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NBA PM: What’s Next for the Lakers’ Core?

The Lakers are in the news for bad reasons, but is it the doom and gloom situation some say?

Jabari Davis

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Whether the Los Angeles Lakers organization or fans of the franchise wanted to fully admit it when the process of transitioning away from being dependent on the exploits of Kobe Bryant began, these current struggles and difficulties should have always been at least somewhat expected. Growing pains with a young core are not a surprise, especially when you have such a long-term franchise player moving on, but even more so given the special circumstances surrounding this 2015-16 Lakers group.

Even throughout the obvious struggles, this is still an organization that would never openly acknowledge being in the midst of a full-on “tank-mode” stretch, but this bit of reality has become painstakingly evident to even the most casual outside observer over the past two-to-three seasons. Although conventional wisdom may have favored embracing the youth movement a bit more from the start, the front office and coaching staff made it obvious this season would be about Bryant’s farewell tour, first and foremost. To a certain degree, that’s both honorable (considering what Bryant has meant to the organization, city and game) and understandable from a business perspective given the team’s financial investment – especially over the past few seasons.

Put simply, while it is completely understandable for a franchise to want to maximize one of its most profitable assets in history before he’s gone, the rest of the roster and overall progress moving forward has clearly been in a holding pattern throughout the final chapter of Bryant’s illustrious career. The idea that the next leader or “face of the franchise” should have already been identified from this young group is about as preposterous as anyone expected this team to somehow compete for upwards of 30-35+ wins this season.

Following a recent drubbing at the hands of the Utah Jazz, coach Byron Scott offered these sentiments to the media regarding the young players: “You have to show that you deserve to be here and you understand what wearing the ‘purple and gold’ is about. I don’t think a lot of guys in that locker room understand that right now… I don’t look at any of those guys as being our next ‘Kobe.’”

Bryant, himself, has reiterated as much during recent media sessions.

Quite frankly, that’s precisely what we were all sold on this current regime of staff and veterans being able to do. We were convinced Scott’s staff would not only assist in smoothly transitioning from the Bryant era, but also find a way to reestablish a certain culture and organizational pride that seemed to dissipate over the past few years. Whether it was ultimately a bit of a fool’s task, this is what was promised and that simply has not taken place. In fact, if established players and veterans have struggled to wrestle team control and on-court influence away from Bryant even down the injury-riddled final stretch of his career, then essentially indicting a group of 19-to-24-year-olds for not being able to hit the ground running and snatch the ball from his hands is a bit silly – especially when those players are still attempting to get adjusted to simply playing at this level, let alone figuring out how to turn their individual results into overall team success.

The idea that this most recent incident between second-overall pick D’Angelo Russell and the well-traveled reserve Nick Young is a reason to immediately ship Russell out of town is about as knee-jerk a reaction as you can have. Aside from the very obvious notion of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, let’s all settle down and acknowledge that players with actual star qualities and skills aren’t necessarily falling off trees up and down Figueroa Blvd for these Lakers. While the immediacy of social media may invoke frenzied reactions from fans and analysts specifically looking to play on the faux outrage, shock and horror (until the next batch of shenanigans take place), the Lakers would be wise to ride the wave and see their young and talented player through the difficult times before jumping to action.

Without going into all the salacious details of prior incidents from around the league (let Google be your friend), let’s just say the old stories surrounding R&B singer Toni Braxton and the Dallas Mavericks, rumors about Jason Richardson and Steve Nash or what supposedly took place within that Indiana Pacers locker room from a couple seasons ago make this current story, while understandably bewildering to the parties involved, somewhat ‘tame’ or even ‘mild’ by comparison. Make no mistake, Russell will absolutely have his work cut out for him in terms of repairing his image within this locker room and around the league, but let’s just not go overboard in judging what needs to be done in the short term. He’s talented enough to overcome the incident, but whether he will be mature and mentally tough enough to withstand the pressure will eventually tell the most about his future.

All of that to say, while the young core in Los Angeles may still have a ton of room to grow, develop and mature from both a personal and professional standpoint (particularly in Russell’s case as a point guard and hopeful leader), let’s take a step back from the malaise for a moment and truly assess where the organization is as we sit just seven games away from the end of Bryant’s run.

The jury is still out on guys like rookie Anthony Brown (injured) and sophomore big man Tarik Black, at least somewhat due to a lack of playing time and consistent opportunities, but these Lakers do have four intriguing pieces in Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and the aforementioned Russell.

Clarkson (15.5 points per game, four rebounds per game, 2.5 assists per game) is quickly establishing himself as a scorer at this level, but needs to continue working at bringing it on both sides of the court and doing more than racking up points on a consistent basis. Even though he can be a bit turnover prone at times (2.5/1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio this season), he’s also a capable playmaker and a finisher in the open court. He still may not be a dead-eye shooter from deep, but he’s definitely improved as a three-point shooter and is currently at a respectable 35.1 percent from beyond the arc for the year. We probably haven’t seen enough of him alongside Russell in the backcourt together to fully assess how successful that pairing can be, but the results have been somewhat promising – at least from an offensive perspective.

Randle may be still be limited in what he can do offensively, but he is already clearly one of the league’s top young rebounders at this early stage (tied for 14th in double-doubles with 33 so far this season). Currently averaging a double-double (11.6 points, 10.2 rebounds) in just his first full year of action, Randle must also continue to work on shifting from primarily exerting his efforts on the offensive end to a more balanced attack. The right hand, jumpshot and counter moves are things you expect him to eventually develop, given the progress he’s already shown and an evident willingness to improve and succeed. While he still may pick up an occasional offensive foul or get himself into precarious positions when attempting to attack against length, Randle has already done a very good job of adjusting his pace and tempo and figuring out more effective ways to attack against defenders actively looking to limit his left hand.

Nance Jr.’s success may have come as a surprise for those who didn’t happen to watch a ton of Wyoming Cowboys or Mountain West Conference basketball over the past few years, but his high-energy and ‘constantly moving’ style of attack plays well at this level. Nance Jr. may not have “star” potential per se, but his unselfish nature, ability to utilize his athleticism and agility at multiple frontcourt positions, and willingness to do the dirty work on the court is encouraging for a team that will also need dependable role players moving forward.

Russell may currently be in the spotlight for unenviable reasons, but if the recently turned 20-year-old truly has what it takes to succeed at this level then an incident of this magnitude might strangely speed up the maturization process of a young man that was also described as “19-going-on-14” by his head coach last month. If Russell truly has ‘ice in his veins,’ then he’ll embrace the challenge head-on and come out a better teammate, professional and even player on the other side of things. His 13.2 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game and 3.3 assists per game are good enough to place him toward the top when it comes to a discussion about his contemporaries among first-year point guards, but the Lakers desperately need him to take the next step across the board and develop from being a promising talent into a franchise-type player.

Whether at the forefront of the ultimate reclamation project in Los Angeles or in being used as catalysts in future transactions that ultimately bring in the next “face of the franchise” for the purple and gold, the Lakers absolutely need to cultivate the assets they currently have. Everyone – from players to staff to the front office – will likely and justifiably have their role assessed once the season comes to an end as of April 14, but the same process will also take place across at least half the league. As we sit just 28 quarters of basketball from the end of Bryant’s career, this franchise may not have that “next” guy, but that doesn’t mean the the cupboard is completely bare – regardless of the doom-and-gloom portrait social media and sports talk pundits may attempt to paint. 

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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Fred VanVleet is Finding Success in the NBA

David Yapkowitz speaks to Toronto’s Fred VanVleet about his unheralded path to the NBA and more.

David Yapkowitz

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Fred VanVleet is used to being the underdog. Prior to the NBA, he spent four seasons at Wichita State, a school that hasn’t always been in the national spotlight when it comes to college basketball. Even after he finished his college career in impressive fashion, leading the Shockers to the NCAA tournament every year he was there, he went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft.

But despite the lack of recognition from national media outlets, VanVleet always knew that he was good enough to play in the NBA. He knew that his path to the league was going to be much different than many other top prospects, but he was confident. He put his trust in NBA personnel to recognize what was right in front of them.

“If you can play, they’re gonna find you. That’s the best thing about the NBA, you can’t hide forever,” VanVleet told Basketball Insiders. “You just got to try to wait and keep grinding for the opportunity, and when it comes be ready to make the most of it and that’s what I did.”

Making the most of his opportunity is definitely what he’s done. After he went undrafted in 2016, he joined the Toronto Raptors’ summer league team in Las Vegas. He put up decent numbers to the tune of 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 54.5 percent shooting from the three-point line.

He also showed solid defensive potential as well as the ability to run a steady offense. The Raptors were impressed by his performance and they invited him to training camp for a chance to make the team. They already had 14 guaranteed contracts at the time and had invited five other players, in addition to VanVleet, to camp.

VanVleet did his best to stand out in training camp that year, capping off the 2016 preseason with a 31 point, five rebound, five assist performance against San Lorenzo de Almagro of Argentina. The Raptors were in need of another point guard after Delon Wright was ruled out to start the season due to an injury.

Not only did he make the Raptors’ opening night roster, but he ended up playing some big minutes for the team as the season went on. This year, he started out as the third-string point guard once again. But with another injury to Wright, he’s solidified himself as the backup point for the time being.

“You just want to grow each year and get better. I had a smaller role last year, I’m just trying to improve on that and get better,” VanVleet said. “It’s a long process, you just try to get better each game on a pretty good team, a winning team. Being able to contribute to that is what you work for.”

VanVleet’s journey to the NBA is one that is not very common anymore for players coming out of college. More and more players are opting to spend one, maybe two years at most in college before declaring for the NBA draft.

Players like VanVleet, who spend the entire four years in college, are becoming more of a rarity. Although for him, he feels like the additional time spent at Wichita State helped him make more of a seamless transition to the NBA than some of his younger peers.

“I think more so off the court than anything, just being an adult, being a grown man coming in the door,” VanVleet said. “A pro before being a pro, being able to take care of your business. Coming in every day doing your job and being able to handle the things that come with the life off the court.”

The NBA season is a long one. Teams that start out hot sometimes end up fizzling out before the season’s end. Similarly, teams that that get off to a slow start sometimes pick it up as the season progresses. The Raptors have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference the past couple of years and this season looks to be no different.

Even with the Boston Celtics’ hot start, the Raptors are only three games back of the top spot in the East. They’re only one game back in the loss column. There was a time when mentioning the word ‘championship’ was unheard of around this team. Things are different now.

“We’re trying to contend for a championship. Obviously, we’ve been at the top of the East for the last few years,” VanVleet said. “We’re trying to get over that hump and contend for a championship, that’s definitely our goal. It’s a long year and still pretty early, but we’re just trying to grow and build and get better each game.”

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G-League

NBA DAILY: Tyrone Wallace Is Breaking Out in His Own Backyard

On his second G-Leauge team in two years, Tyrone Wallace is putting up numbers close to home, working towards his NBA shot.

Dennis Chambers

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Located in the heart of Southern California, Bakersfield sits just on the cusp of Los Angeles’ shadow.

In terms of size, it’s not easy to overlook this Californian destination. Bakersfield is the ninth most populated city in the state. But it doesn’t hold the glamour that its contemporary two hours south down Interstate-5 possesses. Instead, Bakersfield rests its laurels on the farming past that made it the city it has become today, with three of the four top employers in the city either being farm or produce companies.

Working for a produce company doesn’t interest Tyrone Wallace, though. He’d much rather spend his time on the hardwood. Wallace grew up in Bakersfield. He’s Bakersfield High School’s all-time leading scorer and two-time Bakersfield Californian Player of the Year.

Wallace has sown his oats with a leather ball as opposed to some vegetables.

Growing up in Bakersfield is crucial to Wallace’s story, however. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Wallace grew up a hardcore Lakers fan, caught up in the generation of kids who idolized Kobe Bryant. It’s Kobe, and Wallace’s brother, Ryan Caroline, who led him to where he is now.

Where that is, exactly, is playing professional basketball in the NBA G-League for the Agua Caliente Clippers. About another 45 minutes down Interstate-5 from his hometown.

For Wallace, getting an opportunity to work towards his dream of playing basketball at the highest level so close to home is a blessing.

“It’s been really fun for me,” Wallace told Basketball Insiders. “You know (Bakersfield) is a smaller city, not too many guys make it out, especially for basketball. It’s more of a football city, but the support there is awesome. Everybody’s behind me you know. Good games, bad games, guys are treating me, and you know the whole city is, I feel the whole support from the city. So to be so close to home is definitely a treat. I have friends and family that will come out to our games quite often. During preseason I had friends and family come out and watch. It’s been a blessing.”

Playing in front of familiar faces isn’t new territory for Wallace. After making his mark in Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4 guard went on to play his college ball at the University of California. Amid his four years at Cal, Wallace finished first-team All-Pac 12 his junior year, along with being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.

Sharing the court with the likes of other NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in college, Wallace joined the professional fraternity himself at the eleventh hour on draft night in 2016 when the Utah Jazz selected him 60th overall.

Pick one, or pick 60. It didn’t matter to Wallace that night in June. He was just happy to get the first chance he worked his whole life for.

“It was emotional, man,” Wallace said. “You watch everybody and see them go, I had Jaylen (Brown) earlier in the first round who I was really excited for. Just sitting there, pick after pick you’re waiting there hoping you get called. But it was a dream come true, better late than never. Very few people get the opportunity to say that they were drafted so it was emotional. But after I was finally selected, I was happy, there was tears of joy. There was a lot of family with me watching throughout and we were just sitting there hoping to be called, and it happened, so it was a dream come true.”

After being selected by the Jazz, Wallace experienced his first summer league action. His performance at the time was marginal, and didn’t warrant an invite to the big league club. Instead, Wallace found himself down in the minors for Utah, with their G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.

During Wallace’s first taste of professional basketball, he displayed some flashes of why, as he put it, he was one of 60 guys drafted in 2016. His first season in the G-League was promising when he posted per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals on 27 minutes of action a night.

Alas, that wasn’t good enough for the Jazz organization. On July 18, 2017, just over a year after being selected with the last overall pick on draft night, Utah renounced Wallace’s draft rights, leaving him free to sign with any team.

For some, being let go after what could be considered a productive developmental year may have been a derailing let down. Not Wallace, though.

“I think in every situation you always reflect,” Wallace said. “And look back and say what could I have done better, on the court or off the court. So I think you know you always do that, but I’ve always stayed confident in myself, and I believe in myself. I kinda let that as a new opportunity that I was gonna have to go somewhere else and prove that I can play, and that I can belong. So I wanted to continue. I look at everything as a chance to learn and grow so I was just excited for the new opportunity that would be coming for me.”

New opportunities did come for Wallace. More than a few actually. But it was the opportunity that allowed the California native a chance to return to the place that led him to professional basketball initially, that has really allowed the second-year guard to flourish.

On Sept. 27, Wallace inked a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. They weren’t his childhood favorite Lakers, but they were the same distance down Interstate-5 from his hometown. Most of all, they represented a chance to keep chasing his dream.

After playing in the preseason, Wallace was one of the last players cut from the NBA roster, and he again found himself in the G-League. This time with Agua Caliente.

Wallace’s second go-around in the G-League so far this season feels different than his last, though. Almost as if the comfort of playing in his own backyard, something he’s been accustomed to for the majority of his basketball life, is easing him out on the court. Whatever it is, it’s reflecting itself in his performance. This year, Wallace upped his averages from last season to 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists per game.

“I worked really hard this summer,” Wallace said. “Just going to the gym, hitting the weight room. I don’t think I necessarily changed anything. I just think being a year in, another year of experience playing in the G-League, I think that helped within itself. Then I think the system here that we run in LA helped a lot, fits my game,  more uptempo. Trying to get out on the break, a lot of pick and rolls. So I think everything just took off at once. I definitely feel like I got better in the offseason, but also just playing in this system where it helps my game.”

It’s been an interesting journey for Wallace since he left college. With the way things have shaped out, especially during this season where he seems to do no wrong on the court, it’s imperative he stays focused on his own goals. Instead of looking at others across the league who may be getting a shot he feels he deserves, Wallace wants to just “stay in my own lane.” Patience and hard work are what Wallace believe will ultimately deliver the goals he’s after.

“I know it’s coming,” he said.

When that opportunity does come, whether it’s near home in Los Angeles, or somewhere else across the country, Wallace will be happy to just be wanted. Just like the way Bakersfield has always treated him.

“Man, I’ll tell you any team for me it would be great,” Wallace said. “I haven’t really had a real NBA deal, and so for me just getting to that level on a team would definitely be a dream come true. I don’t have a specific team I would like to play for. Whoever wants me, I’ll want them.”

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NBA

NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers

The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.

With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.

Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.

However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.

“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”

Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.

In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.

“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”

Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.

The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.

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