In a close race with New York City, you won’t find a more pressure-filled city to play professional sports in than Los Angeles. The massive media and never ending spotlight can quickly take a toll on a young rookie and cripple him for the rest of his career. The Los Angeles Lakers have the most historic franchise in the world of professional sports, so there’s even more pressure to take into mind.
D’Angelo Russell is currently the starting point guard for the Lakers. Just one season after being drafted with the no. 2 overall selection, the organization’s success rests on his shoulders for both now, and the distant future. Russell didn’t have the rookie season that many expected on or off the court.
Former head coach Byron Scott was always very skeptical of the 19-year-old’s maturity and work ethic in the weeks leading up to the regular season debut. Throughout the first month of the season, Russell had his rough patches during games, but what rookie doesn’t? Scott would yank him quickly whenever a mistake was made, so he was constantly looking over his shoulder whenever he made a bad play. When a player has that type of weight on his conscience throughout the course of a game, it can severely impact his confidence and cripple him from unleashing his true potential.
If Scott’s constant harsh coaching didn’t apply enough pressure, Kobe Bryant announced that it would be his last season just 16 games in. The young Lakers’ core of Russell, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson then had to partake in the farewell tour for Bryant. Every night, a different city, Bryant would be honored not only by the opposing fans, but by Scott allowing him to hoist 16.9 shots per game despite awful percentages of 35.8 from the field and 28.5 from three.
Was it right to allow Bryant to go out this way? It was the only choice. Bryant had brought five championships to that organization and will go down as one of the best players to ever step on a basketball court. It still cannot be ignored the way it delayed the younger player’s development, though.
Russell finished the season with respectable averages of 13.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game. Decision-making was the biggest flaw in his game. He would often try and force passes in windows that simply weren’t there. His tendency to take contested shots also came into question. But it wasn’t just on the court decision-making. Russell’s name dominated headlines across the country when a video leaked of him recording teammate Nick Young talking about how he had sexual relations with a 19-year-old woman. Young was married to pop star Iggy Azalea at the time, so it was clear that he had cheated.
Following the video, Russell was exiled from the team. The trust from his teammates completely disappeared. He eventually apologized in March about the incident, but the feelings from his teammates continued to linger. The situation today still is one that sparks conversation, but not anywhere near like it did in the timespan of when it first released.
The 2016-17 season holds a fresh slate for Russell and the Lakers. Bryant has walked off into the sunset, Scott was fired, and the whole video scandal is pretty much forgotten. Luke Walton was brought in to take over the head coaching duties after helping the Golden State Warriors to back-to-back Finals appearances, one in which they won the title. Not only does Walton know what it takes to win, he knows how the get the most out of his players. He is known for being a “player’s coach,” but also knows how to enforce his philosophies without letting the players think they have too much freedom.
The positive for Russell out of all this? Walton loves his game and is on board with him becoming the face of this Lakers team. There have been many instances where Walton has been encouraging of Russell to play his game and shoot good, open shots whenever they are offered to him. Simply put, Walton is the complete opposite of what Scott was.
The Lakers are six preseason games in, and there is already a difference that can be noticed not only in the offensive system as a whole, but also with Russell’s confidence. He is averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 assists per game 45 percent from the field and is 13-for-17 from behind the arc. More importantly, Russell seems to be playing much more relaxed and having fun when he is out there.
Russell recently stated that he wanted to play like Stephen Curry. Yeah, to many this statement would be viewed as a tad bit crazy. Walton however, didn’t shoot it down. He told Mark Media of the L.A. News:
“He can shoot the heck out of the ball. He sees the game and definitely has a nice flash about him when he gets going,” Walton said. “I like that that’s how he sees himself. You want players to have confidence so why not make it the best point guard in the game right now and a player you see yourself being like?”
Can you imagine the response that Scott would’ve given if Russell were to say this under his watch? Nothing positive that’s for sure.
Russell’s playmaking ability will be on full display this season in Los Angeles. This doesn’t mean that the Lakers will be worthy enough of a playoff spot or even close to contending for one, but what it does mean is the future is in the hands of Russell. If the future fully depends on Russell’s upside, then it won’t be long until the Lakers are once again a respected team in the Western Conference.