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Lakers Summer League Preview: Embracing the youth movement

Free agency has certainly quenched a good deal of the enthusiasm surrounding the Lakers after draft night, but summer league is the time to reignite it as the Lakers field one of the best on-paper squads in the league.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

At this juncture in free agency, the Los Angeles Lakers team this upcoming season likely will not be receiving major outside reinforcements besides Roy Hibbert, a reality brought home by the fact that the Summer League team the Lakers will field in Las Vegas very well could be the grand majority of the Lakers' roster. That's simultaneously a reason for optimism as well as despondence; the Lakers are certainly in for another dismal season, but by the same token, the parent and Summer League roster overlap is also a sign of the newfound strength of the Lakers' young core. After being left with an utter wasteland of young talent following Dwight Howard's departure from the team, the Lakers now boast one of the league's deeper collections of young, albeit unproven, players.

As far as Summer League goes, however, this Lakers squad is a veritable juggernaut that is easily stronger on paper than any Lakers Summer League squad in memory. The team includes three first-round picks, including two in the top seven; two second-round prospects, one of them a first team All-Rookie performer; two other sophomore players who started for the team last year; and a promising collection of undrafted players that has, of all things, the most recent Italian League MVP. Predicting that the Lakers should steamroll their opponents would be in order, except that the Lakers' first three opponents are Minnesota, Philadelphia, and New York, each featuring their own highly touted prospects.

Nevertheless, this is a very strong group, and seeing how the grand majority of the players listed here will be playing together on the parent squad, it is a great opportunity for them to develop the chemistry and synergy they'll need when the regular season starts up. Mark Madsen, who was less than effective last year in Summer League if we're being generous, will be at the helm again this time around. With a head coach in place, even if it is Byron Scott, Madsen will at least have a system to work off and hopefully has a more coherent game plan for how to utilize the talent here. As Madsen is the lone voice for analytics use among the coaching staff, anything he can do to increase his stature in the organization probably is a good thing for the team's long-term fortunes.

At any rate, the Lakers have released the full roster to the media, and we will cover how each player can contribute below. Given that one of the few remaining options to the Lakers in free agency is selling off the former parts of their roster in sign-and-trades, it is not completely outlandish that this squad could be augmented by a rookie or two between now and the start of summer league on July 10. Should that be the case, we will certainly keep you apprised.

THE ROOKIES (DRAFTED)

Anthony Brown

Age College (Year) PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT%
22 Stanford (Senior) 14.8 6.9 2.5 43.1 44.1 79.5
Height w/o shoes Height w/shoes Weight Wingspan Vertical (no-step) Vertical (max) Standing reach Lane agility 3/4 court sprint
6'5.25'' 6'8.5'' 211 6'11.25'' 27.5 34.5 8'8.5'' 11.06 3.18

Brown's role in Summer League, as it will be with the parent squad, is very simple: hit threes and defend. And with no less than three playmakers who should be able to crush Summer League-level defenders in Russell, Clarkson, and Randle, he'll no doubt have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate what was an elite touch from behind the arc at Stanford. It should be noted that Brown's not simply a standstill shooter out of spot-ups; he frequently ran off screens through the defense for open shot opportunities, and although we malign it for other reasons, Byron's Princeton offense contains plenty of these actions.

Brown was also surprisingly able in transition for a player without superlative athletic ability, and those same aforementioned playmakers will give him plenty of opportunities in the open court and semi-transition as well. How Brown leverages his side-to-side quickness and length, some of the few above average physical traits he has, on defense will be something to watch as well, especially since he'll probably be the primary cover on the reigning Rookie of the Year in Andrew Wiggins in the very first game of Summer League. On the whole, however, Brown's in a more or less terrific situation to showcase the better parts of his game since he'll have almost no need to create his own opportunities, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him earn his eventual contract and then some in this environment.

Larry Nance, Jr.

Age College (Year) PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT%
22 Wyoming (Senior) 16.5 7.3 2.4 50.7 34.1 78.5
Height w/o shoes Height w/shoes Weight Wingspan Vertical (no-step) Vertical (max) Standing reach Lane agility 3/4 court sprint
6'7.5'' 6'8.5'' 227 7'1.5'' 29.0 37.5 9'0'' 10.89 3.25

Although the playmaking depth on this team should also make Nance's life much easier this summer, he has a bit more to prove after being a surprising choice in the first round. Yes, he'll leverage his superb athleticism into likely more than one highlight dunk with so many players present who will break down the defense and toss him an easy lob pass, and he'll no doubt hustle and create plays on defense with his lateral agility and length. But Nance needs to demonstrate a more well-rounded game beyond merely that of a bench energy big, as that's partly the reason the Lakers drafted him. Being able to hit shots in the pick-and-pop and in spot-up situations would be a start, as would showcasing above average court vision; Nance's 20.0 AST% during his senior season was a solid mark for a big man prospect.

All this noted, the primary difficulty Nance might face in standing out is his own teammates. The Lakers will no doubt want to play Randle, who is directly ahead of Nance in the depth chart, as much as possible to get him into playing shape after his injury, and both Upshaw and Black will warrant minutes at the five, making it difficult for Nance to get playing time there when the team goes small. Even with the fact that teams frequently change up the rotations to allow the back benchers to get more playing time at certain points in Summer League, the reality is that Nance is going to have to make the most out of what will usually be limited minutes. Given how well Nance dunks, however, chances are that he'll leave more than a few memorable impressions.

D'Angelo Russell

Age College (Year) PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT%
19 Ohio State (Freshman) 19.3 5.7 5.0 44.9 41.1 75.6
Height w/o shoes Height w/shoes Weight Wingspan Vertical (no-step) Vertical (max) Standing reach Lane agility 3/4 court sprint
6'3.25'' 6'5'' 193 6'9.75'' N/A N/A 8'6'' N/A N/A

Brown's and Nance's goals for summer league are rather quaint when compared with the opportunity Russell has to cement himself as a possible star. The Lakers passed on Jahlil Okafor because they likely thought Russell was a flat out better prospect, which says something of how titanic of an offensive force they believe Russell can ultimately become. As a result, expect Russell to handle the ball and initiate the offense an awful lot in Vegas, even more than his likely backcourt partner in Clarkson. Russell separates himself from other elite scoring guards because of his tremendous court vision, especially in the pick-and-roll, and he'll have four interesting roll men to pair with in Randle, Upshaw, Nance, and Black. In the wide open and often chaotic Summer League environment that is also usually devoid of good defense, expect a lot of fantastic passes from Russell to cutters, shooters, and players running ahead in transition.

Even when he's off the ball, Russell will likely be no less effective, as he'll be able to space the floor for the Lakers' other playmakers, quite the marked change from how things worked for him at Ohio State. To put it plainly, Russell's a scoring threat from nearly every part of the floor and teams need to constantly track him lest he run free for an open spot-up chance. Considering that the other major on ball threats on the roster are Clarkson and Randle, that's easier said than done, and the offense will probably look unstoppable for stretches when all three of them are on the floor together.

Altogether, Russell's here in Vegas less to answer questions about his game and more to grasp the top spot of the totem pole over the rest of his fellow prospects as the principal driving force behind the Lakers' rebuilding process. This isn't to say that he doesn't have issues such as his defense or explosiveness that are worthy of close examination, but rather that he should exit summer league looking like the best hope the Lakers have going forward, even with Clarkson's All-Rookie year and Randle's potential in the backdoor mirror. Russell's own potential deserves no less than that kind of result.

THE SOPHOMORES

Tarik Black

Age Team (College) PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT%
23 Lakers (Kansas) 6.0 5.8 0.7 57.5 00.0 55.1

The biggest issue that Black needs to avoid in Summer League is to not be lost the mix. Nance has a guaranteed contract to fall back upon, Randle is a key foundation piece of the team's future, and Upshaw's possible path towards the NBA is one of the more notable storylines surrounding the team. To be sure, nothing has been given to Black beforehand and he managed to blaze his own way from undrafted prospect to just outside the All-Rookie second team. Where there is an awful lot of projection with how the other big men will perform, we know that Black is an effective pick-and-roll partner with Clarkson, and will win battles on the boards through sheer effort as well as throw down a few emphatic dunks before Summer League is over. He ultimately might be the least interesting of the Lakers' primary frontcourt members in Vegas but also the most dependable, and his path toward training camp in the fall likely isn't an issue.

Jabari Brown

Age Team (College) PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT%
22 Lakers (Missouri) 11.9 1.9 2.1 41.2 37.1 75.3

Brown mostly faces the same problem that Black does, but his reservoir of good will with the organization is probably not nearly as extensive since he came up only near the very end of the season. And although Brown has a multi-year deal, that didn't stop Kendall Marshall from being let go following a highly mediocre set of Summer League performances. Additionally, Brown could potentially be on the wrong end of a backcourt crunch, as Kobe Bryant, Lou WilliamsNick Young, Russell, and Clarkson are all vying for minutes at either guard spot next season. Even in the context of Summer League, big minutes might be hard to come by for Brown, as Russell and Clarkson will devour most of the backcourt time and Brown doesn't have the size to move up to the three.

How can Brown distinguish himself then? Shooting, shooting, and more shooting. Practically everyone not named Clarkson, Russell, or Randle is going to find themselves spotting up or cutting an awful lot, and it's a good thing for Brown that he's been historically fairly able in those situations. If he can go a bit farther by acting as a secondary creator when he attacks closeouts or running the floor well in transition, that can only help. As it stands, it remains unlikely that Clarkson will lose his backcourt mate this upcoming season, but it's incumbent on Brown to make that so.

Jordan Clarkson

Age Team (College) PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT%
23 Lakers (Missouri) 11.9 3.2 3.5 44.8 31.4 82.9

We talked about Russell establishing himself as the Lakers' principal prospect of note, but at the moment, Clarkson is probably the clear-cut best player on this team. Nearly four years older than Russell and coming off an impressive rookie campaign, Clarkson is the type of player that utterly annihilates Summer League competition, as it simply can't compare to the NBA-level opposition Clarkson has had success against. When Clarkson comes around the corner on a high screen, Summer League defenses by and large aren't equipped to deal with his speed going toward the rim or his ability to stop and hoist an accurate mid-range shot on a dime. Indeed, with Russell and Brown spotting up and a year of experience under his belt, Clarkson could easily be even deadlier in those situations than he was last year.

As such, Summer League for Clarkson is mostly about showing progress in the areas of the game he needs to improve upon. His three-point shooting is most prominent among these, as is his defense, an area in which he particularly had problems last year. The most interesting storyline surrounding Clarkson, however, might not necessarily be how he plays, but rather how he fits with Russell. For good or ill, the two of them constitute the Lakers' backcourt of the future, and as Russell is probably the team's best long-term prospect, how the two begin to mesh will be quite interesting.

Julius Randle

Age Team (College) PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT%
20 Lakers (Kentucky) 2.0 0.0 0.0 33.3 00.0 00.0

Randle's second run through Vegas is all about making up for lost time. Robbed of his ability to fully shine last year in Vegas because of his contract situation and stripped of his entire rookie year by his injury, Randle has never had a fair opportunity in a Lakers uniform to justify the talent that made him one of the top ranked prospects in the 2014 draft. Indeed, although Randle has been cleared to play, he very well could not be at full strength this time around either, and fairly or not, Clarkson and Russell have usurped the attention that was once lavished upon him as the biggest part of the Lakers' rebuilding process.

In that respect, Randle's goal should be to remind observers that he's a damn good prospect in his own right, and that if he ultimately has to cede the crown as the Lakers' most promising young player to Russell, it certainly won't be without a fight. Randle thus needs first and foremost to demonstrate that he's healthy, capable of executing the acrobatic finishes near the rim that allow him to counteract the size of opposing bigs, and that he's expanded his game. Displaying the outside shot that he needs to establish himself as a face-up big in the league would be a good start, as would the distributing ability he showed signs of last time in Vegas. The latter item is particularly important, as it defines Randle as a playmaking big rather than a pure, one-dimensional scorer, and with so many scoring options present on this team, it would behoove Randle to continue to develop that part of his arsenal.

THE ROOKIES (UNDRAFTED)

Will Davis II

Age College (Year) PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT%
22 UC Irvine (Senior) 13.3 7.2 0.9 53.8 00.0 70.4
Height w/o shoes Height w/shoes Weight Wingspan Vertical (no-step) Vertical (max) Standing reach Lane agility 3/4 court sprint
N/A 6'8'' 210 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A

The Big West Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and the undersized frontcourt counterpart to the mammoth Mamadou Ndaiye at UC Irvine, Davis faces extremely long odds to make any sort of impact on the team. We've already discussed how hard it will be for Nance and Black to distinguish themselves in this deep frontcourt, and Davis is behind even them in the rotation as the fifth big. While his rebounding, shot blocking, and energy allowed him to conquer the odds and stand out in college, he's inevitably going to be a victim of the numbers game here. Perhaps the coaching staff allows him to get some minor run in one or two of the games to give certain members of the frontcourt a break, but Davis is more or less here to provide a body for practices and to help secure a job this upcoming season in the D-League or abroad.

Robert Upshaw

Age College (Year) PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT%
21 Washington (Sophomore) 10.9 8.2 0.5 59.3 00.0 43.4
Height w/o shoes Height w/shoes Weight Wingspan Vertical (no-step) Vertical (max) Standing reach Lane agility 3/4 court sprint
6'10.75'' 7'0'' 258 7'5.5'' N/A N/A 9'5'' N/A N/A

Everything that we wrote about Upshaw a few days ago still applies here, although we should emphasize that the stakes for Upshaw are incredibly high. Every step he makes on his NBA career from this point onward is like walking on a tightrope; any deviation from the straight and narrow will earn him a one-way ticket out of the league likely for good. If the Lakers, a team starved for center depth and still desperately in need of talent, thinks that Upshaw isn't worth the trouble, then no other team likely will. Even if the Lakers are inclined toward keeping someone of his talent, moreover, he isn't worth the headache and distraction on a squad of mostly young players.

And that's just the off the court side of the equation, as on top of all of the above, Upshaw needs to earn a spot on the team through his play. In this regard, fate certainly hasn't been kind to him, as Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, and even Kristaps Porzingis should New York deign to play him at the five constitute Upshaw's first set of matchups, a bonafide murderer's row of opponents. On one hand, it's a fantastic opportunity for Upshaw to make a name for himself against the elite big men prospects in the draft, but it's also an easy way for him to be overwhelmed and subsequently forgotten if Towns and Okafor walk all over him. The path to success for Upshaw with the Lakers certainly won't be an easy one, and should he emerge on the other side, he'll probably have earned quite a bit of the adulation coming his way.

THE REST

Dwight Buycks

Age Team (College) PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT%
26 Lakers (Marquette) 8.7 2.3 2.0 45.0 63.6 90.0

Buycks wasn't overly impressive in his short stint with the Lakers near the end of last season, but clearly he did enough for the team to give him a shot in the same role he had with the parent team last year: backup point guard. It's unfortunate for Buycks' prospects then that he's likely going to be buried behind Russell and Clarkson for most of Summer League and will only have limited time handling the offense. For a guard who first appeared on NBA radars a few years ago by working the pick-and-roll to great effect in Summer League, that's not great news, as he'll have to compensate by working off the ball and being a secondary creator whenever the rock goes his way. His work last season might ultimately be enough to get him to training camp, but it'll be tough sledding either way for him to make noise in Vegas.

Tony Mitchell

Age Team (College) PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT%
25 Dolomiti Energia Trento (Alabama) 20.1 5.6 2.8 37.5 32.5 71.3

Our proverbial international man of mystery, Mitchell went undrafted three years ago out of Alabama and has spent the past few years passing through various foreign leagues, managing to get a short stint on the Bucks two seasons ago. His latest stop was in the Italian League, in which he came out of the season with the MVP and likely an increased profile on the radars of NBA scouts. A legitimate NBA athlete who recorded a 40'' vertical at the 2012 combine, Mitchell's been hamstrung by a wayward outside shot that's limited his ability to be efficient offensively in his various overseas stints, although to be fair, he's had to shoulder enormous usage rates in the process as his teams' primary option.

Where does that leave Mitchell with this squad? Who knows. Anthony Brown will get most of the playing time ahead of him at the three, but Mitchell's high-flying style does appear to be a fit with all of the athletes on the roster and he'll finally have an opportunity to contribute in an environment in which he'll draw far less attention from opposing defenders than in his usual stints. We shouldn't overrate Mitchell's chances of making an impression on the front office, as being stuck behind Brown is a significant obstacle, but Mitchell doesn't face the challenges of say Buycks since his game doesn't require him to create for himself to be noticeable. A few demonstrative dunks will likely do that.

Xavier Munford

Age Team (College) PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT%
23 Bakersfield (Rhode Island) 11.5 3.4 2.8 45.1 32.1 77.9

Apologies to Munford, who was a decent guard in the D-League for Bakersfield last season, but it's rather appropriate he's listed last here. Not only does he face the longest odds of any player on the roster to show any meaningful part of his game in Vegas, he currently sits in the rotation as the team's fifth guard on a squad that already has their three premier players monopolizing most of the available touches. On top of this, Munford is a tweener trapped between both guard positions who lacks the athleticism, shooting ability, or skill set to overcome this rather unfortunate handicap. As with the team's other third stringer in Davis, Munford is likely looking ahead to his next job rather than thinking that the NBA is a serious option.

***

With the profiles wrapped up, it is fairly self-evident that this Summer League team is mostly all about the Russell, Clarkson, and Randle trio, the other players on the roster defined by how they'll play off these three. For some such as Anthony Brown or the Upshaw and Black center pairing, this probably won't be much of an issue. Others will struggle for touches, playing time, or any opportunity really to make their time in Vegas worthwhile. If we look at the probable depth chart for the team in Vegas, this should become clearer:

Position Starters Bench Third String
PG D'Angelo Russell Dwight Buycks --
SG Jordan Clarkson Jabari Brown Xavier Munford
SF Anthony Brown Tony Mitchell --
PF Julius Randle Larry Nance, Jr. Will Davis II
C Robert Upshaw Tarik Black --

A few comments are in order here. First, the Russell/Clarkson placement in the guard slots is mostly arbitrary and when it comes down to it, a matter of semantics. They're both going to handle the ball and initiate the offense, so which of them has to be labeled the point and the other the off guard is irrelevant. Perhaps Russell gets a bigger share of the offense to help ingratiate him into the league more, but that doesn't diminish the fact that most of the actions the team runs will be through one of the two. Indeed, it wouldn't be surprising to see Madsen stagger their minutes some so that one of Russell or Clarkson is always on the floor and that the offense is moving smoothly most of the time. That's not great news for Buycks, who needs the ball in his hands to be effective, although the remainder of the roster will likely benefit.

Next, Upshaw being listed ahead of Black is a bit of projection since we honestly don't know how Madsen will split the available playing time at the five. That noted, Upshaw's simply the more interesting prospect of the two and the one more deserving of a long look; with Towns and Okafor looming as the first two primary center matchups, seeing how Upshaw matches up against both of them might force the issue in any case. Granted, the dynamic might be a bit different now that Hibbert is on the parent squad, as the possibility that either Upshaw or Black might end up starting for the team has extinguished. What it has been replaced by is likely a competition to see who ends up as the primary backup at the five, and while Upshaw is several orders of magnitude more talented than Black, the latter is the one who nearly made it onto the All-Rookie team last season.

Other than these two issues, the rest of the rotation appears to be rather straightforward. If you want to look at players whose roster spots on the parent roster are likely to be significantly impacted by how they play in Summer League, that's Buycks and Brown; Mitchell would be the dark horse if there wasn't a half-dozen more compelling storylines for the front office to look at in Vegas. By and large, this year's iteration of Summer League is mostly a preview for Lakers fans of what a significant portion of next year's roster will look like and play together, and by all accounts, it should be hell of a show.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.