Quarter-Season Grades for Each Los Angeles Lakers Player

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistDecember 13, 2016

Quarter-Season Grades for Each Los Angeles Lakers Player

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    The Los Angeles Lakers limped into the season's quarter-season mark with a rash of injuries. And yet they're somehow still within shouting distance of playoff contention in the Western Conference.

    After an unexpectedly strong start, the team has had a skid, losing eight of its last 10 games. Maladies contributed to the slump, including those to starting point guard D’Angelo Russell, starting shooting guard Nick Young, backup point guard Jose Calderon and reserve center Tarik Black. Power forwards Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. also missed some recent action.

    But Sunday night brought welcome news as Russell and Young both made their returns. The Lakers lost to the New York Knicksbringing their loss streak to six in a row—but it was a close game up to the final seconds.

    With a crop of mostly young and talented players, as well as the league’s leading bench unit and a new coaching staff headed by Luke Walton, this is a squad that plays an exciting uptempo game.

    After years of rebuilding and multiple lottery draft picks, the Lakers finally seem headed in the right direction.

Deep Reserves

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    Ivica Zubac: Center

    Rookie center Ivica Zubac has made just three appearances for the Lakers during the regular season, but he's spent time with their D-League affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders. The 19-year-old from Croatia was L.A.’s 32nd overall draft pick in June. At 7’1” and 240 pounds, the prospect has intriguing back-to-the-basket fundamentals and a soft shooting touch—he’s a work in progress with huge upside.

    GRADE: C+

    Thomas Robinson: Power Foward

    Thomas Robinson was the fifth overall pick for the Sacramento Kings in 2012 but has been traded repeatedly since then, compromising his growth as a player. The hard-charging power forward survived cuts as a training camp invite for the Lakers and is making the most of scant opportunities—averaging 3.5 boards per 9.4 minutes per game. This dude is a beast in the paint and needs more playing time.

    GRADE: B-

    Metta World Peace: Small Forward

    Like Robinson, World Peace was a long shot to make the final roster, but he secured a spot nonetheless. He’s long in the tooth at 37 and is averaging career lows across the stat sheet. But while the former defensive stopper isn’t the player he once was, he still provides valuable mentorship and a voice of accountability during his second stint as a Laker.

    GRADE: C

    Jose Calderon: Point Guard 

    Calderon picked up Russell’s starting position when the sophomore point guard missed extended time. But the Spanish-born veteran was subsequently injured with a right hamstring strain. The team's injury report estimates him returning sometime between December 19 and January 2. Calderon has never been much of a defender but he’s a talented outside shooter, completing 41.7 percent from behind the arc this season. 

    GRADE: B-

    Marcelo Huertas: Point Guard

    Longtime international star Marcelo Huertas, 33, was the league’s oldest rookie last season for the Lakers. They brought him back again for his ability to organize offenses on the floor and deliver mind-blowing passes. His rare appearances this season have been while subbing for injured players.

    GRADE: C+

Key Reserves

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    Tarik Black: Center

    Generously listed at 6’9”, Black is an undersized backup center who excels at setting screens and diving hard to the basket, often finishing with two-handed jams. He’s also a solid rebounder at both ends, as well as a willing banger in the paint. If the third-year player can develop a jump-shot, he’ll be a real danger.

    GRADE: B

    Larry Nance Jr.: Power Forward

    Nance Jr. has been a linchpin for the Lakers’ bench mob all season long. In addition to strong rebounding and sky-high jams, the sophomore power forward does a host of things well that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. That’s true off the court as well as on.

    “Larry is my favorite teammate,” Ivica Zubac said recently, per Serena Winters of Lakers Nation. “I like all the guys but Larry helps me the most and he’s a cool guy so after every game or after my game, he texts me, I text him.”

    GRADE: B+

    Jordan Clarkson: Shooting Guard

    Armed with a new four-year contract, Jordan Clarkson continues to be a valuable asset for L.A. He's switched to a bench role this season but still provides plenty of firepower at 14.5 points in 29.2 minutes per game. In addition to his scorer’s mentality, Clarkson has sneaky hands—leading the team in steals at 1.5 per game. But he sometimes falls too in love with the ball, looking for the hero move rather than dishing off to the open man.

    GRADE: B

    Brandon Ingram: Small Forward

    Grading Brandon Ingram is more about judging progress off a steep learning curve than living up to the hype. Last June's second overall draft pick is long, skinny, inexperienced and learning the intricacies of multi-positional basketball on the fly. He hasn’t shot the ball particularly well this season but is being developed with an emphasis on the total game—the 19-year-old is a natural small forward but has also been given responsibilities at the point.

    This is a kid with a tremendous upside. He’ll get exponentially better with time.

    GRADE: B-

    Louis Williams: Guard

    It would not be at all surprising to see "Sweet Lou" reprise his Sixth Man of the Year award this season—he was honored in 2015 while with the Toronto Raptors. Williams has been on a tear as of late, averaging 30 points a game during the month of December.

    He does his damage in a variety of ways—lighting it up from outside or using a quick step to weave past defenders to the basket, laying it in with a sublime underhand move. Williams also has a gift for drawing fouls and is money from the charity stripe at 86.9 percent.

    While scoring is clearly his first love, the journeyman combo guard is also dealing a respectable 3.4 dimes per game.

    GRADE: A-

Luol Deng: Small Forward

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    Luol Deng signed a four-year, $72 million contract this past summer, yet he looks like a shell of his former All-Star self. Although still starting every game, the 13-year vet is only averaging 7.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game.

    Those numbers are a precipitous drop from his career averages (15.3 PPG, 6.2 ROG, 2.3 APG) and last season’s stats with the Miami Heat (12.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.0 APG).

    To be fair, Deng is operating within a new system and one that isn’t inclined to run plays for him. As Mark Medina for the Orange County Register reports, the Lakers’ head coach acknowledges that the lack of a set structure and the need to give young players minutes have contributed to Deng’s slump.

    “A lot of it is on us too as coaches to get him more positions and set plays where he knows he’ll get shots,” Walton said. “A lot of what we do is random. We like that style of play. Whoever is open, gets the shot.”

    Deng himself isn’t making excuses. Per Medina: “It’s my job to go out there and execute to the best of my abilities.” And in fact, Deng had a throwback night Sunday with a season-high 22 points.

    But overall, the journeyman has been a weak link in the starting lineup. As Eric Pincus recently wrote for Bleacher Report, the Lakers’ best solution may be to seek a trade partner, such as reuniting Deng with Tom Thibodeau who coached him for years with Chicago Bulls. Thibs is now head coach as well as president of basketball ops for the young Minnesota Timberwolves.

    Barring a trade, the Lakers will have to hope the swingman finds his footing on a more consistent basis. Otherwise, they’ve paid a steep price for a role player with a declining skill set.

    GRADE: C-

Timofey Mozgov: Center

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    Timofey Mozgov won a ring with the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, but his production was way down and he was reduced to spot minutes during the playoffs while hampered by knee issues.

    The situation has flipped since then. Mozgov landed a four-year deal with the Lakers over the summer and, while the chances of a championship run are infinitesimal, he has become productive once again.

    That’s not to say that the hulking Russian is putting up huge numbers. Though starting every game, he’s averaging a modest 8.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and just 0.5 blocks in 21 minutes. But that is also a product of Walton’s even-handed doling out of minutes and also rotating in smaller players at the center spot. After all, 7’1”, 275-pound behemoths aren’t exactly leading the charge in the new up-tempo NBA.

    Despite his lumbering appearance and unassuming stats, Mozgov is providing tangible worth. He sets crushing screens, can roll effectively to the basket and runs the floor surprisingly well for his size. He is also the team's second-most efficient finisher (behind Nance Jr.) at 55.7 percent, despite being mugged seemingly every time he approaches the rim with the ball in his hands.

    Mozgov also has a decent midrange shooting touch—it would be nice to see him stretch the floor more often.

    Bottom line, the 30-year-old is a big improvement over last year's version of Roy Hibbert, the guy he replaced in the middle.

    GRADE: B-

Julius Randle: Power Foward

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    Randle has come a long way since he ended his rookie season with a broken leg two years ago—just 14 minutes into his NBA debut.

    Now 22, the former seventh overall pick is a cornerstone of the Lakers'young hopes, averaging 13.1 points, 8.9 boards and 3.4 assists in 28.3 minutes per game. The left-handed power forward from the University of Kentucky also spends 26 percent of his time at center, sliding over when Mozgov subs out.

    At 6’9” and 250 pounds, Randall doesn’t have remarkable size but he makes up for that with bruising power and determination—the proverbial bull in a china shop. Add solid ball-handling skills and the willingness to make plays for others, and you’ve got the type of player who fits an obvious need in Walton’s open court system.

    But Randle is by no means a complete contributor yet. He doesn’t always make the smartest decisions on off-ball defense, including sometimes failing to properly rotate.  That said, he’s made strides in his quickness and ability to recover.

    The other huge issue is offensive versatility; Randall still hasn’t developed the kind of consistent jumper that will help spread the floor. But again, he’s making progress, connecting on 54.5 percent of his attempts from 16 feet out to the three-point line, compared to 25.4 last season.

    GRADE: B

D'Angelo Russell: Point Guard

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    Russell had been showing good progress before missing 13 games. His three-point shooting is crisper and he looks a lot more confident as a floor leader compared to his rookie campaign under then head coach Byron Scott.

    Early this season, Russell had an impressive all-around game with 23 points and eight assists in a winning effort against the Atlanta Hawks. Afterward, Walton praised the young point guard, per Lakers.com video.

    “He was in control of the game, and it wasn’t just from scoring,” Walton said. “It was the plays he was calling. He was getting people touches, he had the defense guessing where he was going to be going. And that was good to see.”

    On the other hand, last year’s second pick has been giving away possessions too frequently, turning the ball over 3.1 times while delivering 4.9 dimes per game. That’s not a good ratio by any stretch of the imagination.

    Russell is second only to Williams in points per contest at 15.1, and he’s learning to balance the integral elements of being an effective NBA floor general. But with only 35 college games and 94 in the NBA under his belt, the 20-year-old is still a work in progress.

    The next three quarters of the season should give us a better picture of where he is in his overall development.

    GRADE: B

Nick Young: Shooting Guard

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    It’s doubtful even the most ardent Nick Young fan would have predicted this season’s comeback. The freewheeling scorer went from Byron Scott’s doghouse for two years running to starting shooting guard under Walton.

    Young was averaging 13.3 points per game with a blistering 41.4 percent from behind the arc before going down with a calf strain. But it wasn’t just hot shooting that brought him back into the team’s good graces.

    In his 10th NBA season, one of the league’s least conscientious shot-chuckers has suddenly evolved into a legitimate two-way player.

    One basketball professional who hasn’t been surprised by Young’s resurgence? Former coach with the Lakers, Mike D’Antoni, currently steering the Houston Rockets.

    “He’s a force on the floor. The biggest thing is he’s really into playing defense,” D’Antoni said per Medina. “He has unbelievable talent. It’s unfortunate he hit a little bit of a snag.”

    Swaggy P once had a well-deserved reputation for attempting to make plays for himself rather than the good of the team. But he’s had more success this season as a catch-and-shoot rhythm shooter, and even facilitating for others.

    Young’s return Sunday night was welcome news—his infectious energy and scoring power has been sorely missed.

    GRADE: B+

    Statistics are courtesy of ESPN and Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted, and are up-to-date entering games Monday.