The Los Angeles Lakers had a disappointing 2015-16 campaign. After winning 21 games just two years ago, the team entered last season with the hope of competing at a somewhat higher level in the Western Conference. However, rather than returning to form, the Lakers would win just 17 contests and the season would be remembered as Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour.
While all of the losing has been extremely tough for a franchise and fan base accustomed to contending, one of the bright spots has been the arrival and production of D’Angelo Russell. The Lakers selected Russell with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft and are hoping to turn the reins of the franchise over to the talented guard.
The Lakers’ struggles were difficult for Russell to deal with and there’s no question that he made mistakes – on and off the court. However, he’s learned from them and all signs point to a breakout sophomore season for the 20-year-old.
Bryant’s minutes and touches are now up for grabs, the short leash that former head coach Byron Scott had Russell on is gone and the young guard now has a solid year of NBA experience under his belt.
All things considered, it’s not like Russell struggled to produce as a rookie. He developed throughout the year and showed glimpses of brilliance that suggest he can take the torch from Bryant as the Lakers’ next superstar.
Russell averaged 13.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.2 steals in 28.2 minutes per game, which earned him a spot on the NBA’s All-Rookie Second Team. Perhaps most importantly, he showed drastic improvement from the first half of his rookie campaign to the second half. In the 27 games after the All-Star break, he was even more comfortable and effective – averaging 15.1 points while shooting 38.9 percent from three-point range. Consider the behind-the-scenes dysfunction that was taking place during this time and the stats are even more impressive.
Now, Russell is hoping to pick up right where he left off. During Summer League in July, he did just that. In four games in Las Vegas, Russell averaged a very impressive 21.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, four assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range. He also hit a game-winning three-pointer to beat the Philadelphia 76ers – providing further proof that he does, indeed, have ice in his veins.
“D’Angelo had a terrific Summer League,” Lakers teammate Larry Nance Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “In my opinion, he belonged on the All-NBA Summer League First Team.”
As if his second-half stats and Summer League dominance weren’t encouraging enough, other signs point to Russell having a breakout year as well. The departure of Scott opened the door for new head coach Luke Walton, whose player-friendly style and up-tempo system should be perfect for Russell. Because Russell has an extremely high basketball IQ, impressive versatility and the ability to score efficiently from anywhere on the court, Coach Walton should have no trouble finding ways to attack opponents with his point guard. Walton will put Russell in situations where he can succeed and should help him maximize his potential as he continues to develop.
“[Coach Walton] hasn’t really put his system in yet, but you can tell as far as the Warriors and his background that it’s about ball movement, team defense and having fun,” Russell told Basketball Insiders. “You look at that and it’s exciting.”
In addition to Walton, the Lakers also brought in a number of other new pieces who should make a difference in Russell’s second year. The team drafted No. 2 overall pick Brandon Ingram and signed veteran free agents like Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Jose Calderon and Yi Jianlian to serve as complementary pieces. It seems clear that the Lakers are trying to build around their young core, with Russell at the top of the pyramid.
“This offseason has been great,” Russell said. “I’ve had an opportunity to really get in the gym, meet the new coaching staff and my new teammates. Getting that chemistry built early has been a huge plus. I’m also working on a lot of things to improve my game – mainly with my consistency on jump-shots, floaters and finishing around the rim.
“We got so many young guys, so sprinkling in those veteran guys is what we need. They’ll show us the proper guidance and show us the ropes. A lot of those guys have multiple years [of experience] in the playoffs and they know what it takes. We don’t really know anything – we haven’t really done anything – so having those guys is going to be very good.”
Even though it seems that the Lakers are building around him and preparing him to be the organization’s cornerstone, Russell is staying humble and focused on becoming even more of a team player. When asked if he sees himself as a franchise player, Russell avoided anointing himself as such.
“That’s something that chooses you, you can’t just go after that,” Russell said of being a franchise player. “You can put those accolades on yourself, but in the long-term that’s something that chooses you. I feel like with this team we have, we’ll be successful. Nobody’s saying, ‘You’re going to be the next Kobe…’ My teammates and I just want to be the best team, and that’s all that matters to me.
“I want to be the best point guard for this team and make sure it’s in a winning fashion. For me, it’s always about winning as a team. I just want to grow and improve, game after game.”
As he continues to consistently improve, Russell must find the right balance between setting up his teammates and asserting himself when needed. Every point guard – even the all-time greats – had to learn when to create versus facilitate. Russell’s teammates aren’t concerned about their floor general’s development since they see the hard work he puts in behind the scenes.
“He’s one of my closest friends on the team,” Nance Jr. said of Russell. “He’s already gained my trust and my respect.”
The one-two punch that many fans in Los Angeles are excited to see this season (and for many years going forward) is Russell and Ingram. The duo played together during Summer League and have been working out together in L.A. as they prepare for the upcoming season.
Russell likes what he has seen from the Duke product, but he did caution that the talented rookie will likely have growing pains similar to the ones he experienced last season.
When asked how good he thought Ingram could be, Russell talked about his strong potential, but noted that there will be bumps early on for the young swingman.
“I feel like he’s working his tail off and with the experience he’ll get in his first year, I think we’ll see what he really is next year,” Russell said of Ingram. “The first year is all about getting a feel for the game and knowing what to expect. It’s just like judging a high school kid and saying he’s going to be a good pro; you just can’t know.
“Going through this second Summer League and training camp, I know the sky is the limit. I know what I went through as a rookie and [what it takes to] play point guard at this level. I feel like he’ll go through the same thing this year.”
As Russell noted, his up-and-down rookie season was crucial to his development and maturation process. Now, it sounds he’s like much more comfortable and confident heading into his second NBA season. Because he knows what to expect (including the big L.A. market and lofty expectations that come with being the No. 2 pick), Russell can help Ingram as he gets acclimated to the NBA game and lifestyle.
“That one year of experience did a lot for me,” Russell admitted. “It just gave me a better blueprint of what my game is capable of [being]. It helped me recognize when I could get my shot and how I could get myself going.”
With some of those lessons learned, Russell is excited for the new year. The new-look Lakers may not win significantly more games this season, but there’s no question that they’re building a nice foundation for the future.
Russell has everything he could want in Los Angeles: a respected teacher (Walton), an experienced supporting cast (Deng, Mozgov, Calderon, Lou Williams, etc.) and a young core around him (Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac, etc.).
The organization is giving him the resources to be great, and he’s putting in the necessary work to take full advantage of the opportunity. While he’s still just 20 years old and may need some time before he’s ready to grip the reins of the Lakers, we could be looking at the next superstar to don purple and gold.
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