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Russell On Consistency, Leadership, Lakers’ Future

After a strange rookie year, D’Angelo Russell is ready to lead a young Lakers core, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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Fresh off the L.A. Lakers’ first loss of the season, D’Angelo Russell is the final player to dress and speak with assembled media. Powered by his heroics, the Lakers had shocked some people a couple nights prior with a win over the Houston Rockets to open the year, but they – and he – ran out of gas on this night against a more disciplined Utah Jazz team.

Russell’s first question is on progression in his individual game from last year to this one; he talks instead about how much better certain areas of the game felt for the team as a whole, even in a loss. He carries it well, but Russell is clearly throwing himself head-first into a leadership void left over from a strange culture last season. Most young guys say the right things, but Russell has a unique way of sounding older as he’s saying them. This is a 20-year-old already without a hint of doubt about the level of expectations on him. Not just today – every day for as long as he can imagine. Not just on the court, but off it as well.

Russell wears a hoodie with the words “I Ain’t Dead Yet” in bright contrast over the heart. He laughs off the idea that it’s a representation of his larger mentality – “No, I talk to you guys with that kind of mentality,” he jokes to reporters, before saying the hoodie is from a fan’s new clothing line he’s supporting – but the metaphor feels pretty appropriate.

No second overall pick has it easy as a teenager in the NBA, but few encounter quite the whirlwind of circumstances Russell dealt with as a rookie last season either. After all, he was the first top-five draft pick made by the Lakers since James Worthy over 30 years ago. Russell entered a locker room warped by the presence of soon-retiring superstar Kobe Bryant, and torpedoed by head coach Byron Scott’s desire to cater to Bryant over developing the first true franchise rebuild in decades.

Russell spent time in Scott’s doghouse, and the relationship appeared rocky at points (both have taken public shots at each other since Scott was fired). He struggled with Bryant’s role, both in the locker room and on the court. He was involved in a highly-publicized off-court incident with Nick Young, one that only became as much due to an obsessive macho man culture within sports. With months to reflect, Russell said he “didn’t get nothing out of” his first NBA season.

Can anyone blame the guy for flipping the page to his sophomore season in a hurry, searching for a more positive script?

“You can’t really give that leadership quality to anybody, or that role to anybody,” Russell said. “It’s just gotta be a team thing. It slowly just builds on players. For me, I know that when adversity sets in, I just try to respond the right way.”

To hear it from elder statesmen in the locker room, he’s already making strides here.

“I couldn’t imagine being 19, 20 years old with so much responsibility on your shoulders,” Lakers veteran Lou Williams said. “I think he’s handled it well, with a lot of grace.”

New bench boss Luke Walton saw Russell from a different perspective last season. He wasn’t in Lakers practice or shootarounds; his experience with his future point guard was limited to in-game play, which was a bit of an incomplete picture for reasons already noted.

When he first saw him up close and behind the scenes, though, Walton wasn’t quite prepared.

“He can get in the post, he’s really good at scoring down on the block, he can shoot threes,” Walton said, listing off skills one by one. “He kind of has that James Harden ability to keep guys on his back and hit midrange jumpers. So his overall ability to score has been a bit of a surprise.”

Within the same answer, though, Walton addressed gaps he still found present after a year of stunted development.

“For him, it’s finding that line of getting the teammates involved from the point guard position [versus] scoring the ball,” Walton said. “In scouting [him last year], you see him have big shooting nights and then poor shooting nights.”

That’s really just consistency Walton is talking about, and it’s the biggest theme you run into when asking around the team about their ascendant second-year point guard. Williams mentioned “playing through adversity” as the biggest challenge for a young player; Russell himself hit these same talking points, though again through a team scope rather than individual.

As someone who’s been through it all from start to finish, though, Walton may have had the best perspective.

“To me, consistency – whether as an individual or a team – is one of the hardest things to deal with in the NBA as a young person or a young team, because of the amount of games we play,” Walton said. “I mean, you come out here and the amount of stress and pressure that is on you every single night, three or four times a week, it’s draining. And it’s hard on young guys. The older you get, you start to realize how to handle that, and that’s when you become more consistent.”

On the court, it starts with consistency in habits. A pick-and-roll in October needs to be run with the same precision and force as a pick-and-roll in a vital April game. Skills can only begin to layer on top of each other and form into a complete game when the foundation is solid.

For a guy who already entered the league with so much raw skill and feel for the game, though, the theme has often manifested itself in Russell’s decision-making. Walton mentioned that elusive balance between scoring and facilitating for a player with Russell’s prodigious ability to fill it up, one certain to be an ongoing process as other core pieces mature right alongside him. Shot selection is a primary talking point.

“If Russell’s open, I’m fine with him shooting the shot,” Walton said. “If it’s just come down, nobody else touches the ball, he takes a contested three, that’s a bad shot. And that’s what we need to stay away from.”

Russell’s role has expanded dramatically – he’s using over 29 percent of Lakers possessions while on the floor, way up from 24 percent last year. He’s running more pick-and-roll as the primary option, upping his percentage of team baskets assisted without (yet) showing any increase in turnover rate. There have been bumps in this road (Russell is shooting just 33 percent on the year, for instance), and there will be more. This is never a painless process for a player so young, especially one entrusted with so much offensive responsibility.

Gauge the feel around the room, though, and it seems like consistency off the court has been just as big a deal for Russell and the rest of the core. The franchise brought in veterans like Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng and Lou Williams (last summer) in part to lend new voices here – “He’s sprinkling that knowledge on me,” Russell said of Deng.

“We’re all within two or three years of each other, obviously same age group, enjoy doing the same type of thing,” Larry Nance, Jr. said of a core group that now includes himself, Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Brandon Ingram. “There’s definitely some camaraderie building, and there’s a team atmosphere forming.”

Russell’s fanfare has been most intense among this group, starting with his generationally unprecedented draft slot within the league’s most storied franchise and, perhaps, intensifying during last season’s tabloid silliness. His Twitter following dwarfs all the other members of the core outside Randle (in large part due to his Kentucky fans). But inside the locker room walls, that noise is drowned out.

When asked about the spotlight being brighter on Russell, Nance Jr. seems surprised by the suggestion.

“Even you asking that question, I was like, ‘Wait, really?’ At least to me, to all of us I think, we all are one,” Nance Jr. said. “We’re all equals, and no one’s better than the other. We’re all just playing for the end goal of winning.”

In many ways, Russell’s search for consistency in all aspects of the game is the perfect microcosm for the franchise as a whole. This is uncharted territory for everyone. Russell has spent most of his basketball career dominating with ease at every level; the Lakers hadn’t picked a guy so high in the draft for three decades because they never had to. Unique challenges lie ahead.

Russell is ready for these and more. He seems to view his pitfalls with as much excitement as his successes – a chance to learn is more useful than a task he’s already mastered, after all. D’Angelo ain’t dead yet; he’s only begun to come alive.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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