The Los Angeles Lakers took a risk when they selected D’Angelo Russell with the second overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. For most of the college season, Duke center Jahlil Okafor was considered to be the prize of that year’s class. Nimble, massive, and with a post game that harkened to a bygone era, he appeared to be just the kind of player that the Lakers would want to build around. With Karl-Anthony Towns making a late surge, Okafor would still be on the board when the Lakers’ pick came up, as though the fates were willing him to play in Los Angeles.
There had been a few whispers indicating that the Lakers could consider Russell, but it was still something of a surprise when NBA commissioner Adam Silver approached the podium and announced that it would be the Ohio State guard, not Okafor, wearing purple and gold.
As expected, some were angered by the decision, and those cries grew louder as the 2015-2016 season wore on. Russell, who was heralded as a passing wizard with leadership qualities, struggled with turnovers and lost his starting job when Lakers coach Byron Scott decided to mix things up. Meanwhile, Okafor burst out of the gate as the third pick for the Philadelphia 76ers, posting gaudy scoring numbers. Kristaps Porzingis, the fourth pick selected by the New York Knicks, was even better. Out of the top four picks, only Russell was struggling.
There were a few flashes of brilliance along the way, but Russell wasn’t the breakout star that fans were hoping for. Even worse, a mishap involving a video of teammate Nick Young discussing his infidelities was leaked near the end of the season, causing Russell’s relationship with his teammates to become frayed. It didn’t appear that they would be looking to him for leadership anytime soon.
It was a pick the Lakers absolutely had to get right, and the fear that they had failed in that endeavor was growing.
Fortunately, Russell has made strides towards changing that narrative this summer. The Young fiasco is winding down every day, and Russell showed up to the Las Vegas Summer League intent on letting his game do the talking for him. He spent countless hours in the gym training since the conclusion of the Lakers’ season, and the results have been impressive.
Through three games, Russell has put up impressive averages of 22.7 points, 4.0 assists, and 6.7 rebounds. He has stepped up whenever the Lakers need a basket and has had stretches where he has looked unstoppable on the offensive end. An improved post-game has allowed him to take advantage of his 6’5” frame and 6’10” wingspan by scoring over smaller defenders on the block, which is an area point guards aren’t used to defending.
Against the Philadelphia 76ers, Russell rebounded from a rocky first half to lead an incredible comeback and then capped it off with a clutch three at the buzzer to get the win. When the team was down and looked to be out, all eyes turned to him for an answer, and he delivered in a big way.
Russell has emerged as the team’s leader, giving rookies like Brandon Ingram support on the floor. On a Lakers team that is now living in a post-Kobe world, finding a new rock to lean on will be important, and it appears that Russell is prepared to take on that role.
Of course, Summer League success doesn’t necessarily translate to the regular season, and as well as Russell has played, he hasn’t been without his issues. Turnovers continue to haunt him, and the passing savant that fans were promised has yet to appear. Russell can still have moments where he makes an otherworldly dish, but that aspect of his game has taken a back seat to his scoring, which makes the turnover issues more troubling.
During his rookie season, many of Russell’s turnovers came while trying to make a flashy pass and live up to his reputation, but that doesn’t seem to be the root of the problem currently. Instead, Russell now tends to cough up the ball on the dribble, struggling with quick defenders. While there is hope that he will be able to clean things up as he grows and progresses, the five turnovers per game that he is averaging during Summer League are still a concern.
Defensively, he has also had problems with quick players taking him off the dribble. His size can be an asset, but relatively slow foot speed has prevented him from ing able to lock down opposing point guards up to this point.
Still, in spite of these problems, the growth Russell has displayed this summer has been impressive, and at just 20 years old he has more than enough time to improve deficiencies. Russell will face a slew of new challenges when the keys to the regular-season Lakers are handed to him at the start of the season. He will find success as well as setbacks on his way to becoming the player he ultimately will be, but for now, Russell is doing the right things to prove that the Lakers made the right decision when they drafted him last summer.