D’Angelo Russell Where Art Thou? In Brooklyn.

D’Angelo Russell was once thought of as a building block for the Los Angeles Lakers once Kobe Bryant exited the scene. So it is a big fall in the career of D’Angelo Russell that the Lakers traded him to Brooklyn. But set aside the shock value and look at the trade from Russell’s perspective. It is an opportunity to escape the baggage he carried around because of poor choices. He will have plenty opportunities to create offense and display his scoring talent in New York.

In the past few days, there have been stories about Russell’s psyche. He doesn’t take criticism well. He pouts. He goes into a shell. It led you to believe that not only was Lonzo Ball on his way in but D’Angelo Russell was on his way out.

It has been baptism by fire and a tough road for the 2015 #2 pick. It’s hard for anyone not used to the Lakers bubble to handle the Los Angeles attention, celebrity, stars and lifestyle with three million people watching and criticizing everything you do. Russell’s lack of humility didn’t serve him well. To then take a deep breath and put all the L.A. excess on the back burner and work religiously until your legs are about to fall off is like climbing uphill in the snow barefoot. For a kid to do that at the age of 19, it was going to be a Herculean challenge.

D’Angelo Russell’s first two years did not go according to Hollywood script. No movie will be made of his entry into the NBA and glam world of the Lakers franchise. He crafted a reputation as being a player with talent and a player  who does not make friends.

April of 2016, Russell threw his teammate under the bus in a well documented and talked about videotaping leaked online scandal that made Russell appear much younger than his 20 years. Months later, he unearthed all the Russell is immature talk when he challenged Oakland born Damian Lillard.

Some of Russell’s antics never made sense. On a Tuesday night in January, Damian Lillard wasn’t putting much interest in the Lakers-Blazers game, perhaps looking to the next game and LeBron James. And for reasons even Russell couldn’t explain he “poked the bear”, woke Lillard up and then, on cue, like a lion destroying his prey, Lillard humiliated Russell, shot after shot after shot. Russell, thinking he could go toe-to-toe with Lillard and challenge his street cred came up incredibly small. He couldn’t back any of his talk up. It was clear that Lillard had zero respect for Russell and took pleasure in taking his heart.

D’Angelo Russell is still stuck with the reputation of annoying and young and, oh, can we add in immature. After the Lillard encounter and after Lillard carved Russell up like a surgeon, Russell had to deal with the nagging caricature of “he doesn’t get it.”

Lillard entered the NBA as a four year college player, mature, disciplined and ready to take on the challenge of a NBA franchise. Russell came into the NBA as a one year college player, immature, complaining about minutes but good in spurts, like many 19 year olds. We still don’t know who D’Angelo Russell is as a player.

It just may be that Brooklyn pulled off a steal. With Jeremy Lin at the point and Russell as the two guard there will be many shots for the dynamic guard who can post up, drain threes, and be incredibly streaky. He may in fact be a 20 point per game scorer and truth be told the Lakers would have rather kept him than not but getting Mozgov’s contract off their neck was priority #1.

2016-17 was the year Russell was supposed to break out close to 20 points a game but his season was disappointing only in the sense that he did not make the appropriate leaps and strides.  And there were those fourth quarter benchings Russell had with Byron Scott in which Scott was blamed that Luke Walton continued.

Russell had a lot to prove this year. He had glimpses of great play and a lot of bad play. He struggled at the point. After the All-Star break, when Luke moved him to the two, it was a breath of fresh air. He could exhale. He still isn’t accomplished (yet) at controlling pace, getting others the ball, making the team better. To be fair to Russell though, he isn’t blessed with the speed of a Lillard who can always break off a play and get to the rim. Russell doesn’t have that advantage. He can’t blow-by. He has average athleticism.

Jeremy Lin has top rate speed and the combo should be interesting to watch.

D’Angelo Russell’s numbers in his second year were up and down. He took more shots and made more shots but at a lower efficiency. His rebounds and assists were up as were his turnovers. He was a 15 point per game player, not great, not terrible, middle of the pack. It won’t land the #2 pick an All-Star bid anytime soon. Russell was a terrible 10-16 foot shooter, 35.2%.

Defensively, he struggles, sometimes to the point of zero effort. His screens are, at times, half-hearted. On the road, he was miserable. 31% from three, with an abysmal defensive rating of 115 (it was 113 at home.) Fewer assists, rebounds, three point attempts but a higher usage rate on the road.

When the Lakers won, Russell scored almost 18 points a game. And there is this elite metric from Russell in wins, 43% from three.

But when the Lakers lost, which was all the time, Russell fell way off, 14 points a game, 30% from three. Since Russell was in uniform for 42 of the Lakers 56 losses, it is a logical conclusion that who Russell is stems from those ghastly performances, not the 21 games in which he was on the court when the Lakers won. Russell can be an enigma. And he can be a ghost.

His underachievement notwithstanding, Russell has NBA veterans looking at him like he’s a kid who doesn’t know much.  The reputation you have with your peers is more important than the reputation you have with fans and the media. Remember when NBA vets couldn’t wait to punk Blake Griffin at every opportunity? They thought Blake’s dunks at the expense of any other game was trying to show them up and they gave him cheap shots at every opportunity. It is not that bad for Russell but it can get there if he keeps going down this road.

Russell apologists will say he is young and that is true. He  is 21. But youth isn’t an excuse. There have been a lot of young players who have done things before their 21st birthday. Russell is playing a tough position but it is hard to tell if he wants to be a point guard or if he is trying to be something he is not and has no heart for.

The Lakers sold D’Angelo Russell to the L.A public as a star. Everyone penciled him in as replacing Kobe Bryant. But the mental game was way below average and the fans noticed. 

The West is analogous to the 1%. They show off their privilege. They live in luxury. They are the Mercedes league. Steph Curry and Damian Lillard and James Harden and Russell Westbrook, guards more athletic than Russell, with  a higher skill level compared to the defensively challenged Russell, have their way against him and it’s not even close. Getting him out the West, Magic did Russell a favor.

Shut up. Keep your head down. Get better. It worked for Kemba Walker who struggled his first couple of seasons until he figured out where he was the most effective. The difference for Kemba was he had an experienced coach who preached defense, and his teammates were veterans not out of their prime. It wasn’t an episode of the Young and Restless.

By all accounts, and you know this if you watch him play more than a couple of games, D’Angelo Russell has a long way to go. But in Brooklyn, he doesn’t have the Kobe Bryant expectations nor the baggage of his immaturity following him. He can start over, for real. It may be the best gift the NBA by way of Magic Johnson has ever given D’Angelo Russell.


photo via llananba