The Los Angeles Lakers selected D'Angelo Russell. It was the right pick, even if it was not the safer pick from a PR stand point. Jahlil Okafor's name had been at the heart of the 2015 draft even before the 2014-15 college basketball season started, so picking Russell over Okafor took, um, guts.
"We felt (Russell) at no.2 was a player we could not pass up," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said shortly after making the pick.
Lakers coach Byron Scott would sit in front of microphones a short time later and invoke the names of Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Chris Paul when describing Russell. Scott, of course, played alongside Johnson and coached Paul as a rookie in New Orleans.
"Talent-wise, I think Russell might be the best player in the draft," Scott would add with genuine excitement that could be felt by anyone in attendance.
Ignoring popular sentiment and the history of Lakers' big men, the team went with a guard that describes himself as a younger, less polished version of Stephen Curry. While not entirely trashing Okafor, Kupchak did clearly state that he did not think the big men available would have ever ended up on the walls of the practice facility alongside "Chamberlain," "O'Neal" and "Abdul-Jabbar"--ouch.
With Jordan Clarkson on the roster, the Lakers may well have their backcourt of the future set and ready to grow together. Barring a trade, that backcourt will first debut on July 10 when the Lakers' NBA Summer League team faces the Minnesota Timberwolves--and no. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns. The young version of the Lakers will face spurned center Okafor and the youthful Philadelphia 76ers one day later.
Beyond Russell and Clarkson, the other focus of the Lakers' Summer League team is Julius Randle, who was the Lakers' lottery pick a season ago. According to Kupchak, Randle has been at the facility playing 5-on-5 basketball and looks "great." Tarik Black and the new rookies will obviously play their parts in the process, too, but ultimately, the Lakers' future is embedded in the trio of young stars.
So, what's next for the Lakers?
Well, Kupchak made no secret that the focus of the Lakers' offseason will be filling front court needs. Any odd basketball fan can relate that LaMarcus Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan are two free agents at the top of the list. An early report suggests that Aldridge will not return to Portland, and Jordan has reportedly chosen the Lakers as one of four teams he will meet with.
Either would be great fit and a welcome addition for the Lakers, but Jordan would probably be the best fit for a team that desperately needs a defensive presence under the basket. At this point, Jordan is the best defensive center in the NBA--though watching him miss free throws would be tough to stomach on a daily basis. Alley-oops and block shots would serve as the medicine for those upset stomachs.
DeMarcus Cousins still wants to come to LA at last check, but that deal seems to involve working through a confusing power struggle within a dysfunctional Sacramento Kings organization. Also, the Lakers would need to part with multiple young assets mentioned earlier. Looking around the league, the Lakers may have an easier chance of finding a big man on the open market.
Clarkson likes Russell. "Watched him a lot in college. We can play together, can play on/off the ball. We make the backcourt more dynamic." — Jared Zwerling (@JaredZwerling) June 26, 2015
Even with Kobe Bryant and Nick Young on contract, Kupchak did not close the door on adding a backcourt player, but clearly, the focus is on filling the front court needs. Ed Davis, who impressed in his lone season with the Lakers, opted out of the second year of his contract. The Lakers like Davis and understand that the forward/center wants to return to LA, but Kupchak acknowledged that the timing of free agency may force the Lakers to miss on Davis. While the Lakers are busy chasing Aldridge and Jordan, another team could easily swoop in and steal the hardworking big man.
On draft night, Kupchak stated that the Lakers had not yet made a decision on Jordan Hill's team option. The decision to pass on Okafor gives Hill a slightly better chance of returning, but bringing Hill back would handcuff the Lakers in free agency.
The NBA has become a guard driven league, and the Lakers drafting a guard over a big man iterates that the Lakers are not living in the past. They are on the right path to recovery, and a strong free agency would further propel the Lakers on that road.
After allowing the initial excitement and emotions of draft night to settle, the Lakers still look like winners one day later.