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Will Any of the L.A. Lakers' Young Players Emerge as a Star?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterMarch 13, 2017

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 16: Brandon Ingram #14 and D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers talk to each other after a timeout in the first quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on December 16, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Lakers defeated the 76ers 100-89. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — Gail Goodrich's No. 25 jersey sits in the rafters of Staples Center. The Hall of Fame shooting guard is one of the Los Angeles Lakers' all-time greats who helped the team win the 1971-72 title.

But Goodrich's biggest impact on the franchise wasn't his year of All-Star service but his departure. As compensation for joining the New Orleans Jazz in 1976, Goodrich yielded the Lakers a 1979 first-round pick that the franchise used on Earvin "Magic" Johnson.

Luck like that is a significant factor in building a championship-caliber team, but so is quality decision-making. Over the past three seasons, the Lakers have added several young, promising players to their roster via the draft, but the jury remains out on each prospect's long-term star potential.

With Johnson now in charge of the Lakers' basketball operations, the question becomes even more pressing: Do the Lakers already have franchise cornerstone pieces on their roster in players such as D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram?

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 12: D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 12, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by download
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Lakers' youthful core has shown flashes of what it could become with some patience. Russell, the team's No. 2 pick in 2015, scored 28 points in one of the best games of his career in a 122-110 road win over the Phoenix Suns on March 9. Randle (taken No. 7 in 2014) finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds in the Lakers' 118-116 loss on Sunday to the Philadelphia 76ers. Since December, Ingram (No. 2 in 2016) has shot more efficiently each month, including 50.0 percent through five games in March.

If looking at individual moments, progress is undeniable. But the team's dismal 20-46 record and the players' lack of consistency don't inspire much confidence. Are the Lakers bad because they didn't draft the right players, or are those players too young to carry an NBA franchise?

"I like the Lakers' young roster," said a scout with an Eastern Conference team. "They have three, maybe four NBA starters including [Jordan] Clarkson, who they're using off the bench. They're just too young to win ball games."

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

Russell is averaging 15.2 points, 4.8 assists and 3.7 rebounds, but he's only playing 27.5 minutes per game. The stats are encouraging, but the intangibles are another story. 

"I'm not a fan of Russell's body language. He's talented but he needs to step into a leadership role," said a front office executive, also with an Eastern Conference franchise. 

Video analyst Pete Zayas of Laker Film Room notes "Russell compares favorably to other elite guards in their second season on a per-minute basis.

Per-36-Minute Stats - Sophomore Years
PlayerAgePointsAssistsRebounds
Kyrie Irving2023.36.23.8
Damian Lillard2320.85.63.5
D'Angelo Russell2019.96.34.8
Russell Westbrook2116.98.35.1
James Harden2116.42.94.2
John Wall2116.28.04.5
Basketball-Reference.com

"[Coach Luke] Walton doesn't play anyone over 29 minutes per game. This obviously depresses Russell's raw numbers," Zayas continued. "As for his contemporaries, he's well-ahead of other point guards drafted in the top 10 of the last three drafts."

Lillard is one of the league's top guards, but he joined the Portland Trail Blazers at the age of 22. Russell came out of Ohio State at 19 years old.

LOS ANGELES CA - OCTOBER 19: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers drives against D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first quarter of the basketball game at Staples Center October 19, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE T
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The numbers suggest he may be underrated, but just as the Lakers' roster needs to improve dramatically over time, so too does Russell's game. He's turning the ball over 2.7 times a game while hitting 40.4 percent of his shots from the field and 35.4 percent from three-point range.

2016-17 Per-36-Minute Stats - Point Guards Drafted Since 2014
PlayerAgePointsAssistsRebounds
D'Angelo Russell2019.96.34.8
Elfrid Payton2215.37.35.3
Emmanuel Mudiay2015.15.34.6
Dante Exum2112.83.23.5
Marcus Smart2212.65.14.6
Kris Dunn227.95.34.6
Basketball-Reference.com

"He's not as effective on pick-and-roll-derived offenses as his counterparts," Zayas said. "He would likely benefit from an additional ball-handler [on the roster]. Defensively, he's especially good at defending the pick-and-roll, as well as navigating off-ball screens, but he's struggled in isolations and against spot-up shooters."

The numbers are less encouraging for Ingram, who as a rookie is struggling to hit shots from the field (38.1 percent), free-throw line (62.6 percent) and behind the arc (29.0 percent).

"While he's certainly talented and blessed with a rare combination of length and coordination, he has a long road ahead of him in terms of building his skill set," Zayas said. "If he's trying to get his Ph.D. in basketball, he's still taking 101 classes as an undergrad. He has difficulty collecting his feet on pull-up jumpers, so he needs to be comfortably open in order to get a shot up."

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 7:  Brandon Ingram #14 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against the Dallas Mavericks on March 7, 2017 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
Glenn James/Getty Images

Zayas also noted that while Randle is often criticized for being left-hand dominant, Ingram is equally right-hand dominant.

"Many of his struggles in the paint are attributed to strength but in reality, he often has a player beaten while driving left but comes back to his right hand, into the defender, leading to many of the contorted shots that he takes," Zayas continued.

That Ingram is so young both in body and mind has contributed to his struggles this year, but Walton remains optimistic.

"One of my favorite things about him is whether he's playing good or bad, he's in the gym the next day working, before practice," Walton said. "He's serious about this game and he's serious about getting better. At least we see it. I'm assuming you guys see it, too. It just looks like he's getting more comfortable and more aggressive and making more basketball plays."

He is, but the maturation process will be slow, according to less biased observers.

"Look at how skinny Ingram is," said the Eastern Conference scout. "How is he going to compete against grown men with a frame like that? I don't think he'll ever bulk up, but in a couple of years, he'll have the strength to score through contact. Right now, he just bounces off defenders and loses his balance."

Per-36-Minute Stats - Rookie Years
PlayerAgePointsAssistsRebounds
Kevin Durant1921.12.54.5
Paul George2013.51.86.4
Kawhi Leonard2011.91.67.7
Brandon Ingram1910.62.55.1
Giannis Antetokounmpo1910.02.86.4
Basketball-Reference.com

Johnson can give Randle an extension before November; otherwise, he'll become a restricted free agent in 2018. Randle could earn as much as $150 million over five years, although the Lakers are not obligated to pay him a maximum salary.

"Randle seems to drift in and out of games, but when he is engaged? You can run your offense through him both in transition and in the half court. He's still a little wild around the basket. More than a right hand, he needs to prove he can hit a jump shot reliably," said a Western Conference scout.

After breaking his right leg during the opening game of his rookie season, Randle shot just 42.9 percent in 2015-16. That's climbed to 48.1 percent this season. While his rebounding has dipped from 10.2 to 8.7 a night over that span, his assists have climbed from 1.8 to 3.7.

"Randle is like a locomotive when he gets going, but he rests on defense," said the Eastern Conference executive. 

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 28:  Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers scores on Frank Kaminsky III #44 of the Charlotte Hornets during a 109-104 Hornet win at Staples Center on February 28, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expres
Harry How/Getty Images

"He's productive in transition, but Randle uses too many possessions out of isolations, with greater volume than players like Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin," Zayas said. "The Lakers aren't doing him or the team any favors by letting him run so many ISOs. He's only generating 0.855 points per possession on those, well below the league average of around 0.95 PPP in half-court situations."

The Lakers have more time to evaluate Russell and Ingram, but the Randle decision is looming. When focused, Randle is the best player on the Lakers' roster, but when will the 22-year-old forward bring that effort every night?

The Lakers have other emerging players such as Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac and Tarik Black. Currently, Walton is sitting veterans Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, both of whom are signed for three more seasons. On Sunday, Walton moved Nick Young out of the rotation to start rookie David Nwaba (more on him below).

Clarkson remains the Lakers' other potential star-caliber prospect. He signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Lakers this past summer as a restricted free agent. Though he's been up and down for much of the year, Clarkson led the Lakers with a season-high 30 points and eight assists off the bench in Sunday's loss to the Sixers.

The Eastern Conference executive said, "Clarkson is really good. He's not a point guard, but he can play. He's on a good salary, too, at about $12 million a season."

June's NBA draft could help the organization land a transcendent talent, but most young stars need a few years of seasoning. Complicating matters: The Lakers will only keep their own first-round pick if they survive May's draft lottery with a top-three selection. If they finish with the league's second-worst record, they'll have a 55.8 percent chance of keeping that pick; otherwise, it will go to the 76ers to close out the ill-fated Steve Nash trade.

Timing is everything in the draft. Players such as LeBron James aren't often on the board. James was drafted in 2003, two years after the Washington Wizards selected Kwame Brown with the first overall pick. 

The Lakers organization would never be the same after drafting Johnson or trading for the rights to Kobe Bryant in 1996. The two combined for 10 championships, but Bryant is now retired and Johnson just inherited a team that won 27, 21 and 17 games the past three years, respectively, and only 20 games in 66 tries this season.

The Lakers may be able to add an up-and-comer such as Lonzo Ball (UCLA), Markelle Fultz (Washington) or Josh Jackson (Kansas) in June, but if they fall outside of the top three, they won't have anything to show for another lost season.

Perhaps pairing Russell with Ball or Fultz would help bring L.A. out of its four-year tailspin. Ball is an especially intriguing playmaker, while Fultz is more of a dynamic scorer.

The Lakers will know their lottery fate on May 16. In the meantime, Johnson and new general manager Rob Pelinka will have the difficult job of evaluating the team's young talent, projecting what they might become when they mature.

The team is still looking for its next franchise player. Until then, it's up to the Lakers' prospects to try to make that leap.

Lakers Insider Notebook

Nwaba from D-League to Starter

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 12: David Nwaba #10 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots a lay up against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 12, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

On Saturday, the Lakers signed Nwaba to a second 10-day contract worth $31,969. On Sunday, he was in the starting for the Lakers against the 76ers. 

"We're thinking about taking Nick out of the starting lineup," Walton said before the game. "Wanting to see more of David and see Tyler [Ennis] before the season ends, it's not really fair to [Young] to keep playing him four to five minutes per half ... [we're] committing even more so to the youth."

Walton also moved Black to the second unit, giving Ivica Zubac the starting role at center. Zubac scored 10 points with six rebounds and four blocked shots in just 19 minutes. Nwaba scored six, including a fourth-quarter dunk and a key blocked shot that helped give the Lakers a chance to win.

After Nwaba's contract expires on March 20, he'll either return to the D-Fenders in the NBA Development League or the Lakers will sign him for the remainder of the season.

With Nwaba, the Lakers have a full roster of 15 players. If the team needed to open an additional spot, veteran Metta World Peace is expendable. World Peace has primarily served as a mentor to the team's young players, making just 18 appearances this season for a total of 81 minutes played, but with the year winding down, the Lakers may choose to make better use of his roster slot.

Selection Sunday

Walton proudly wore an Arizona Wildcats shirt as he held his pregame media press conference Sunday. On Saturday, Walton's alma mater won the Pac-12 tournament with an 83-80 win over the Oregon Ducks.

"I watched the game last night," Walton said with a grin. "That's why I'm wearing the shift."

The 2017 NCAA tournament bracket was announced Sunday, and the Wildcats earned a No. 2 seed in the West bracket.

J.A. Adande @jadande

Arizona trying to use selection Sunday as a stealth recruiting tool with the outdoor watching party https://t.co/VxMA5PjZ1M

The Lakers will pay close attention to the East region, where Ingram and Deng's Duke Blue Devils are the No. 2 seed, Corey Brewer's Florida Gators are No. 4 and Young's USC will need to beat Providence to earn the No. 11 seed.

Thomas Robinson and Black will both pull for Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest. Randle's Kentucky Wildcats are No. 2 in the South.

It's unclear whether the Lakers will compete internally with their own brackets.

"When I played here, we did," Walton said. "I hope that tradition is still alive."

Young Robbed, Again

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 14:  Darren Collison #7 of the Sacramento Kings guards Nick Young #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers as Collson looks to pass in the first half of the game at Staples Center on February 14, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USE
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

In addition to losing his starting roleand possibly his spot in the Lakers' rotationYoung's home was reportedly burglarized in February. Per TMZ, perpetrators stole $500,000 in cash and jewelry, entering the premises through an unlocked door.

This isn't the first time that the shooting guard has been robbed. In 2014, Young lost roughly $100,000 in clothing, jewelry, shoes and luggage, including his Nike Air Yeezy 2 sneakers designed by Kanye West, according to ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin.

Young is currently under contract with the Lakers for $5.4 million. He will decide on his $5.7 million player option for next season before the end of June.

Scoring 13.4 points a game while shooting 40.9 percent from three-point range, Young may be better served to try free agency than return to the Lakers for one more season. If he does opt out, Los Angeles would have his full Bird rights and the ability to give him a raise should both parties agree to a deal.

The market for a player like Young this season might be in the $9 million range annually.

Young reportedly isn't the only Laker to be robbed in 2017. A thief made off with all five of retired guard Derek Fisher's championship rings in a January burglary that cost him more than $300,000, according to TMZ.

Randle, the Lakers' Triple-Double Leader

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

The Dallas Mavericks handled the Lakers easily Tuesday, 122-111, but Randle put up an impressive line of 13 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists.

His third triple-double of the year makes him the first Lakers forward, and the youngest player in franchise history, to reach that mark in a season. Only guards Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant have had at least three triple-doubles in a single campaign.

Johnson leads the pack with 138 over his career, with Bryant (21) a distant second, followed by Pau Gasol (five), Vlade Divac (four) and Lamar Odom (four), dating back to the 1979-80 season.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook is trying to average a triple-double on the season. He's currently at 31.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists through 66 games and has notched a triple-double 32 times this season with 16 games to play. 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate as of March 12. Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.