NBA Saturday: Lakers Believe in D’Angelo Russell

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Entering this season, fans and analysts had a wide range of expectations for the Los Angeles Lakers. Some people predicted they could contend for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff race, others predicted they wouldn’t win more than 20 games. That’s what can happen when a team enters a season with a young core of players, a crop of free agent additions and a revered but aging superstar who can no longer produce at an elite level in what is likely his last season in the NBA.

There are competing interests here and so far the process has not played itself out as well as Lakers fans had hoped. For head coach Byron Scott, the main interest is winning games. The Lakers have missed the playoffs the last two seasons, and as we’ve seen in recent years, the turnover rate for coaches can be pretty high. As for the fans, their focus is also on winning games, but more importantly they want to see D’Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft, develop and prove that he can become a franchise player.

Unfortunately, the Lakers aren’t winning games and Russell has been up and down through the first nine games of his career. Part of the problem is that Russell is just 19 years old, he is still adjusting to training and conditioning at the NBA level, and he is not seeing consistent playing time. Making things worse for Russell is the overreaction to his slow start in comparison to other rookies like Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Kristaps Porzingis and Emmanuel Mudiay, who are all playing big roles for their respective teams and are putting up relatively better numbers than Russell.

Through the first few weeks of the season, Russell is averaging 9.2 points, 2.9 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.7 turnovers in 24.9 minutes of action per game. He’s not leading the rookie class in any major statistical category and has repeatedly been benched during fourth quarters. Nevertheless, Russell’s teammates still believe in him and are offering him support as he struggles to find his footing in the NBA, including fellow rookie Larry Nance Jr.

“Oh man, D’Angelo played great,” said Larry Nance Jr. after the Lakers lost to the Orlando Magic on a game-winning shot by Nikola Vucevic. “I always tell him that that little elbow midrange shot for him, I love it. Everybody does because nine times out of 10 you know it’s going in. He’s just getting more and more comfortable and settling into it the more we play and the more he gets minutes so I’m excited for him and I know he’s going to be a terrific player.”

Russell played a team-high 31 minutes in that game, posting 14 points, six assists, six rebounds, one steal and one block.  It was arguably Russell’s best all-around performance. He looked assertive with his own offense and created some scoring opportunities for his teammates. However, for every encouraging outing that Russell has put together, he seems to follow it up with a forgettable effort. But this kind of inconsistency is common for any 19 year old, whether he is the second pick in the draft or the 60th.

It seems like a lifetime ago (for Russell it actually is) when Kobe was an NBA rookie going through his own struggles. In first NBA season, at age 18, Kobe averaged 7.6 points. 1.3 assists, 1.9 rebounds and shot just 41.7 percent from the field in 15.5 minutes per game. Just like Russell so far, Kobe was not a consistent performer as a rookie, but his talent was apparent. Having gone through the struggles of being an NBA rookie himself, Kobe has offered Russell advice on how to deal with and overcome the slow start.

“I told him he’s playing more than I played in my rookie year (laughs),” said Bryant. “But yeah, I mean it’s just staying with it, staying with the process and just watching and observing when you’re in there and try and play as well you can and when you’re not, you observe and you learn.

“What I told him is that when I wasn’t playing I was always observing, always studying and trying to learn as much as you can. It doesn’t mean get frustrated or upset or down about it, but you get in the gym early, you work as hard as you possibly can so when you’re moment comes you’re ready.”

Russell has shown some of his frustration over playing time and not meeting his own expectations early, but is saying the right things and trying to keep a good attitude.

“I just try to stay as positive as possible,” said Russell. “When things aren’t going your way, when adversity sets in, you’ve got to be able to show your true character, and I’m still rooting for whoever is out there. Whenever that times come, I’ll be ready.”

One of the common issues with young rookies is they want to be complete, productive players from day one. This leads some rookies to press the issue and force their way out of slumps, which can lead to even more issues on the court and frustration, and it seems that Russell is no exception to this.

“Yeah, I mean I feel like my problem is that I want to be better so fast,” said Russell. “So I try to rush the process of being patient and that’s where I get in trouble at.”

Fortunately Russell has young teammates that he can grow with and relate to like Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Nance Jr., as well as experienced veterans like Kobe to look to as a mentor. Kobe has always worked extremely hard on his game, and setting that kind of example could pay off big in the long run for a young player like Russell.

Players as gifted as Russell can lose confidence when they fail to meet the lofty standards they set for themselves. The players that get past this issue generally are the ones that understand the long-term outlook and keep improving their game through hard work off the court. However, this process can be more challenging when outside expectations are extremely high, as is the case for Russell. But Russell’s teammates believe in him, perhaps no one more so than Nance Jr.

When asked about his opinion on Russell’s early struggles and inability to meet expectations as the second overall pick, Nance Jr. responded with resounding support of his teammate.

“That’s ridiculous, the kid is 19 years old,” said Nance Jr. “Come on now. I wholeheartedly believe he is and will be the best player in this draft class.”

This was a bold statement from Nance Jr., who went on to explain why he believes that Russell is and will be the best player from the 2015 NBA Draft

“I see him work every day, in and out of the gym, said Nance Jr. “I see him work, I see his work ethic. I see how he studies the game, I see how he handles it. I stick by that last statement I made.”

Russell has a lot of ground to cover to catch up to other rookies like Towns and Okafor, but there’s plenty of time left in this season to make up for the slow start. Lakers fans may want Russell to play as much as possible and post big stat lines each night, but that’s probably unfair to Russell, who at 19 years old will struggle at times just like every other teenager who has ever played at the NBA level, including Kobe. Nance Jr. did a good job of summing up the struggle that young prospects go through when they make the leap to the NBA.

“It happens. Everybody has their ups and downs. In college you go from being the guy, the big man on campus, all that and you come to the NBA and you got to restart again. So anybody is going to struggle with that. I am, Anthony is, D’Angelo is, it’s just a transition to the league, but I think he’s doing a good job of it.”

Russell may be facing a lot of criticism for failing to meet early expectations, but it’s clear that his teammates still believe in him and his talent.