The Los Angeles Lakers are entering unfamiliar territory this season, which is a good thing in a lot of ways after suffering through some historically bad seasons. For the first time in roughly two decades, the Lakers won’t have Kobe Bryant to turn to for his signature dominant performances or late game heroics. While people in and around the NBA are sad that Bryant’s illustrious career is over, the enormous void he leaves behind allows one of the Lakers’ younger players to step in and try to take a leadership position over the franchise. That person arguably should be second-year point guard D’Angelo Russell.
In order to do this, however, Russell will have to stay away from the childish antics that overshadowed his subtly impressive rookie season. Russell’s up-and-down relationship with former Lakers head coach Byron Scott surely didn’t help matters, but it’s on Russell to avoid situations like the one involving teammate Nick Young, which reportedly caused a rift in the team’s locker room and hurt the team’s collective chemistry. You can try to dismiss issues like this as simply being the behavior of a 20 year old (19 at the beginning of his rookie season) who just started his NBA career, but Russell harmed his reputation and needs to now be extra careful to avoid similar incidents. Even if he carries himself in an exemplary way moving forward, it will still be a challenge for Russell to undo all of the damage he caused to himself last season.
If Russell can do this, the attention will quickly turn to his underrated production on the court. As Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer recently pointed out, Russell played his way into good company, becoming one of only 18 rookies to ever (at age 20 or younger at the end of the season) have scored at least 20 points per 100 possessions with an assist percentage over 20. O’Connor also pointed out how much more productive Russell was when he didn’t play alongside Kobe, which allowed him to take more control over the offense.
Russell should now benefit from having a season of NBA experience under his belt, having a more defined leadership position to occupy with Kobe out of the picture and playing for rookie head coach Luke Walton, who is reportedly already developing a strong relationship with Russell.
“We communicate on and off the court as much as possible,” Russell said recently. “I feel like I can call him all the time. He’s not like a head coach that will sit back and watch as other coaches and colleagues train other players. He’s always involved. He’ll get out there and play with you if he wants. It’s just great having a young coach like him in the building.”
The chemistry and trust Russell and Walton are developing should go a long way towards helping Russell thrive within Walton’s offensive system and defensive systems, which will likely be heavily based on the systems employed by the Golden State Warriors. There will be tough moments where Walton and his staff will have to reign Russell in, but that’s a common dynamic between coaches and their starting point guard. Unlike last year, however, Russell likely won’t have to endure nightly criticism by his coach through the media, which became a defining part of Russell’s relationship with Byron Scott.
“I haven’t been the easiest man on him in the world,” Scott in regard to Russell in February. “But I always seem to go back to thinking — after I’ve been so hard on him on certain occasions — that he’s 19 years old, and he’s just a kid playing in a man’s world. I know the potential is there. He’s just got to keep working at it. I’m going to stay on him because I think he has a chance to be a very good basketball player.”
While it’s fine to point out that it’s difficult to be a 19-year-old playing in the NBA, Scott frequently found ways to knock Russell down a peg or two. After reminding members of the media of Russell’s age, he then compared him negatively to two of his former point guards, who happen to be two of the best point guards in the league.
“[Kyrie Irving] was just a little bit more mature,” Scott said. “At 19, he was a little bit more businesslike at practice and games. D’Angelo still has a playfulness about him. Sometimes in practice he’s joking around and losing a little bit of focus. But he’s 19. I understand that. Chris Paul was probably like 23 years old by the time he came into the league in his mental capacity. But like I said, each point guard, each guy I have, is different.”
It’s safe to say that Walton will probably go a different route in terms of trying to motivate his young franchise point guard through the media. Whether that has any sort of tangible impact with Russell on the court is yet to be determined, but at the very least it won’t be a distraction or something he has to discuss with the media. With fewer distractions, the chances of seeing Russell put his full skillset on display on the court increase.
Russell combines a nice mix of vision, passing, patience and creativity as a pick-and-roll ball handler, shooting and control over the pace of the game. At times he tries to do too much, make the fancy pass, or take a game over by himself. But within Walton’s likely pass-happy offensive system, Russell should feel less inclined to take over while marginalizing his teammates. Instead, he can focus on finding open teammates, attacking the basket in pick-and-roll sets, posting up smaller guards in the post when called upon to do so and playing off the ball, which he should do well in considering his impressive accuracy from distance when he doesn’t have a defender draped all over him.
As previously stated, Russell’s development will have to continue both on and off the court in order for him to take over as the team’s de facto leader. With talented teammates like Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram and veterans like Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov and Jose Calderon on the roster, there is the possibility that someone else emerges as the team’s leader and driving force. This is especially true considering the damage he did to his relationship with his teammates last season with the Nick Young incident. But with so much natural talent, a fresh start with a new head coach and the confidence to step in to the void left by Kobe, Russell is in a prime position to lead this team into its next era.
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