The moment Magic Johnson became the personnel guy in Los Angeles roster questions came fast and furious, and while Magic tempered his opinion for most of the young Lakers, he was expressive about D’Angelo Russell, which makes sense since Russell plays the Magic Johnson position and Magic has a Ph.D in leadership and playmaking. Repeatedly, he said Russell needed to be a “better” leader.
Define leadership the way you want. 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.
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 who the Lakers are depending on, 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 used the word “irrelevant.”
“Can’t really control that, what they say, I’m gone. So it’s the past. I am here now. It’s irrelevant honestly.” (D’Angelo Russell)
His point: he’s not a Laker anymore so who cares what the Lakers President thinks of his game?
It’s Magic, one of the greatest players in NBA history. Magic, along with Larry Bird, saved the NBA from itself. Magic’s success in basketball and away from basketball, not to mention being the face of HIV in the mid 90’s, automatically separates him from almost any NBA player, past or present. What he says matters. So when Magic publicly disses D’Angelo Russell from afar, people are going to pay attention.
D’Angelo Russell may not care. But everyone else judging Russell will. Whether it was intentional or not, Magic made a value judgement that taints- in the short term- Russell’s reputation. From this day forward, Russell is going to be expected to do two things. Prove Magic right. Or prove Magic wrong. And it has nothing 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?
In Brooklyn, Russell’s career gets a reboot.
“Wherever they put me, I am going to take advantage of it to the fullest and that’s me being the leader right away. I am looking forward to the challenge. You saying my leadership is being questioned, this is an opportunity to make the best out of it.” (D’Angelo Russell)
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.
The game everyone is waiting for will be Russell vs. Lonzo Ball. Russell will have more points. Ball will have more assists. Nothing will be settled until Russell gets the Nets into the playoffs. The Magic critique will attach like sticky glue to Russell every time Russell makes a mistake.
This time next year, Russell is due for the extension discussion. Getting an extension will determine Russell’s worth, particularly if Magic was right.
But before that happens or doesn’t, for the right now, the Magic back handed compliment front handed slap, was a turning point in the career of D’Angelo Russell. It was the greatest single piece of motivation Russell has had in his short career. It’s in his control to spin his Lakers failure inside out and prove everyone wrong.
Including Magic Johnson.