Summer League shouldn't be this complicated. For most teams, their time in Las Vegas is a humdrum affair, observing their rookies and perhaps a handful of moderately interesting undrafted free agents and journeymen who might challenge for a spot in training camp come fall. Coaches implement a few simple schemes to provide at least some semblance of structure, accepting that things will devolve into playground ball because that's what happens when twelve players who have, for the most part, never played with one another are thrown together in a week's time. As a result, coaches are less managing the team and more getting out of their players' way; it's no accident that Summer League play has historically been very guard-driven, as free-styling ballhandlers who could take advantage of the controlled chaos were able to thrive.
This is the paradigm a normal team follows during Summer League, but the Lakers apparently didn't want to be a normal team. In lieu of instituting a few simple pick-and-roll sets for a 19-year-old point guard with elite court vision and a panoply of players skilled at creating for others, Mark Madsen and Co. not only attempted to cram Princeton offense sets down the throats of a roster unsuited for them, but also apparently did such a stellar job that the team could barely run a coherent play most of the time. Time and time again, the center would hold the ball at the top of the key as the Lakers would spend at least ten seconds running fruitlessly off screens while gaining no discernible advantage, forcing someone to create on a short clock in isolation as the defense keyed in upon them. Precious little effort was invested into elementary, quick-hitting sets that could maximize the youth and athleticism of the roster and establish any sense of flow.
Look, on its face, what the coaching staff attempted to do was understandable: the vast majority of players the team would be interested in looking at in Vegas were already slated to be on the parent team, so implementing the parent team's offense makes sense. But that's in a vacuum, not with a motion offense that definitely requires more than a week for the players to even begin to appreciate the reads that are available. The number of buckets that were created off pure Princeton actions could probably be counted on two hands, as the vast majority of successful offensive trips required the offense to break down for anything to be done. And this continued throughout Summer League, as the coaching staff kept trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. Reasonable minds could perhaps disagree on whether the overarching idea to implement the Princeton offense made sense in the first place, but the coaching staff continuously failed to adjust accordingly when it was clear that things weren't working, thus failing on both the micro and macro fronts.
Combined with some bizarre rotations, even by Summer League standards, and a series of downright inexplicable attempts to run zone defense, this Summer League experience was far more frustrating than it needed to be. The bar isn't exactly high for coaches in this environment; even goofs like the failed SLOB play to end the fourth game are mostly water under the bridge, but the coaching staff insisted on overly complicating things. If the goal is to see how the players perform under the parent team's offense, a far more truncated version adjusted for the talent available should have been implemented. And above all, if the team wanted to start this season off on the right foot by giving their rookie and sophomore players a jolt of confidence in their own play and their teammates, they put a huge obstacle in their path instead of empowering them.
All this notwithstanding, we did manage to get enough of an extended look at several players to draw some conclusions on their play, even if the results were rather middling for the most part. Nearly everyone was constrained by the scheme that was implemented, some more than others, but with free agency now more or less in the books, we have a much better idea of how they might fit into the rotation next season. Without further ado:
THE ROOKIES (DRAFTED)
One of the players most shortchanged by the system and the coaching staff's rotation choices, Brown supposedly had an easy job going into summer league as the team's designated 3-and-D option on the wing, but simply didn't get a whole lot of opportunities to perform. The poor ball movement and necessity of the team's shot creators to work with a short clock in most instances didn't bode well for spot-up artists, and barring a handful of semi-transition sequences, Brown was rarely involved in the offense in a meaningful fashion. For his part, Brown didn't shoot all that well in the chances he did get, but between the lack of flow and the coaching staff somehow thinking that three practices in a row before five games in seven days was somehow a good idea (thanks Byron!), no one shot well from range in Vegas period.
On the other end, however, Brown did show flashes of effectiveness, as he was able to leverage his length and side-to-side ability into some fairly impressive sequences. He probably still needs to put on more strength, but on the whole, he moves his feet well, doesn't foul too much, and was a factor on the weak side due to his length. He certainly has the tools to be an effective role player in the league, although we likely will see Brown trying to hone these very skills in the D-League this upcoming season due to the current state of the wing rotation.
Larry Nance, Jr.
Yours truly couldn't have left Vegas with a higher impression of Nance following the second game. Despite not showing much in the way of tangible skill on the offensive end, his quick feet, infectious energy, and superb athleticism were on display time and time again as he made all the little plays to lift the Lakers to victory. Least of all the crowd, whose hearts Nance won over to the point that the fans appropriated an age-old chant that has more history in hated Boston than LA, it was easy to see how Nance could have made quite the impression on a front office that gives a lot of weight to workout performances.
Alas, that one game was Nance's shining moment, as he never was able to replicate that level of success for the rest of his time in Vegas. To put it simply, Nance's overall utility is severely compromised so long as he's a drag on the team's spacing, as he failed to make a shot in five games that wasn't at the rim. Now, as with several of the other players here, it's quite a step to say that this is an ominous harbinger for how Nance's shooting will play out in the pros; his 50.8% mark on catch-and-shoot jumpers his senior year at Wyoming still deserves far more weight. But this is an area that Nance will have to work on to ultimately make an impact in the league and he will no doubt have no shortage of D-League time to hone his craft during the regular season.
Appearances would say that Russell underperformed, nay, heavily disappointed in Vegas, but after you strip away this artifice, it's easy to see that the Lakers have something quite special here. To be sure, Russell didn't shoot well, had a tough time beating quicker defenders in isolation, and ball watched quite a bit on defense, but these are all either fixable problems or the function of small sample size. No, Russell's worth was proven each time he whipped a magnificent bounce pass to a cutter who wasn't open at the time, changed speeds in the pick-and-roll ever so slightly as to draw the foul from an overly aggressive defender (looking eerily like Steve Nash in the process), and rarely made a decision that wasn't fundamentally sound.
Indeed, the last point is poignant since for all of Russell's mistakes -- and there were an awful lot of them -- it was easy to see the why he made that decision even if the how wasn't quite there yet. And honestly, a good portion of the latter failure was teammates simply unprepared for passes coming at unexpected angles ready for them to pick up in stride for an easy bucket. They'll come around, just as Russell's shooting likely will after he gets his legs under him and adjusts for the longer line. He was simply far too good of a shooter last year at Ohio State for this to be his usual average.
As for the other end of the floor, Russell was surprisingly competent considering how consistently he was hidden by Ohio State's zone last year. From a physical standpoint, Russell isn't lacking in lateral quickness and combined with his length, he's able to easily play off most point guards and recover to contest if necessary. In addition, Russell was a big factor on the defensive boards, pulling down the second most on the team on a per game average, and for a guard you certainly want kicking things off in the transition game, this is a great trait to have. Russell will certainly have to come around on his off ball defense, as mentioned above, but on the whole, there're still an awful lot of reasons to be optimistic about how Russell will perform in the regular season.
Unfortunately for Black, Summer League was a long succession of prospects taking advantage of his relative lack of size for the five in order to do damage on the interior. Whether through sheer disinterest, inability, or otherwise, Black was consistently beat for position in straight-up post defense, making it very hard for him to ever put up much of a fair fight in the first place. And on the other end, Black wasn't quite as dynamic of a pick-and-roll force as last season, often failing to roll hard or keep his head on a swivel for the passes that were coming on his way. Now, Black was still effective overall, hammering a few emphatic dunks before his time in Vegas was over, but his showing against this level of competition confirms that he's at most the backup five for the parent team.
Perhaps it was the fact that he didn't have to face a murderer's row of elite big men prospects or that his injury preserved his legs from the madness of Byron Scott's practice regimen -- as an aside, practicing at least three times prior to summer league and then expecting everyone to not get dead legs during five games in seven days...classic Byron "toughness" -- but Brown was the sophomore UDFA that ended up impressing rather than Black. Although his tunnel vision on drives is a severe issue that he really needs to remedy at some juncture, Brown can clearly score; from catch-and-shoot opportunities to isolations, Brown was able to get his shot off consistently. Again, that tunnel vision hurts Brown's overall value and it would be great if he could be a more well-rounded player, but there's room for a guy who simply puts the ball in the bucket in all phases of the game like Brown does. He'll face an upward path for playing time considering the glut of guards on the team, especially from other gunners, but he'll have a good case for meaningful minutes.
Our belief that Clarkson was the team's best player in Vegas was quickly validated, as he leveraged his athleticism into some tremendous finishes on offense, but his play also betrayed a worrying tunnel vision that wasn't really present in Clarkson's game last season. Clarkson's definitely a score-first type of point guard, but he also handled the pick-and-roll with care and made the necessary reads even if his preference was to look for his own shot. Put into a Summer League context alongside Russell, however, Clarkson seemingly appeared as if he could dispense with the notion that passing was necessary and hunt for scoring opportunities with abandon.
Granted, we should take this supposed shift in philosophy with a grain of salt: Clarkson probably won't be so gung-ho when playing with the parent team, but it also points to the depth of the adjustment Clarkson will have to make playing off ball with Russell. That the latter will be the primary distributor doesn't absolve Clarkson of his need to still make the appropriate reads and this will be one of the major storylines this upcoming season, especially since the pair constitute the Lakers' proverbial backcourt of the future.
Evaluating Randle is hard because it requires us to sift through what parts of his game were shortchanged by "rust" and/or heavy legs, as well as consider that certain other aspects simply are what they are at this point. Randle's finishing, for instance, probably isn't quite as haphazard as it was in Vegas, as he had a number of open looks that he simply didn't convert despite beating his man consistently. His jumper, on the other hand, probably needs a bit of work, especially any considerations that he might extend his range out to the three-point line, practice superlatives notwithstanding. For all the caveats we can throw at why Randle hasn't quite extended his range yet, he's more or less just going to have to prove that he can do so at this point.
All this noted, Randle did look fairly good physically and at a bare minimum, his ability to beat his man was encouraging. He did succumb to tunnel vision a few times, an inevitable consequence of his bully ball style, but for the most part, he was looking for open teammates on his drives and probably deserved quite a few more whistles than he ended up getting in Vegas. Randle's defense, moreover, was a pleasant surprise, as although he's prone to ball watching and has a long way to go on when and how to make proper rotations, he reminded us that he really has excellent lateral quickness for a four. He has no issue switching on the pick-and-roll, was able to do a better job leveraging his decent jumping ability to compensate for his relative lack of length, and did a better job on the boards than he did last summer league.
The bigger issue is that the team has to start figuring out more substantive ways to integrate Randle into the offense than having him isolate against someone. Yes, your average four is going to have a tough time staying in front of him between his strength and his quickness, but it's awkward when say Russell runs a pick-and-roll with Randle, gives him the pocket pass, and Randle dribbles for three or four seconds sizing up his opponent. Such actions need to be better integrated into the overall flow of the offense; for instance, Randle could make a better effort to roll, catch the ball on the move, and start his drive much closer to the basket with the defense more on its heels. The team could also try to use Randle more in the post, where he could better leverage his quickness 12 feet from the basket, giving the defense less time to respond. Altogether, this is perhaps nitpicking at a problem that is less Randle's issue and more the coaching staff's and regardless, it will be exciting to hopefully see Randle play a full regular season.
THE ROOKIES (UNDRAFTED)
Will Davis II
Even Summer League scrubs get their brief time in the sun, so it was surprising to see Davis glued to the bench for the entirety of his time in Vegas, especially with Randle's absence in one game providing a good opportunity for him to get at least spot minutes. To his credit, however, Davis handled the saga with class and professionalism and we wish him well wherever his basketball career leads him:
The great enigma of the Lakers squad in Vegas, Upshaw's impact ultimately came less in the numbers and more in the little things he contributed. Yes, there were the dramatic blocks he had on Karl-Anthony Towns that pushed him into the limelight, but more often than not, Upshaw got noticed because he sets some absolutely bone-crushing screens. No other big on the roster gave Russell and Co. more space off the pick than Upshaw, who did a great job of leveraging his massive frame into creating space for the ballhandler and ensured that the trailing defender always paid a price whenever he tried to go over the screen. Considering the sheer number of players on the parent roster who will use the pick-and-roll extensively, this is a great skill to have.
Outside of this, however, Upshaw showed his limitations at this juncture because of his relatively lackluster conditioning, as despite those screens, he wasn't exactly fluid on the roll nor did he contribute much on the block or as a shooter. And while it's easy to see how he could grow into a dominating shot blocker on the other end, he still has quite a ways to go in terms of moving his feet and leveraging his size appropriately. Mind you, he showed more than enough to earn a roster spot, even if he's spending all of next season in the D-League, so the current state of affairs is quite puzzling.
After a week of what has to be considered a disastrous run for Buycks in Vegas, it remains somewhat baffling that he once earned his spot in the NBA on the back of a tremendous summer league performance a few years ago, but it shows you how illusory those numbers can be sometimes. Josh Selby and Anthony Randolph haven't set the league on fire last we checked. In any case, Buycks was far and away the team's worst player, causing an already weak offense to devolve even further into utter stagnation, as he was utterly unable to produce in the pick-and-roll, his supposed staple, or contribute as a shooter. Perhaps he deserves some plaudits for good defensive effort, especially against Tyus Jones in the first game, but it's hard to shake the distaste engendered whenever he took any sort of playing time away from Russell or Clarkson. Once probably a candidate for the fifth guard spot on the parent roster, it's safe to say that he's probably squandered that opportunity.
Of all the players not currently on the roster -- assuming Upshaw's delayed signing goes through at some point -- Mitchell was by far the most effective and polished of the bunch, showing the experience and talent gap he had over a fair chunk of the rotation. This most often manifested on cuts, as Mitchell was the recipient of quite a few of those amazing Russell bounce passes, although he didn't use that superlative athleticism to throw down emphatic dunks as much as we would have thought. This might seem a bit incongruous considering that he only shot 25% from the field, but on a roster that could barely run a coherent set most of the time, the sight of Mitchell doing something well and decisively was quite the marked change. As far as Mitchell's chances of possibly making the parent roster, he might have done enough to get an invite to training camp, but considering that he'd be competing directly against Anthony Brown, there's likely nothing forthcoming in that regard.
Munford deserves my mea culpa, as he quite definitively destroyed the meager expectations we originally set out for him, and when compared to the likes of Buycks, he was a breath of fresh air. Most of this was through the simple fact that unlike the grand majority of the roster, Munford actually hit his shots, but he was also able to work in the pick-and-roll competently and was particularly adept at nailing midrange shots after rounding the corner and seeing that the defense had given him space. Given Munford's overall talent profile, it's still unlikely that this leads to any substantive opportunities in the league, but considering that he saved us from more Buycks PT, he deserves our gratitude.
Altogether, even though the Russell, Clarkson, and Randle trio certainly disappointed relative to expectations, they did enough for us to be reasonably excited about how all the pieces fit together on the parent team. The Lakers certainly aren't going to be particularly good next season, but at the very least, they won't be embarrassing, quite the notable step-up from last season. There's enough young talent here as to make tuning into every game more or less a worthwhile experience. As far as that young talent goes, however, it's unlikely that anyone else from this Summer League squad will supplement the existing core, as the roster as it stands is quite full (again, assuming that Upshaw is ultimately signed):
|Starters||Bench||Third String||Fourth String|
|PG||D'Angelo Russell||Lou Williams|
|SG||Jordan Clarkson||Jabari Brown|
|SF||Kobe Bryant||Nick Young||Anthony Brown|
|PF||Julius Randle||Brandon Bass||Ryan Kelly||Larry Nance, Jr.|
|C||Roy Hibbert||Tarik Black||Robert Sacre||Robert Upshaw|
As with the Summer League depth chart, the labels here are a bit artificial and we certainly could see quite a few permutations of the guard and wing rotations, but this serves our purposes at the moment. In addition, one can note that any additional players are turned away by the simple fact that the team currently has a full roster of 15 players. Even if Sacre and Kelly are the most likely roster casualties through trade or otherwise, this is how the team is constructed at the moment and it kills the chances of someone such as Mitchell having a meaningful shot of making the parent squad. Indeed, if the team was going to clear a roster spot for another guard or wing, it likely would be for a veteran option before any of the Summer League players were considered.
At any rate, perhaps the biggest thing that Summer League did was shed a light on the current inadequacies of a coaching staff that probably stands as the team's biggest obstacle insofar as returning to respectability. The young core is present and developing, the team will have gobs of cap space to throw around next summer, and the Lakers brand was still strong enough to at least bring nearly all of the major free agents this offseason to the table. But the coaching staff, top to bottom, not only has proven essentially deficient from an Xs and Os perspective, but also in the burgeoning conflict over the direction of the team with respect to analytics and more or less moving out of the paradigm that the Lakers must be wedded to 1980s concepts. Byron and Co. will have their shot this upcoming season to pitch that they deserve to be a part of this continuing rebuild as much as the players do, but as Summer League indicated, the initial returns this year are quite inauspicious.