When the Los Angeles Lakers moved up in the 2015 Draft Lottery and landed the No. 2 pick, fans celebrated. The expectation was that the team would select whichever of Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor the Minnesota Timberwolves passed on with their first pick, and would begin rebuilding their team around a dominant big man. There were even some calls for Los Angeles to take a leap and select international stringbean, Kristaps Porzingis, who since has proven to be more NBA-ready than anyone imagined.
Few expected the Lakers, a team historically built around great post players, to pass on a potential franchise big man. However, after playing things close to the vest and leaving everyone in the dark on draft day (including the pick-whisperer Woj), the Lakers shocked the world and selected Ohio State guard, D’Angelo Russell.
Most praised the move as a sign that the Lakers were finally ready to step into the modern NBA, which is more guard-based than ever before. It was easy to watch Russell play and draw comparisons to players like Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Manu Ginobili, and his highlight-reel passing had fans in Los Angeles salivating.
Unfortunately, Russell started slow, struggling through Summer League play (5.2 turnovers per game) as well as during the opening weeks of the NBA season. Meanwhile, Towns, Okafor, and Porzingis were setting the league on fire with gaudy stat lines, causing Russell to appear to be the weak link among the top four picks.
Lakers fans are keenly aware of how important Russell’s success is to the once-dominant franchise’s rebuilding efforts, and his difficulty transitioning from college combo guard to professional point guard made many nervous. He looked passive on the court, often deferring to retiring legend Kobe Bryant and appearing afraid to make mistakes, possibly a remnant from his turnover problems during the summer. With Russell focused on limiting miscues his magical passing ability, which had been hyped to the moon during the offseason, was nowhere to be found.
While many still preached patience for the 19 year old rookie, Lakers fans couldn’t help but feel uneasy. After all, draft picks are crucial in the modern NBA, and missing on even one can drastically set a team back. With the Lakers mired in the worst stretch in team history and future draft picks still owed to Philadelphia (via Phoenix) and Orlando thanks to the Steve Nash/Dwight Howard debacle, Russell turning into a bust would be catastrophic.
Complicating matters, to many it also appeared as though Lakers coach Byron Scott was mishandling Russell, often minimizing his fourth quarter minutes and stifling his pick and roll opportunities, where the skilled guard thrives. Even worse, Scott was limiting the playing time of (and eventually benching) the Lakers young players in order to feed even more to an aging Bryant, whose efficiency and injury history screamed for a minutes restriction.
It was a nightmare scenario for Lakers fans: Bryant was being driven into the ground (again) and the Lakers future was being stunted in the process. Fans were waiting anxiously to see some kind of sign that Russell can indeed become a star, or at least some flashes of brilliance that would indicate a fantastic future. In the midst of a mountain of losses, they needed something to restore hope that tomorrow will bring a better day.
24 games into the NBA season, the wait is over.
In the middle of the Lakers eight-game road trip, Russell (along with Julius Randle) found himself benched in favor of Lou Williams. Lakers fans were outraged, but Russell was determined to not squander the opportunity the next time his number was called.
It didn’t take long. Just a game and a half into his demotion, Jordan Clarkson injured his ankle, thrusting Russell back into the starting lineup. Stepping into the starting lineup in the second half against the Wolves, the Ohio State product proceeded to score 21 points, including a game-tying bucket against defensive ace Andrew Wiggins to force overtime.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of Russell’s emergence was Bryant, who requested that coach Scott leave him on the bench down the stretch against the Wolves so that Russell could run the show. It was a close, winnable game, but Russell was playing so well that Bryant passed up the opportunity to play the hero, sending the message to his young protege that he trusts in his ability to lead the team.
Russell followed up his excellent performance against the Wolves with a dominant one in San Antonio. As the starting point guard, Russell controlled much of the action, setting up teammates as well as scoring himself. He ended up notching 24 points, six rebounds, six assists, and two steals in 36 minutes.
While he wasn’t quite as effective against Houston on Saturday, Russell still showed poise and composure in dealing with the defensive pressure of Patrick Beverly, and Russell’s own defense has been getting better and better as the season has gone on. It isn’t a strength just yet, but he certainly isn’t the turnstile he was projected to be coming out of the draft.
Since Clarkson’s injury, Russell’s minutes have shot up from his season average of 28.4 to 35.2, and perhaps more importantly his usage rate has gone from 22.5 to 29. This means that not only is Russell seeing more time on the floor, but he is also much more involved when he is out there.
With the increased minutes and role, Russell has bumped his scoring average from 12 on the season to 19.7 over the past three, and his three point shooting has improved from just 32 percent to 37 percent. Russell had already shown that his midrange game is deadly (particularly from the left side), taking advantage of the space that most teams give up out of the pick and roll as they focus on preventing threes and layups. As Russell’s long range shooting comes around, he will become that much more difficult to cover, and the resulting shifts that defenses will need to make should open up more avenues for his passing.
Russell isn’t the only one seeing a change in his role on the team, though.
To his credit, Bryant’s own usage rate has dropped from 29.3 to 24.4 during the same time period as he backs off his involvement in order to allow Russell to continue to spread his wings. The adjustment has also allowed Bryant to pick his spots a bit more, and his field goal percentage has shot up from a horrific 32 percent on the season to 47 percent during the the last four games, and he’s shooting three less shots per game as well.
Before we anoint Russell as the next big thing though, we do have to remember that three games is an incredibly small sample size. It’s also not clear what effect Clarkson’s impending return will have, nor is it set in stone that Kobe will remain in “facilitator mode” from here on out.
We also have to keep in mind that as a rookie, Russell will have many more ups and downs as the season goes on. Some nights he will look excellent, while others he will appear to be in over his head, and that’s all part of the growing process.
Detractors will also note that the recent outburst from DLoading hasn’t produced any wins, but at this point the ultimate success of the Lakers season has little to do with their record and a lot to do with how the young players develop. In that regard so far, we have seen flashes from Clarkson, Randle, and now Russell as well, and that should be celebrated. The season has been far from perfect, and moral victories have to be identified wherever they can.
In the end, the biggest thing to take away from the past three games with D’Angelo Russell running the show is that Lakers fans can breathe a sigh of relief: the kid is certainly no bust.