It’s Better In Brooklyn

When they traded D’Angelo Russell to Brooklyn early in the summer of 2017, the Los Angeles Lakers did D’Angelo Russell a favor, though it was shocking to see the player who was supposed to be the Kobe heir tossed aside as if he never mattered. Russell, in 2015, was the next Lakers star, according to the franchise execs who put upon him expectations he could never fulfill. A mixture of confidence and arrogance and immaturity, Russell took to the media culture like a natural, appearing all over the city. Wherever there was a camera, he cosigned the stardom narrative.

Los Angeles is a professional basketball town and not much interest is tossed college basketball’s way and so Russell, at first, was a welcomed curiosity. Instantly he was liked without having to prove much, and then something about him screamed not ready for L.A. He was suddenly criticized after falling short of the Kobe Bryant perfectionist maze. He battled with Lakers fans on social media. He was the Byron Scott whipping boy, repeatedly punished for immature behavior. But he showed ability in spurts. In 2016, he was pushed aside for another young kid, Brandon Ingram.

When Russell says it is better in Brooklyn, he is right. He won’t have all the second guessing, the living up to Kobe Bryant and the living down the Nick Young fiasco. He can be born again. A chapter is closed. A chapter will be forgotten. But why did the D’Angelo Russell boat tread water, drift off course and ultimately capsize?

Blame The Front Office

In 2015, Lakers President of Basketball Operations Jim Buss was desperate to keep his job. Foolishly, he made a proclamation to his other co-owners, his brothers and sisters, that if the Lakers were not in the playoffs in 2017 he would quit. That is how confident he was in his ability to mine talent.

Buss and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak drafted D’Angelo Russell instead of big man Jahlil Okafor in 2015. It shocked. The Lakers were an organization known for big men: Wilt, Kareem, Shaq. And they were desperate for size. But the scouts didn’t think much of Okafor’s game and predicted he would never be an All-Star. Sure, he could score and rebound but he had lazy habits and his motor was questionable. Russell, on the other hand, had two evaluations: star or bust. He had a tremendous workout; he was confident and had charisma. His upside was romanticized. That he was 19 years old didn’t worry anyone.

Post-draft the Lakers sold Russell as the next Los Angeles star. They said he would be the point guard the Lakers had not had since Magic Johnson.They talked about his court vision and playmaking skills. They repeated it over and over again making everyone listening punch drunk. And then Russell played his first NBA game.

It was obvious from the start. He was a scorer. He was an average playmaker as far as seeing a play before it happens and zipping the ball in. He had the size to post up smaller guards and his shooting was streaky and he wasn’t afraid. But his age worked against him. His first coach was Byron Scott who demanded Russell be a man but Russell was often silly and casual. He  had a lot of teenager still in him and  that annoyed the ball busting Scott. He and Russell went through their push and pull tough love with Russell wearing the scars.  Russell was benched. Or, Russell played 30 minutes.  Or, Russell pouted. Or, Russell was dynamic in the 4th quarter.  Scott acknowledged Russell had talent but his mental focus was a work in progress. Russell was intense and then he was casual. He was playful and then moody.

The media corps was overwhelming because it was Kobe Bryant’s last year. They were everywhere. The front office did little to protect Russell from the vultures. Instead, they tried to pass the Kobe torch to Russell to show the fans their Kobe replacement. The eye test told a different story. By then, by December, it was too late for another narrative.  Everyone had expected a Magic Johnson like point guard and Russell disappointed. In frustration, he once told the media after a loss, “I’m a basketball player. That’s it.” Meaning stop the point guard talk.

It was a short honeymoon, followed by a quickie divorce and bad feelings on both sides. (C.J. Hampshire)

Nick Young Changed Everything

It started with a basketball game in Utah. It ended with his teammates freezing him out. In the middle was a video that revealed a private thing said between men. D’Angelo Russell never recovered. Nick Young said he trusted him again but no one forgot Russell hijacking Kobe Bryant’s last two weeks. Fans didn’t forget. Other NBA players didn’t forget. It was the scarlet letter D’Angelo Russell had to live with and frankly it was better that he leave. His talent wasn’t extraordinary enough to overcome it.

The Utah game exposed a fracture. Russell wasn’t getting the ball. ESPN reporters Marc Stein and Baxter Holmes were the first to be aware of the Arctic temperature towards D’Angelo Russell by his teammates. It was extreme enough for the team to stop talking to him and for their on court behavior to signal there was an issue that D’Angelo Russell, perhaps, may not recover from, NBA locker rooms being as fragile as they are.

That Russell taped teammate Nick Young while they were both in a hotel room and said video found its way to social media burned Russell into bits. He couldn’t apologize fast enough. Nick Young wasn’t having any of his remorse. This wasn’t some high school prank. It was two weeks from Kobe Bryant’s last game, the countdown was supposed to be the focus. Russell appeared childish and not ready for a professional league of adult men. He broke his teammates trust and they punished him.

Russell has one of those boyish faces that doesn’t register regret or atonement. He looked guilty and at the same time, he looked as if he didn’t care, while Nick Young was devastated, depressed and broken.

Young and Russell didn’t speak to each other for the rest of the season and despite the euphoria of Kobe Bryant’s 60 point farewell game where Russell ran over to Bryant and gave him a bear hug, it all felt as if Russell was being artificial, as if he was trying to be something he was not to make amends. A Dwight Howard clone, so to speak. The next season, things seemed to be buried. Nick had gotten over it, at least on the surface, even if the relationship with his girlfriend was in shreds.

The Lakers didn’t have unity problems in 2016-17 but Russell was dogged by the same issues with Luke Walton as he had under Byron Scott: he needs to grow up a little.

And so there it was. A player no one knew much about in June 2015 was a player who was disloyal in 2016 and then was out of town in 2017. It’s the NBA. (Valerie Morales)

D’Angelo Loves Brooklyn

D’Angelo Russell has had an up and down career but it’s only been two years so it isn’t fair to tar him with the lottery pick bust brush. But the facts are black and white. Russell is an average scorer, making 40% of his shots and his three ball is 35%, which isn’t extraordinary. He’s never played more than 28 minutes a game. His defensive rating is awful. 44% of his shots are threes. Most of his turnovers come from a bad pass which makes sense since he has the ball in his hands. But last season, he played fewer games than his rookie year yet had more bad passes. It is his one weakness, decisions with the ball. Often he is thinking rather than reacting.

D’Angelo loves Brooklyn. He has had his best games as a pro against the Nets.

D’Angelo Russell has played the Nets 4 times. He shot 55% and a stunning 57% from three. His true shooting percentage against the Nets in two years is 71%. His offensive rating is 127. Even his defensive rating, which is pretty horrible against the rest of the league, was LeBron James like against the Nets. He only played 28 minutes against the Nets but dropped nearly 25 points. But his 2.3 assists was the D’Angelo Russell story. He wasn’t a point guard. The Lakers wanted him to be. He just wasn’t one.

That’s the Russell that the Nets want. The non point guard. The scorer.

In the spring, the Lakers gave up their D’Angelo Russell point guard dream. They moved him to shooting guard. It may have been to showcase Russell for a trade. It may have been to let Russell get the feel of it so they could keep him as a combo guard. Whatever. It worked. Russell was joyous on the court not having to make plays for others.

After the All-Star break he had a 40 point game against the Cavs. He had three 28 point games (Washington, Memphis, Phoenix) and one 29 point game (OKC). No one disputes Russell’s talent. But consistency and focus plus defensive intensity has been the issue. He closes games out poorly, veering for hero ball and so Russell not being the point guard does Russell the basketball player a favor.

It takes the ball out his hands. It puts the ball in his hands. (Julian Billick)