LAS VEGAS- At the Las Vegas Summer League, wins and losses are as important as the Sacramento’s 2014 championship banner hanging near the players’ tunnel at the Thomas & Mack Center. Summer League is more about learning, development and progression.
For D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, the Los Angeles Lakers’ top two young players, Monday’s 76-66 loss to the Knicks was a struggle to say the least. The lower bowl was packed with fans clad in purple and gold, excited to see LA’s most recent highly touted first-round picks.
After the first quarter, the Lakers were down 19-5 and the LA players were showered with boos by the “home” crowd.
Russell, the second pick in this year’s draft, finished with eight points on 3-of-7 shooting to go with three rebounds, one assist and eight turnovers while mainly matched up against fellow rookie Jerian Grant. Randle, the seventh pick in last year’s draft, shot 2-of-8 and scored six of his seven points in the fourth quarter. He had five rebounds.
“We dug ourselves in a hole and couldn’t recover from that hole,” said Lakers summer coach Mark Madsen. “Twenty turnovers in a game does not work at this level.”
Los Angeles ended up with 21 turnovers, many of which were caused by Russell trying to force the issue offensively.
“I’m forcing it,” Russell said. “I’m trying to make something out of nothing and guys aren’t open. A lot of the time guys aren’t expecting it. It’s just an adjustment.”
Summer League is a time where many jump to conclusions. Reputations are unfairly made; expectations enter the ridiculous zone. In the end, summer league is just a highly publicized set of exhibition games in July, a marketing showcase for the league and a scouting and networking convention for players and teams, both domestic and abroad.
Madsen said that the Lakers want to push the ball and find transition opportunities on offense, but that doesn’t mean the team can abandon valuing possession of the basketball.
“Tonight was a tough night collectively as a group,” Madsen said. “This is not on one man. This is not on one player.”
The Lakers suprised some folk by taking Russell ahead of Duke big man Jahlil Okafor. After a six-assist, five-rebound performance against Minnesota in Friday’s opener, Russell shot just 4-of-15 against Philadelphia on Saturday but finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. In three games in Las Vegas, the Ohio State product has 20 turnovers.
“I think D’Angelo was out of sorts tonight,” Madsen said. “It’s his first real experience at this level. We just want D’Angelo to work hard, he wants to be great and he will be great. People have off games.”
Madsen stressed that Russell is a tireless worker and student of the game. But it’s clear that Russell has things to improve on over the next few months.
Randle was the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft, but this is still essentially his elongated rookie campaign. He broke his leg in his first career regular season game and missed the rest of the season. He has a tremendous amount of athleticism for someone his size but is still a raw 20-year-old kid just 16 months removed from college.
“I think Julius had a slow start,” Madsen said. “I thought as the game progressed, Julius got much better. In the second half, he had some excellent playmaking.”
Randle said that he was trying to get teammates involved over the first three quarters, but he appeared to be a non-factor during that span. Randle came alive in the fourth quarter when he became assertive and began barreling towards the basket and hitting inside shots – including a powerful move inside that overwhelmed prized Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis – and getting to the foul line.
“I can get anywhere I want on the court,” Randle said. “I just gotta get better on the things I’ve been working on.”
Summer League, in the end, is all about things that players are working on. But for the many thousands of Lakers fans in attendance in Las Vegas on Monday, the performances of Russell and Randle were surely disappointing.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.