Written By: John McCool (@Desertrose28)
Last Thursday’s Suns -Lakers matchup gave fans a glimpse of some of the most exciting young NBA players. In a fast-paced, offensive-oriented game, the Lakers improved to 20-45 by outlasting the Suns 122-110.
With players like Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell, and Julius Randle (Lakers) alongside Devin Booker and T.J. Warren (Suns) all logging thirty plus minutes per game, both teams have no shortage of young players at their disposal. Since February 1st, players under 26 years old are each averaging 22.50 and 20.5 minutes per game on the Lakers and Suns (5th and 7th in the NBA).
Other teams have followed suit, benching veterans in favor of getting their younger players more experience against elite competition. There is an especially strong incentive for teams with losing records to start younger lineups to develop these players for next season and perhaps move up a few slots in the draft.
In particular, despite having one of the league’s youngest teams, Lakers coach Luke Walton is still finding ways to squeeze additional minutes out of Randle, Russell, Ingram, and Jordan Clarkson while limiting playing time for veterans like Timofey Mozgov.
The Lakers’ Future
In the twilight of Kobe Bryant’s career, the Lakers mortgaged part of their future in trading for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. During their brief stints in Los Angeles, Nash and Howard struggled to stay off the disabled list and were unproductive on the court. These trades also cost the Lakers first round draft picks. For the last few seasons, however, the Lakers front office has focused on drafting and developing young players realizing that the road to success is not built on the backs of veteran free agents.
In the last three drafts, the Lakers selected Julius Randle (7th overall 2014), D’Angelo Russell (2nd overall 2015), and Brandon Ingram (2nd overall 2016) as their top picks. They have gone on a diet from overspending during the offseason: fewer overpriced free agents, more actual young playmakers.
Despite losing draft picks from the Nash and Howard trades, the Lakers are better positioned than other bottom dwelling teams like the Knicks and Nets going forward. If Ingram and/or Russell blossom into stars, the Lakers will be well positioned to lure free agents and make a run for the title.
Since the beginning of February, players under 26 on the Lakers are each playing an average 2.60 minutes more than earlier in the season (October through January).
During this stretch, Ingram, Russell, and Ivica Zubac (a 19-year-old rookie center) are averaging more than three extra minutes per game. At the moment, the team is also averaging 8.3 points per game and 7 field goal attempts from players under 26 (February 1st through March 9th).
Figure 1: Average number of minutes per game logged by players under 26 since February 1st and the difference between the average minutes per game of players under 26 between October through January 31st and February 1st through March 9th.
As the chart above indicates, the Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, and Minnesota Timberwolves lead the NBA in average minutes per game played by players under 26. Since the start of February, players under 26 are logging 18.5 minutes per game on average compared to 17.6 minutes per game during the earlier part of the season.
Figure 2: Average points per game for players (individual) under 26 since February 1st through March 9th.
Since February 1st, players under 26 on the Lakers are each averaging 22.5 minutes per game (6th in the NBA) and 7.2 field goal attempts per game (10th). The Lakers play at a fast pace creating lots of shot opportunities although still rank in the bottom third of the league in offensive and defensive efficiency.
As of March 11th, the Lakers have a 55.8% probability of landing one of top three picks in in the June draft. If not, the Lakers will forfeit this year’s first round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers.  The Lakers currently hold a 21-45 record “trailing” only the Brooklyn Nets in the standings as the team most likely to receive the first overall selection.
The Lakers would certainly benefit from a lottery pick this year. This year’s draft class consists of potential star-caliber players in Lonzo Ball (UCLA), Markelle Fultz (Washington), and Dennis Smith (North Carolina State). Drafting one of these players would nicely complement the Lakers’ young core players and perhaps boost them into playoff contention next season as a 7th or 8th seed in the West.
Whether or not the Lakers land a lottery pick, players like Ingram and Russell are steadily gaining more experience and playing more consistently at the NBA level. Although the Lakers are still far away from making a championship run, they have the right pieces to remain competitive for many years into the future and an immediate chance to secure a top three pick this June.
 The Lakers record dropped to 20-46 after losing to Philadelphia on Sunday night
 The Lakers will relinquish their 2018 first round pick to Philadelphia if they have a top three selection in the 2017 draft