries, dreadful shooting and a bewildering reassignment to the small forward slot, where he lumbered ineffectually through the motions.
Scott has now switched the 6’11” former Duke NCAA champion back to his natural position. It couldn’t come soon enough for Kelly, who recently voiced his relief in diplomatic style.
“Everybody knew that’s not where I was most comfortable,” Kelly said, per Medina. “To be thrust in that role was not easy. But I learned a lot from it. It allowed me to be a better player.”
Perhaps it merely allowed Kelly to be a better player by comparison to the train wreck that was last season. But what can’t be denied is that he’s playing with much more confidence and alacrity now. And if this continues, the third-year forward will work himself into an increased role in Scott’s rotation.
Making the jump doesn’t have to signify true greatness. But compared to how bad Kelly was last year, a solid contribution, including the kind of timely outside shooting that he was known for at Duke, will count as a significant step forward.
And a few more power jams will be the icing on the cake.
Rookies aren’t usually discussed in terms of making the jump, but Marcelo Huertas is not your average NBA first-timer. The 32-year-old Brazilian point guard has been playing pro ball for over a decade and has long been an elite Euroleague star. Known for extraordinary court vision and passing ability, Huertas spent the past four seasons with FC Barcelona—the Spanish powerhouse that cultivated Pau and Marc Gasol.
He has also picked up a slew of gold medals over the years as a member of the senior men’s Brazilian national team. But now he’s carving one last notch in his basketball belt, and it’s the big one—the Association.
This is a guy with big-time leadership skills and an array of passes—pocket, lob, skip and just plain crazy-good. Consider the case of a dish to a trailing Nick Young that was both behind the back and between the legs:
Fellow rookie Russell has enjoyed watching his counterpart perform.
“Watching him play, you see guys really respect how much fun it is being on the court with him,” Russell said, per Serena Winters of Lakers Nation.
On the flip side, Huertas isn’t known for defensive prowess, although he puts out an honest effort and has sneaky hands. And his scoring arsenal is fairly basic—one-legged runners, baby jumpers and flip shots at the rim.
But at the end of the day, the 6’3” point guard with an unguaranteed contract seems a lock to make the roster and could quickly become an unlikely talking point—a veteran rookie making a big jump across the pond.
Clarkson, Kelly and Huertas represent three players whose entry into the league has been accompanied by low expectations. Only Clarkson has the kind of breakout potential that could ultimately position him as a perennial starting star. But don’t sleep on Kelly or Huertas, who could certainly become solid role players for a team desperate to reverse its recent losing ways.
Making the big jump can be a relative and subjective quantification. But the Lakers will gladly take every last upward step that is given them on the road back to relevance.