When the Lakers bypassed a big man for a point guard in last June’s draft, the expectations of a Magic Johnson-like playmaker became the presumption and fueled the frenzied hopes of the masses of Lakers optimists who have been drowning in epic sorrows for the past three years. That’s how far the franchise has fallen, banking on potential rather than what is. But the truth can’t be avoided. The Lakers supremacy has long since faded. All that was left to cling to were the hopes of the freshmen class and one D’Angelo Russell.
After the draft, after all the hysteria, after the driving to Vegas and back in order to see the Messiah wannabe D’Angelo Russell play against mostly European products, the sorrows were back in place as Russell was a turnover addict and looked so young out there, a boy next to men. The summer league experience could not live up to the glowing portrait as Russell struggled with basic basketball skills of passing and scoring, surrounded by his fellow lottery tribe that excelled.
Karl-Anthony Towns was a versatile post player and effective passer. Jahlil Okafor was the scorer everyone said he was. Kristaps Porzingis was long and energetic and played hard and had a nice touch. Emmauel Mudiay was a true point guard. What then was Russell?
His game looked a little murky and suppressed which wasn’t all that surprising since he was 19 years old, a one year college player with star potential and bust potential. Unable to live up to the hype of the Lakers machine, Russell had a long way to go, and unlike other draft picks on bad teams, there was very little gray area for Russell whose confident psyche had him in endless media parades talking about his opportunity in Los Angeles.
Everything we thought we knew about D’Angelo Russell last June has turned into a sub-plot. He was not the Magic Johnson point guard as was advertised by the romantics intent on selling Russell as the better choice than the scorer Okafor. Russell was not Magic, the beloved. He was not Elfrid Payton either.
Payton, in his rookie year for Orlando in 2014-15, averaged 6.5 assists per game. In his first four NBA games, Payton had 30 assists. In Russell’s first four NBA games, he had 11 assists. To be fair and to call a spade a spade, Payton had a bunch of young scorers to feed the ball to and the Lakers offensive talent, especially down low with a frozen and C level Roy Hibbert, and Julius Randle who struggled to shoot higher than 18% outside of 10 feet, impacted Russell’s efficiency. But Payton has speed and can get to the rim on blow-bys against anyone. Russell can’t.
But what the 19 year old Russell had in his back pocket, more than Payton, more than Emmanuel Mudiay, is a scorer’s psychology and a scorer’s talent. In June, his offensive gifts were submerged in all the point guard savant hype. His Magic Johnson I.Q. level passing ability was all that was referenced, leaving his scoring as an afterthought. It is that afterthought that has now surfaced as a surprising and much needed accoutrement in the Lakers offensive arsenal.
Last season, Russell established spots on the floor where he can’t be defended. Yes, he will miss shots, all scorers do. But his form and his confidence are textbook. He’s a mid-range shooter which gives him a natural advantage since no one seems to be able to make a 12 foot shot anymore. Russell does. What he brings to the Lakers in a post-Kobe Bryant world is a consistent post player able to depress defenses, replacing Bryant, an extraordinary mid-range shooter, who was able to depress defenses.
These are his shooting numbers from last season:
- 2-Point shots: 44.7%
- 0-3 feet: 58.6%
- 3-10 feet: 46.0%
- 10-16 feet: 34.1%
- Long two’s: 35.9%
- 3-Point shots: 35.1%
His lack of explosiveness means he’s not going to be that Russell Westbrook point guard who lives at the line. 49.2% of his shots were pull up jumpers, 38.6% were three pointers.
In a game against Minnesota last December, in the 4th quarter, his pull up with seven minutes left gave the Lakers a five point lead. His three pointer with two minutes left cut a six point deficit in half. With 51 seconds left, Russell hit another three; the Lakers trailed by two. His twisting, floating, off balance shot tied the score, sending the game into overtime. Russell missed a shot in overtime to win the game but it was a good look that just didn’t go in. For the 19 year old, it was a tremendous 23 point night.
Last night in summer league, in a standing room only house to see Ben Simmons vs. Brandon Ingram, Russell took all the pub away from the two young stars and hit a dramatic game winner that felt like a playoff walk off win. Russell, always hyping himself, repeatedly pointed to the ice in his veins. Even when he told ESPN’s J.A. Adande, “I played like sh*t”, he was a different Russell than last year.
Last year, he was supposed to be the Kobe heir apparent. That lasted until his video taping of teammate scandal f**k up made everyone question his maturity, character and decision making. Brandon Ingram was slotted in as the new Kobe heir, an 18 year old with the maturity and commitment of a 25 year old, while Russell was pushed aside. Suddenly, D’Angelo Russell was downgraded and mentioned in trade rumors.
Immature or not, Russell is a 20 point scorer. The Magic Johnson dreams are misplaced, thankfully put to bed. Russell’s not a natural playmaker. He’s not athletic enough to create damage at the rim. He doesn’t control the tempo, nor does he organize the offense. He may be a good defender, but he has yet to give 100% effort on that end.
In the next to last play against the 76ers, Russell was so busy admiring himself after his game tying shot, he let T.J. McConnell blow past him to the rim for a go ahead hoop.
This is what we know: D’Angelo Russell is a scorer.
The Lakers know a little something about scorers, having drafted Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and trading for Kobe Bryant who notched his first 20+ point game in the 25th game of his rookie year. Russell’s first 20+ point game came in game number 22.
His summer league heroics notwithstanding, this is the year D’Angelo Russell can change how people feel about him. There is no sun blocking his light. His image and reputation are what he makes it, either from boy to man, goofball to leader or the same old D’Angelo thing. If the baby Lakers are to show any improvement, it is Russell who must lead the way.
In the midst of the Kobe Bryant void, D’Angelo Russell has everyone’s attention. They are all watching him.
photo via llananba