While D’Angelo Russell and maturity are convenient topics of discussion creating emotion and counter arguments, it takes away from the most important question about the point guard who is beginning his second year, and his first as the most important Laker player: is he a point guard? Does he make players better? Can he lead a team? Can he be trusted in the last 5 minutes of a close game?
On Tuesday night, in his first preseason game, Russell had 5 turnovers in 24 minutes. When he was in the game, his team was badly outscored, primarily because those turnovers led to easy points for the Sacramento Kings. More importantly, Russell still hasn’t mastered the skill of emancipating his teammates, giving them the ball where they need it most, and being the leader on the floor. In other words,he is a me not we type of player, something Luke Walton is trying to change.
His first game as the Lakers leader, Russell’s focus wasn’t great as some of his mistakes were just silly. But the more you watch Russell, the more apparent it is that point guard is not what he is innately gifted at and that is a problem.
This year is a make or break year for Russell which sounds like an exaggeration for a 20 year old but nothing is in his way anymore, particularly excuses. Kobe is gone, so no one is oppressing his game. Byron Scott is gone, so no one is trying to bully Russell. He has a lot of young teammates so he can ignore Nick Young sulking. Russell has what he wants. He is the one player everything is funneled through and yet Tarik Black talks as if he is the leader of the team, not Russell.
After Tuesday’s game. it was Black talking about making mistakes and playing through mistakes. Black referenced a moment in the game when he fell and then he talked about overcoming his mistakes and continuing to play hard. If you had just dropped down from some strange hemisphere and heard Black post-game, you would have thought he is the team’s best player, someone who has full accountability for what he is doing wrong and what he is doing right.
Which, at this point, is an important distinction to make. Who is the Lakers best player? Is it Russell? Is it Jordan Clarkson?
The thing about Jordan Clarkson is you know what you are going to get every night. He may never be an All-Star but pencil him in for 15 points every night and a stubborn willfulness. He’ll dribble pull-up and drive to the rim and now he wants to expand his range to the three but my point is he is not a mystery. D’Angelo Russell is still a mystery.
Unfortunately for Russell, the players behind him are no threat to him. Marcelo Huertas is a great passer but terrible defender and a hot and cold shooter. He is 33 years old. Jose Calderon can make shots and is vocal out on the floor. He is 35 years old. The problem is Huertas and Calderon are skilled in areas Russell is not and may never be. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them get a lot of playing time when Russell is in one of his swoons, like he was on Tuesday.
It’s preseason so no need to overdramatize things. Just like summer league was summer league so no reason to overdramatize things. But with his body of work already in the books as being inconsistent, coupled with his overconfident arrogance, D’Angelo Russell has a long way to go before he can meet everyone’s expectations and be a Chris Paul/Damian Lillard hybrid who takes care of teammates first and scores when the team needs him to.
He is 20 years old, that has to be taken into account. But the truth is, his youth only matters to NBA organizations not named Lakers. L.A. has no patience. They don’t like to wait.
photo via llananba