Mitch Kupchak: Lakers can build around Russell, Clarkson, Hibbert, Randle
The Lakers might already have four of their five starters for the future, albeit in a trio of first- or second-year players and a 28-year-old center in a contract year.
“Clearly that’s D'Angelo [Russell], Julius [Randle] and Jordan [Clarkson]. I’d like to see Roy Hibbert have an All-Star year,” said General Manager Mitch Kupchak on Thursday at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo.
“Hibbert is young enough to be included,” he said. “If Roy has a good to great year, and we can bring him back at 28 years old, I don’t know why he can’t be part of that core.”
The Lakers acquired Hibbert, who will be an unrestricted free agent next July, in a trade with the Indiana Pacers.
The team also has high hopes that Russell, selected with the second-overall pick in June’s NBA draft, will gradually emerge as an impact point guard.
“I do think he’ll get a chance to develop his game from Game 1, I don’t know if that’s going to be as a starter or as a bench player,” said Kupchak. “He’s played much more at ease the last six weeks than he did the first part of the summer, but he has a long way to go.”
“He’s 19 years old. You rarely, even on bad teams, see 19-year old kids come in and live up to their draft status,” he continued. “I’m hoping as the season progresses, people will understand why he was drafted No. 2.”
If Russell starts, Clarkson will likely slide over to shooting guard with Bryant moving to small forward.
Clarkson, taken 46th in 2014, proved to be one of the league’s top rookies last year.
“We drafted [Russell] assuming they could play together in the same backcourt,” said Kupchak of his two young guards.
Randle was selected seventh in 2014, but missed almost all of his rookie season with a broken leg.
“In summer league he was limited in minutes, and clearly over-eager to produce,” said Kupchak, noting the forward was limited to five-minute stretches on the court.
“For the last two months in this facility, he’s been in here every morning and every night. He’s worked on his body. He’s in great shape,” he continued. “He’s scrimmaged probably every day for the last 60 days. It’s clear to me that he’s really looking forward to this. He wants to be successful and is willing to pay the price.”
The Lakers hope other players emerge to join the core of Russell, Clarkson, Randle and Hibbert. The team is working under the assumption that Kobe Bryant is playing in his final season, although that decision has yet to be made.
With training camp starting on Monday, Kupchak mapped out his goals for the coming season.
“I’d like to stay healthy. I’d like Kobe to have a great year. I’d like our young players to prosper and show promise, so we can develop a core going forward, something to more than build on.”
“We want our core to develop so that the blueprint can follow the next step, which is to add more talent next year,” said Kupchak. “Jordan is going to be a free agent [after this season] but he’ll be restricted.
The Lakers will have sizable cap space next summer, when All-Star forward Kevin Durant will be a free agent.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the league that has more money available than we do,” said Kupchak of the team’s spending power next July.
In the meantime, the Lakers are still fleshing out their roster, signing veteran forward Metta World Peace on Thursday to a $1.5 million, non-guaranteed deal. The team has 19 players, 12 with fully-guaranteed contracts. The regular-season maximum is 15 players, so at least four Lakers will be cut before the end of October.
Kupchak said the players have already been hard at work at the team’s practice facility.
“We’ve not had this kind of activity, every day in this building with this kind of energy for as long as I’ve been here,” said Kupchak. “Our coaches have been here, available to rebound, but the players just show up.
“I’m not talking about three or four guys, I think every day for the last four or five weeks we’ve had 10 or 12 Lakers players out there. That’s encouraging.”
One intriguing prospect is undrafted center Robert Upshaw, who was kicked off two college teams (Washington and Fresno State).
“He’s a very talented kid,” said Kupchak of Upshaw. “It’s no secret that he bounced from two schools, and he was dismissed from two programs. We feel comfortable after looking into and talking to various people with both programs we know what the issues are.
“He’s got great size. He’s got God-given gifts. We’ve gotten to know him over the past three months. He’s very young but we feel he’s worth the gamble. He’s on a multi-year deal and it clearly comes down to what he can show in training camp. It’s all up to him.”
The Lakers also have guards Jabari Brown, Michael Frazier and Marcelo Huertas on non-guaranteed deals (although Frazier is promised $50,000 if cut). Upshaw has $50,000 guaranteed while rookie forward Jonathan Holmes has $100,000 locked in. Second-year forward/center Tarik Black is also playing on a non-guaranteed contract.
Upshaw’s competition to backup Hibbert would be Robert Sacre and Black.
Huertas, a true point guard, is a 32-year-old NBA rookie, with years of experience playing overseas. Frazier is a combination guard with a strong reputation as a shooter. Brown is hoping to return for a second-year, although Kupchak noted that at 6-foot-4, Brown is too short to play small forward.
The team has too many guards on the roster, but may have opportunities at the three, which is where Holmes may have a shot to earn a spot. The team will also have small forward Anthony Brown trying to earn minutes on a guaranteed deal, as the Lakers’ 34th overall pick in June.
Kupchak did acknowledge that he is open to trading or waiving a player with a fully-guaranteed deal, if they are out-played by one of the team’s prospects.
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