In a good way, draft night was a whirlwind for the Lakers and their general manager Mitch Kupchak. It went as Kupchak hoped it would, all the right pieces fell into all the right places. Instead of trading the #7 pick which Kupchak admitted he had several chances to do, the Lakers drafted the player they coveted. Julius Randle, the most complete player in the draft, has the ability to score in the post coupled with a high motor and a childhood love of the Lakers. Even the possibility of Randle needing surgery on his foot- a long shot at best-couldn’t ruin the Lakers parade. They scored big in the draft and they did it without compromising their identity in a terrible year. Unlike Philadelphia, they didn’t tank. Unlike Philadelphia, if they play the free agent market the right way, this will be their last year in the lottery.
But back to Julius Randle. A photograph that has gone viral is one of Randle in a Kobe #8 jersey when he was a little kid. Randle’s happiness on draft night was infectious; he truly wanted to be a Laker. “L.A. is a perfect spot for me”, he said. “This is the organization I wanted to go to.” His post-draft reaction only confirmed what ESPN business reporter, Darren Rovell, revealed earlier. The Lakers brand is fine. Even after a losing season they are still a major player. In merchandise sold during the playoffs, Lakers gear was in the top 5. In jerseys sold during the playoffs, Kobe’s jersey was in the top 5. So you can bury the epilogue. To paraphrase Mark Twain: Reports of the Lakers death are greatly exaggerated.
Mitch Kupchak had targeted Julius Randle all season, watching him more than any other college player. He was impressed and won over by the individual workout Randle had at the Lakers team facility last week. “I think he has a chance to be a heck of a professional.” Kupchak tried not to be effusive but he couldn’t help the excitement in his voice even as he wouldn’t call Randle a player to build around. “I wouldn’t put that kind of pressure on a 19 year old.”
Jesse Buss, the Lakers Scouting Director, was impressed with how Randle’s intensity and competitiveness rose when he was asked to play 2 on 2. You can fake a lot of things but there is no way to disguise going hard and playing with passion and intensity which is one of Randle’s talents. In addition, Randle brings something to the Lakers they have not had in a power forward since James Worthy. He can drive the ball from the mid-post, get to the rim, stop, fake his defender, and get a shot off utilizing a variety of moves.
The Lakers followed up their A+ first act by getting themselves into the second round to snag a point guard. It was costly. They bought the 46th pick of the Washington Wizards for $1.8 million dollars. In return they picked up a 6-5 ball handling point guard from Missouri named Jordan Clarkson whose game is attacking the basket and getting to the rim. He has a 6-8 wingspan that will be a defensive asset. Clarkson was slated to the go into the first round but in such a deep draft he fell to the second and the Lakers capitalized on his descent. He spoke about the Lakers “winning championships” as part of their identity, what he associated them with. Kupchak admitted publicly for the first time that Steve Nash is not a guard they can depend on anymore. “I think we have to look at that position and make sure it’s covered.” Jordan Clarkson will play in the Las Vegas summer league. He said of joining the Lakers “It’s a good fit for me.”
Now that this part of his job is finished Kupchak can take a breath but he has little time to rest, only a few days before July 1 and free agency hits. The moves he made in the draft clarify how the free agency process is going to take shape. The Lakers have a starting power forward. They may have a starting point guard depending on what they see out of Clarkson in the summer league. They need a small forward and a center. Of course Lebron James name came up in Kupchak’s interview with the media. He was noncommittal but did say if Lebron or Carmelo were interested the Lakers were “prepared”.
But if not the Lakers have alternatives. They can go to Plan B if the Lebron Plan A is a dead end as most expect. The odds are Lebron stays in Miami and Carmelo goes to Chicago. Because the Lakers have plenty of money and are an attractive destination, they can sign a mid-tier free agent, one who is skilled on the perimeter and plays defense. Last night they added a little over 2 million dollars to the books, nothing substantial to inhibit them for a top tier free agent that could fit into a Kobe-Randle offense. Perimeter shooting is a priority now as both Kobe and Randle love the post area.
Kupchak expects Kobe to be involved with free agents, either as a resource or as a salesman. “I could ask him to make a phone call” Kupcack said. He admitted that Kobe has been working out at the Lakers facility and looks “great.” Then he added, “but he has to prove it on the court.” That same thing could be said of Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson. They have to prove it on the court too. But Thursday night was a great peek into the Lakers 2014-15 future.