EL SEGUNDO — The future flashed before the Lakers’ eyes as their young roster performed simple pick-and-roll drills.
Point guard D’Angelo Russell handled the ball, while giving the Lakers more confidence both with his health and ability to fit back seamlessly into the lineup. Center Ivica Zubac set screens, rolled and finished so gracefully that Russell remarked that his presence “makes it easy.”
“When he gets his opportunity,” Russell said, “it’s going to be special.”
How soon will those images during Sunday’s practice translate into actual games? Although Russell technically is listed as questionable after missing the past three games with a right knee and calf injury, he is expected to return when the Lakers (16-34) host the Denver Nuggets (21-25) on Tuesday at Staples Center. Although Zubac has made his way into the rotation in the past month, veteran center Timofey Mozgov will start once again.
“That’s definitely a possibility that at some point he starts,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said of Zubac. “Same with a lot of our young guys. The further we get of actually having a chance to make the playoffs, the more you have to start put some thought and focus on developing the young guys even more. Right now it’s obviously a huge part of what this season is about. As it goes, there’s a chance you’ll see the minutes from those young guys go up even more.”
The Lakers are hardly expected to make the NBA playoffs after losing 24 of their last 30 games amid overlapping learning curves and injuries to a young roster. By virtue of a diminished Western Conference, the Lakers only trail the Nuggets by seven games for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Still, the Lakers’ 32nd overall pick out of Crotia has steadily grown in the last week.
In his past five games, Zubac has averaged 9.0 points on 46.3 percent shooting and 7.6 rebounds in 21.0 minutes per contests. He has posted double doubles for two consecutive games. And the 7-foot-1 center continuously impresses the Lakers with his improved conditioning stemmed from lost weight.
“We’re just kind of feeling it out. It’s important in my mind we continue to play a certain way as far as the way we practice and compete,” Walton said. “I think it throws a wrench in it if we say, ‘We’re about playing the right way, doing the right way, working the right way and now all of a sudden, we start the youngest five we have. It’s not really fair to the vets who are in here everyday working. It’ll be something we’ll continue to discuss.”