There aren’t a lot of silver linings in Lakerland this year. Prized rookie D’Angelo Russell is struggling and doesn’t have the trust of his coach. The team has won two out of 11 games and should seriously consider tanking in an effort to keep its top three protected pick from going to Philadelphia. Even Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour is tainted by poor performances not befitting of a living legend. Things are grim.
There’s one positive, however, which could help the rebuilding effort go smoothly from here on out and possibly even accelerate it: the Lakers have once again proved they can find good value in the draft outside the lottery.
The bright spot of 2014-15 wasn’t top 10 pick Julius Randle, who went down for the year in his first game as a pro, but another rookie. Jordan Clarkson, the 46th pick in the draft, emerged as a steal in the second half of the season, showing off great scoring instincts and a solid floor game. He averaged 12 points, three rebounds and three assists and earned All-Rookie First Team honors.
This season his assist percentage is way down — the result of sharing the court with ball dominant guards — but his three-point shooting has improved greatly. Clarkson is putting up almost 16 points a game thanks in part to his 45 percent shooting from beyond the arc on four attempts per 36 minutes. The combo guard proved last season that he could do a decent job with the ball in his hands, and he’s now showing he’s versatile enough to move off the ball.
To a lesser degree, something similar is happening this season. So far, Russell hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations placed on him. He’s shooting poorly and not finishing games, as Byron Scott stubbornly refuses to trust a player who’s supposed to get the franchise back on track. It hasn’t been hard to find fans who think the Lakers made a mistake by selecting him ahead of Jahlil Okafor.
Not as much was expected from 27th overall pick Larry Nance Jr., a senior out of Wyoming, but he’s been a pleasant surprise so far. His five points and four rebounds in almost 18 minutes a game won’t blow anyone away, but he’s showed flashes of two-way competence in the seven games he’s suited up.
Nance is a terrific athlete with prototypical power forward height and a huge wingspan, and he uses those tools to be a solid rebounder and defender. He’s not a defensive playmaker that’ll rack up steals and blocks at this point, but his mobility allows him to stay with guards on switches, a key skill for modern big men. Just look here at the way he slid his feet to contain Langston Galloway twice:
He can’t create for himself on offense and his range is suspect but he’s a very good finisher thanks to his athletic ability:
Nance won’t ever be a threat to Randle for the starting spot, but he’s showing skills that should allow him to have a nice career as a bench big man. He needs to continue to develop before being capable of playing 20 minutes a night for a good team, but the Lakers shouldn’t be in any rush because they aren’t close to contention. Just like Clarkson, he should be able to grow next to the core players. There’s value in that.
The Lakers targeted veteran role players in the offseason who will be gone before Russell and Randle are ready to lead Los Angeles to the playoffs. Lou Williams and Brandon Bass are better than Clarkson and Nance right now, but the focus should be on the future. With a couple of young complementary players now in the fold and the possibility of Clarkson emerging as more than that, the front office can focus exclusively on bringing in top-tier talent or other young players with potential from now on, instead of signing veterans to fill the roster.
Clarkson, Nance and even Ryan Kelly are proof that there are potential rotation players outside the top of the draft and that the Lakers are good at finding them. That ability isn’t as important as finding stars, but it’s helped general manager Mitch Kupchak build a base of young talent that extends past the team’s two lottery selections.
The Lakers could lose their next two first-round draft picks thanks to bad trades, but they still have their second rounders and could purchase picks to give themselves more chances of finding other hidden gems of varying value. They won’t likely get the star they need in the draft, but if they continue to scout well and select smartly, they can build young and cheap depth that’ll be very valuable when they finally land their guy in free agency.