This was not really supposed to be the comeback season for a team that has ceded local basketball superiority to its co-tenant at the Staples Center, the LA Clippers -- at least for now. The Lakers are stocked with young, highly drafted players, and this season was supposed to be about developing this young core to find out if they could be the future of an organization that yearns to be back on top. Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell, and Brandon Ingram make up a young trio that holds the long-term hopes of Lakers fans in their hands.
These three are who, at least for now, the Lakers are counting on. An early look at their performances show plenty of reasons for optimism -- and a couple of troubling warning signs.
Randle's in rare company, but lags in efficiency
Starting with the player for whom we have the most information, Randle is approximately 3,600 minutes into his career and has shown some real promise. He's demonstrated his strong rebounding skills with a 25 percent defensive rebound rate, and is a rapidly improving passer who is recording more than six assists per 100 possessions -- nearly double the assists per 100 that he had last season. Putting these two skills together, he is in some fairly rare air. The only forwards to rebound and pass as well as Randle near his age (22) are Kevin Garnett, Grant Hill, Giannis Antetokounmpoand Terrance Williams.
That said, using these comparable players raises some questions about Randle's future. He is the least efficient player in this group at a comparable time in their career, creating 0.07 wins per 48 minutes. Among this group, only Williams created fewer than 0.15 wins per 48. Additionally, despite a consistent usage rate, Randle's turnover rate has jumped to 17.4 percent this season, compared to 13.5 percent last season.
Russell bears comparison to other Los Angeles stars
Just two weeks shy of his 21st birthday, Russell has shown significant improvement this season. His efficiency, rebounding and assist rates, and free throw opportunities have all increased, while he has also increased his usage rate. Guards with similar assist and defensive rebounding rates at the same point in their careers include Chris Paul, Magic Johnson, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Ricky Rubio, among others. Of this group, only Magic and Paul recorded higher defensive rebounding rates than Russell. He also fares well within this group on turnover rate (only Paul and Walker have lower rates), and only Irving had a higher usage rate. These are certainly positive indications for Russell's future.
Russell's biggest deficiency right now appears to be his low rate of drawing fouls. Russell averages 5.5 free throw attempts per 100, which is a far cry from the nine attempts per 100 that Paul and Wall registered at a similar age. But Russell is improving in this area, as he had only 4.2 attempts per 100 last season, and if he continues on this trajectory he has an opportunity to live up to his position as the second overall pick in the 2015 draft.
Ingram is inefficient, must shoot better
The 19-year-old Ingram is only 1,500 minutes into his career, not long enough to make many clear judgments about his future, but there is data on how he compares to other 19-year-olds who played significant minutes. A total of 21 forwards played at least 1,500 minutes as 19-year-olds. Within this group, Ingram ranks 20th in true shooting percentage, ninth in assist rate, 16th in defensive rebound rate and ninth in turnover rate. He also ranks 20th in offensive rating and 21st in defensive rating. Again, this is not a large enough sample to make definitive determinations on Ingram, but the numbers do begin to raise more questions about his game than they answer.
Josh Smith and Chris Bosh got to the line more frequently, Stanley Johnson and Marvin Williams fared better as defensive rebounders, and Maurice Harkless and Darius Miles were both better shot-blockers. Ingram does appear to be a player in the current mold though, as he is launching threes at a very high rate (he's attempted 131 this season). Once Ingram is able to hit those shots at better than his current 30 percent rate, he has a chance to become a very solid contributor.
In the end, the young Laker trio is not exactly lighting up the NBA, but is showing some promise. Young players generally struggle, particularly when they are playing together (see: the Durant/Westbrook early years). To understand whether you have a real star-level prospect or not, look to the areas of weakness and see if they improve. If Randle shows improvement in his scoring efficiency, Russell begins to find his way to the free throw line more regularly and Ingram develops a more reliable three-point shot, the Lakers' future could in fact be very bright.
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