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Anthony Brown impresses in D-League debut and other notes on the D-Fenders

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Anthony Brown's debut in the D-League went splendidly with 22 points, although the D-Fenders as a whole might have role issues to fix in order to feature affiliate players Michael Frazier and Robert Upshaw more as the season progresses.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As the D-League inches ever closer toward being a true minor league system, the Los Angeles Lakers have called on the D-Fenders extensively in recent years to fill roster spots left vacant by injuries or otherwise. Perhaps more importantly, the Lakers have had little to no reservations against sending prospects gathering dust on the parent team’s bench to El Segundo to get playing time. Whether it’s a luxury born of sheer proximity – the D-Fenders play in the Lakers’ official practice facility – or not, it’s been a welcome trait of a front office that’s currently having troubles prioritizing playing the team’s young players over a cadre of motley veterans out of a desire to chase wins.

To be fair, there’s almost no playing time currently available for Anthony Brown however you view the team’s priorities. Kobe Bryant is playing largely at the three in order to get D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson in the starting lineup, and his backups in Nick Young and Metta World Peace have been among the team’s best players thus far. Byron Scott’s various sins of rotation management aside, this is not necessarily one of them, especially if you view Young’s admittedly very solid play so far as a possible prelude to a trade.

The main issue with Brown in the D-League is the fear of a natural role player adapting to a style of play that rewards those gunning for their own points. Yes, Brown has to demonstrate that he’s a step above his fellow players and put his best foot forward – as it’s a fairly damning indictment of a NBA prospect if you can’t go down to the D-League and dominate the competition – but neither should he betray the role player mindset he’ll need to have in the NBA to succeed. Development in the D-League means little if you’re exercising skills that you’ll never need at the next level.

Thankfully for Brown, these fears were largely unfounded as his 22 point (on a 60.0 TS%), three rebound, three assist, and two steal stat line indicated, as did the following highlights:

Perhaps most endearing is that in a good chunk of those sequences, Brown isn’t playing outside of himself. Most of those threes are from spot-up opportunities off of drive-and-kicks, especially so after Brown moves accordingly off the ball in order to provide an appropriate passing lane. Even the drives to the rim, not Brown’s strength in college because of his relatively meager vertical athleticism and so-so handle, are generally well done, recognizing lanes when they are available. Moreover, Brown’s development as an offensive player will likely hinge on his ability to attack closeouts because of how essential spot-up opportunities are to his overall utility on that end. As such, that Brown is at least thinking of what he needs to do should he have to put the ball on the floor is a good thing, even if those driving lanes very likely won’t be available in a real NBA contest.

On the flip side of the "3-and-D" player label Brown has the potential to acquire at some point in his career, Brown’s defense was generally decent, although it’s hard to get much of a sense of where D-League players are at in this respect because of the frenetic pace most games are played at. That said, Brown got up and down the court fairly well, a good trait considering that the parent team ideally should be a highly uptempo team with Russell, Clarkson, and Julius Randle pushing the pace. In the halfcourt, Brown has the size and length to be effective and wasn’t beat all that often in straight-up defense, but given how horrid the help schemes often were, it’s difficult to ascertain in certain circumstances if he was trying to force drivers into bigs or was just flat out beat.

Altogether, it was a good performance for Brown and barring injury or trade, he should receive quite a bit of time in the D-League this season to hone his craft. It’s perhaps an odd role reversal for Brown after starting multiple times in preseason when Kobe sat; indeed, at that time most expected his fellow rookie Larry Nance Jr. to be the one receiving a host of D-League assignments rather than being a central part of the parent team's rotations. Still, so long as Brown appears to be actively developing parts of his game, namely his slashing ability and how to attack closeouts, it’s certainly a better use of his time than languishing at the end of the Lakers’ bench.

Before we finish, a few notes on other players on the team:

  • The other main attraction on the D-Fenders is naturally Robert Upshaw, the mercurial former Washington center whose potential keeps him within our scope of interest despite the mounting pile of personal problems that have plagued him throughout his career. At least this game, however, Upshaw wasn’t overly effective on the court, fouling out in 13 minutes. He constantly appears to be a beat late on his rotations and struggled with the sheer pace of the game. He did have a few good sequences on offense, overpowering former Laker Earl Clark in the post for a nice bucket, but at least at the moment, he’s marginalized in the team’s very guard heavy offense. Unfortunately for Upshaw, that’s the reality of D-League play, so it’s incumbent on him to increase his effort defensively and take advantage of whatever opportunities are afforded to him. If he gets into better shape and improves his defensive rotations, it would be interesting to reexamine him once 10-day contracts become available.
  • As noted, the D-Fenders offense is incredibly guard-centric. Vander Blue and Manny Harris, both of whom have had a cup of tea with the parent team, utterly dominate most possessions and spend most of their time leveraging how to use the pick-and-roll to open up scoring opportunities for themselves. They’re sufficiently talented for this level that this works, especially for Harris, and they’re not such black holes that they won’t find the open man now and then, hence all of Brown’s spot-up opportunities in the above video. That said, it makes for tough viewing when the D-Fenders are on offense and contributes to the marginalization of secondary options such as Upshaw. Giving point guard Josh Magette, a diminutive pass first point guard who might have a shot at the league if he didn’t have the frame of a twig, is probably warranted.
  • This is especially the case since Michael Frazier and Malcolm Thomas, both of whom project to have big roles on the team, haven’t yet played a game. Integrating them will require that Blue and Harris cough up the rock more often, so allowing Magette to ensure the right distribution of touches would be a nice way of resolving this issue. Frazier in particular would stand to benefit from this as he would likely look similar to Brown on the court: taking advantage of spot-up opportunities in the halfcourt and semi-transition as well as attacking closeouts. Given that Frazier is probably the most prominent candidate for a call-up during the season, it stands that getting him as involved in the offense is quite warranted. As for Thomas, he’s no longer a prospect of note, but he’ll offer a post presence the D-Fenders otherwise don’t have outside of Upshaw.
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