After his revenge game against his former team, D’Angelo Russell said “I salute myself.” It was appropriate in real time because the beauty of D’Angelo is his ability to not be fake, to just be himself regardless of how it all shakes out. I suppose he thought that was humility. D’Angelo was never shy about propping himself and giving himself some dap so okay salute yourself. But that game tho
Another former Laker, Nick Young, was looking forward to D’Angelo’s revenge. Young said he was going to spend Friday night with popcorn watching the return. Swaggy’s former teammate had a lot to prove and all bets were on Russell jacking up 35 shots in his redemption tour. After all, it was Magic Johnson who didn’t think Russell had the necessary leadership. So Friday night at Staples was about what Russell would do. Swaggy thought he would come and torch the Lakers on his way to revenge.
Except there was one problem with that scenario. The Lakers aren’t the pathetic defensive team they used to be. Far be it for me to point out that once Swaggy leaves a team the defense gets better. The Lakers are just outside the top-10 in defensive efficiency. Be that as it may, when a player has revenge on his mind, throw all that defensive schematics out the window. It’s all emotion and payback. DeMarcus Cousins ruined the Kings. Dwight Howard let the Hawks know what he thought about that trade for a bag of chips. So what would Russell, who has a scorer’s mentality, do?
He did what everyone thought he would do. He launched. And launched. And launched. The problem was his efficiency. He took 24 shots. He made 8. He took 8 threes. He made one. In a twist, the player who really had revenge on his mind was former Nets, now Lakers center, Brook Lopez who did his best Dirk imitation and had a cool 34 points. Lopez made 6 out of 9 threes and hit 13 of 23 shots for a nice 56% on the second night of a back to back. He also had 10 rebounds.
So as far as Russell proving something, he fell way short. But the effort was there. Russell is a hit or miss shooter. He is going to have real efficient games and he is going to have 17 points on 24 shots games.
As far as the Russell replacement, there’s no comparison. Russell is a better player than Lonzo Ball. He has more offensive talent. Ball is a better passer and setter of pace. But Russell has more ego than Ball. He wants to win. He wants to lead his team. He wants to be a star. Ball seems content to fade into the background. No one ever had to tell Russell, yo dude be more aggressive. Ball would never say in a thousand lifetimes “I salute myself.” Ball salutes others.
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During his L.A. stint Russell was dogged by leadership issues. The thing is leadership is subjective. You define it based on your point of view. Magic felt Russell didn’t demonstrate the on-court behavior that Magic himself was known for, particularly making players better. In the Magic world, the sum is better than any individual part. In other words, we and not me.
Russell, in games, had a lot of me moments. However, Russell was still learning the position and as he repeatedly said, he was a basketball player, not a point guard. A lot of the criticism wasn’t fair. He had to manage Kobe Bryant’s last year while learning on the fly. But it wasn’t Kobe that set D’Angelo back. It was D’Angelo.
Truthfully, Russell was never able to shake off what he did to Nick Young. Perception being reality, a lot of his leadership questions expanded after that. He was never allowed to be 19.
As Russell was unceremoniously tossed to the east coast, Magic Johnson had a parting shot about Russell’s leadership which felt a little bit snarky even if it was true. Magic, in gushing over Lonzo Ball, as he should have given that Ball was the #2 pick, couldn’t help but smack Russell, pointing out his imperfections. We all know Russell’s leadership was a complex work in progress. But there was no need to elevate Ball by putting Russell down. Let Russell do a re-start of his career.
“D’Angelo is an excellent player. He has the talent to be an All-Star. We want to thank him for what he did for us. But what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make the other players better and also (somebody) that players want to play with”. (Magic Johnson.)
When asked about Magic dissing his I.Q. and basketball skill, Russell, on media day, used the word “irrelevant.”
His point: he’s not a Laker anymore so who cares what the Lakers President thinks of his game?
D’Angelo Russell does not judge D’Angelo Russell. But everyone else does. Whether it was intentional or not, Magic made a value judgement that taints- in the short term- Russell’s reputation. Russell acted like he didn’t care but he did.
On a Friday night in downtown Los Angles, Russell was expected to do two things. Prove Magic right. Or prove Magic wrong. And it has nothing to do with his scoring. And everything to do with his scoring.
Can he lead? Can he make players better? Can he rein in selfish impulses for the good of the team?
Being a willing team player and being a leader don’t automatically intersect. A team player does what he is asked, regardless of the role. A leader pulls everyone else up and is happier when they achieve beyond what’s expected. He eats last. He watches everyone else eat first.
And in that vein Russell showed leadership. He moved the ball. He had 7 assists. The Nets had a parade at the free throw line. Allen Crabbe gave the Nets a three point punch and 25 points. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had 21 points on 10 shots. But the Nets lost. And that’s what will be remembered.
Russell 0. Magic Johnson 1.
photo via llananba