Morning Shootaround

Shootaround (Nov. 7) -- Youthful Lakers ahead of expectations

NBA.com Staff

Young Lakers pick up steam | Warriors still adjusting to new faces, new roles | Portis odd man out in Chicago | Abdul-Jabbar connected to current pro athletes

No. 1: Young Lakers operating ahead of the curve — A win against the mighty Golden State Warriors. A winning record after Sunday’s win against the Phoenix Suns. And a real sense of confidence flowing through the roster. Coach Luke Walton couldn’t have asked for a much better start from his young Lakers, who are clearly operating ahead of the curve early on this season. Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times explains:

Like something out of a WWE script, Julius Randle dribbled the ball about 20 feet from the basket and grinned in the direction of Phoenix center Tyson Chandler. The Staples Center crowd cheered him as he’d asked them to, in a fourth-quarter moment set up perfectly for a one-on-one battle to intensify a situation in which both Chandler and Randle already had received technical fouls.

But Randle didn’t take the bait.

The Lakers’ third-year power forward passed to Jordan Clarkson, who hit a three-pointer that put the Lakers up by 10 points with 1 minute 27 seconds to play. They went on to beat the Suns, 119-108, remaining undefeated at home. It’s the first time since Dec. 6, 2013, that the Lakers (4-3) have a winning record after having played multiple games.

The team won its third consecutive game and avoided a crash after Friday’s emotional victory over the Golden State Warriors.

“I don’t think we were satisfied,” Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell said. “We preached it yesterday. Preached it today. There’s no letdowns.”

Nick Young led the Lakers with 22 points and seven rebounds. He was also tasked with cooling off Suns guard Devin Booker, who caught fire late in the fourth quarter. Booker finished the game with 39 points — 29 in the second half. He helped the Suns make a late push that had them within one point with five minutes to play.

Randle and Clarkson both finished with 18 points.

“They’re more mature than I think a lot of people would guess or give them credit for,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said. “. . . We had a big lead after the first quarter because of the way we defended. That shows that these guys want to win, they’re engaged.

“I don’t have expectations. I came into this job with an open mind. They’ve proven, they haven’t shown me anything to say that they’re immature other than the age of a lot of them. They’ve come to work every single day since we’ve been here, even before training camp. Their actions speak loud. They’re grown men that are in this to get better and to be as good as they can.”

One play in particular encapsulated that growth and maturity. The Lakers had earned a seven-point cushion late in the fourth quarter when Randle and Chandler began to jostle with each other. Fans took note and Randle egged them on, lifting his arms to the crowd.

“I don’t know. I was just trying to bring the energy,” Randle said. “Maybe I was psyching myself up, I don’t know.”

Ultimately both men were assessed technical fouls. Then Randle got the ball on the perimeter and seemed poised to drive to the basket.

Walton saw this unfold while standing at half court, pondering calling a timeout.

“I tell Julius all the time I want him in attack mode,” Walton said. “But because of the situation of how it played out, I didn’t want him going one on one, that’s not what we want to do.”

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No. 2: Warriors still adjusting to new faces in new roles — The Golden State Warriors are still in the adjustment phase of their operation in these early weeks of the season. That should be clear to anyone who has seen the Warriors at their best (last Thursday’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder) and worst (a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Lakers a night later). The focus of the adjustments right now center on the frontline and include everyone from Kevin Durant to Kevon Looney, as Carl Steward of the Mercury News explains:

Without a doubt, the Warriors are an amoeba of enthralling possibilities and fretful questions right now. In the season’s early going, no one is quite sure what to expect when they hit the court.

But it could be worse — a lot worse — even after that grotesque loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday at Staples Center. They are still 4-2, healthy, and full of high hopes. Far on the other end of the spectrum are Golden State’s next two opponents, New Orleans and Dallas, who were a combined 0-11 entering Sunday with far fewer prospects of pulling things together.

The Pelicans, 0-6 as they head at Oracle Arena Monday night, have managed to keep franchise player Anthony Davis fit, but several players around him are out of commission. Free agent signee Lance Stephenson has a groin injury that will require surgery. Guard Tyreke Evans is out with a knee injury until December. Swingman Quincy Pondexter, recovering from knee surgery, will take longer than that. Point guard Jrue Holiday has been absent for two weeks after his wife had surgery to remove a brain tumor.

As for the 1-5 Mavericks, who finally won at home over Milwaukee in overtime Sunday night, they have all kinds of chemistry issues with so many new faces and now long-standing franchise standard-bearer Dirk Nowitzki is dealing with an Achilles’ tendon issue, plus he’s 38. Harrison Barnes is suddenly being asked to be The Man on his new team, a decidedly heady assignment.

So you’re worried about lack of rim protection, dicey cohesiveness and too many missed 3-pointers, Warriors fan? Chill out, at least for time being.

Even as horrific as that Lakers defeat was, a rose bloomed amid the ashes – 20-year-old forward Kevon Looney came in and looked like a guy who looked like he could help in a lot of ways for the long term, and now coach Steve Kerr has to figure out how this could alter his rotations.

“He’s playing well … David West is also playing well,” said Kerr following a long but productive practice. “I’d like to get both guys more minutes but the way we’re playing right now it may not be possible to get them both out there because we want K.D. (Kevin Durant) to play some four also.”

That last element is no small matter, either, and a less obvious example of how the Warriors are trying to work out who they are, particularly on the front line, and how to best utilize their wealth of skills.

Durant, even though he’s averaging a scintillating 30-spot on the offensive end, is in the midst of a significant rebuild in his game at the other end of the floor. For nine seasons, playing alongside guys like Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams, he has primarily defended small forwards away from the basket. He hasn’t been asked to be a major rebounder or shot blocker or defend players as big or bigger than him.

“He’s playing more four and playing in smaller lineups – Oklahoma City generally stayed pretty big when Kevin was there — which changes his responsibility,” said Kerr. “We need him in there rebounding, boxing out, covering up the paint and penetration, so it’s a little different vibe for him.”

So how is he adjusting?

“He’s been good, he’s been inconsistent,” the coach said. “I think there have been times when he’s locked in and he’s blocking shots and rebounding, and then there are other times where he’s sort of forgotten he’s a four and he’s drifted out of the paint a little bit. It’s all part of the learning process.”

Draymond Green sees the changes Durant is trying to make at the defensive end and understands what he’s going through, even for an experienced player possessing such immense ability.

“It’s definitely different for him,” Green said. “It’s an adjustment, and he’s in Year 10 now, I think, and hasn’t done much of that his entire career. But K.D. is a very smart guy. It’s something I know he’ll figure out and get better at. He’s a competitor, which is most important. Those things will come with time. He’s one of those guys who loves a challenge, and wants to continue to get better.”

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No. 3: Bobby Portis is the great unknown in Chicago — With veteran stars like Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo joining Jimmy Butler in Chicago this season, you had a reasonable expectation of what they’d bring to the table. How the supporting pieces fit around them was and remains the big question, particularly for a youngster like Bobby Portis. He was expected to be a key contributor but has yet to find his niche with this reshaped crew, according to Joe Cowley of the Sun-Times:

Bobby Portis still isn’t sure what he is.

Is the second-year Bulls big man supposed to be the energy guy off the bench? Is he just a young player getting scattered minutes as he develops? Or is he a bigger version of Tony Snell – yet another Bulls project picked in the first round [22nd overall] that is struggling to find a direction?

Whatever he is through the first six games definitely has a rip cord attached to it.

In the season-opening win against Boston, Portis earned the DNP CD [Did Not Play – Coach’s Decision]. Since then he only saw substantial minutes in the Wednesday loss in Boston, putting in 11 minutes of work and helping the Bulls overcome a fourth-quarter deficit before coming up short.

On Saturday, it was a quick hook again by coach Fred Hoiberg, as Portis played six unimpressive minutes in the second quarter and was yanked. He did score 16 points in that loss, but all in mop-up time.

“I had high expectations to play more, but it’s not my turn yet,’’ Portis said. “Basketball, sometimes you want things to go your way, but they haven’t gone my way so far. At the same time, I’ve been working hard as I can every day just to be ready for when Coach Fred and his staff calls my number. I’ve been doing everything in my power to get minutes, but at this point it hasn’t come. But I know it’s a long season and it will come at some point.’’

One thing Portis won’t do is ask the coaching staff why the lack of playing time.

“I don’t feel like it’s my choice to ask why I’m not playing,’’ Portis said. “As a player you just go with what the coaches have, and thus far I can’t complain with anything. The guys [in front of me] are playing well, so there isn’t anything to complain about. I’m a team guy always first, so that’s the important thing with this.’’

As a rookie last season, Portis played in 62 games, starting four, while averaging 17.8 minutes, seven points and 5.4 rebounds per game.

He was forced into action because of all the injuries the Bulls suffered last season, as Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic each missed time.

Through the early part of this season he’s averaging 8.6 minutes of playing time, and while he’s had several good moments, there are a number of growing pains still being displayed by the 21-year-old.

Portis playing time, or there lack of, led to Hoiberg discussing how he weighs development with also making sure that his team is trying to win games.

“Those [young] guys are going to get their opportunity,’’ Hoiberg said. “Different things happen throughout the course of the year. Those guys have to step up and take advantage of their opportunities when they present themselves. It’ll keep happening.’’

The coach did, however, admit that they can only get so much from practice.

“Nothing compares to that game action,’’ Hoiberg said. “That’s huge for these guys. Obviously, the nerves are a lot different when you’re out there in a game situation. They are trying to keep themselves ready. If we don’t have a long or live practice, those guys play three-on-three after it’s over to hopefully keep their conditioning and timing.’’

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No. 4: Abdul-Jabbar feels a connection to current pro athletes — Hall of Famer and NBA scoring king Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was as active and engaged in the causes of his day as any professional athlete has ever been. So it should come as no surprise that he feels a connection to the current crop of professional athletes who are engaging themselves in the social activism of today. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe caught up with the legend during a coaching clinic at Harvard:

On June 4, 1967, shortly after finishing his sophomore season at UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar participated in perhaps the most famous athlete summit of all time, along with the likes of Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Willie Davis, to support Muhammad Ali in his refusal to enter the Army.

Nearly 50 years later, some current athletes have decided to use various methods to protest issues such as police brutality and racism.

“There’s certain feelings of alarm among segments of our populace because the skin color of the country has gotten a little bit darker over the past 20 or 30 years,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “This is a cause of alarm for some people. I don’t see that as being a problem, but some people do. I think that has a lot to do with this. It certainly shouldn’t be a problem. People of color are patriotic Americans in the same way that white people are. So, I don’t get that.”

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has made headlines by taking a knee during the national anthem before games. It caused a firestorm of criticism, but several other NFL players followed his lead. In the NBA, some teams, such as the Celtics, have taken to locking arms during the anthem to show solidarity, and to acknowledge current issues.

“I’m glad to see the younger athletes are concerned about what they’re seeing and saying something about it,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “They have a ways to go to learn about the whole process of political interaction, but it was good to see them getting their baptism in. It’s kind of interesting for me because some of the same naive questions that I had, I see them asking. That’s where we start. But until we can have a conversation about these issues it’s going to be difficult, and I’m glad that some of the athletes have taken it upon themselves to initiate some type of discourse and to start the conversation. That’s how we solve things.”

Abdul-Jabbar said he never considered toning down his activism for the sake of marketing or popularity.

“Muhammad Ali was a great example for me,” he said. “He sacrificed the primary years of his career to make a point about the Vietnam War, and he paid for it. But our country benefited from it. People respect him and will always respect him for that. Sometimes you have to make a choice.”

Abdul-Jabbar feels a connection with today’s athletes.

“I don’t think the climate is that different,” he said. “This is still America. The issues that we’re dealing with have their roots in the earliest days of our country. These are problems and issues that have been with us for a while. I don’t think the fact they’ve reared up a little bit makes much difference. This is still an American issue and something we have to solve as American citizens.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: According to a report, the New Orleans Pelicans plan to cut Lance Stephenson and sign Archie Goodwin … Early hiccups aside, the Sixers still feel like they are on the right path … The Sacramento Kings finally found the right niche at the end of their five-game road trip … Emmanuel Mudiay went off early as the Nuggets pounded the Boston Celtics … The road trip the Detroit Pistons will embark upon this week is all about “every other day” Andre Drummond … Devin Booker lit it up once again, but the Suns couldn’t capitalize on their young sharpshooter’s work …

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