Remember when Lakers rookie D’Angelo Russell was considered a bust? It wasn’t too long ago. As a matter of fact it was draft night, when loudmouthed prognosticators, close-minded scouts and a bevy of thirsty fans predicted his downfall before the 6-foot-4, 19-year-old even got a chance to get some NBA burn.
It appears as if the hate and the doubt has lost out to a player who will be giving NBA defenses the raw deal for years to come. Long after the mythical name of Kobe Bryant and the reverberating chants of jubilation he has evoked so frequently during his career with the Lakers become whispers and distant reminders of a golden era in LA., Russell will be the hope of the franchise moving forward.
Russell had his breakout game on Tuesday night, dropping 39 points in a 107-101 win over Brooklyn. His development has been one of the few bright spots for a Lakers team with the second-worst record in the NBA at 12-50. At the beginning of the season, he was a bewildered and inconsistent player struggling to get up to NBA speed. He's slowly developed into a lethal weapon with years of potential ahead.
Flexing his clutch gene and 2016 swag, Russell scored 16 points in the critical fourth quarter and iced the game by stopping well behind the line and drilling his eighth 3-pointer in the final seconds. He pointed at his forearm and shouted “Ice! In my veins.”
His 39 points were the most by any NBA rookie this season and the most by a Lakers rookie in a regular-season game since Elgin Baylor had a nickle-nickle (55) back in 1959. He was undoubtedly talking to the people who foolishly counted him out before he could start proving that he's the future of the Lakers.
Following the game ESPN analyst Zach Lowe wrote:
“Russell has spent most of his rookie season listening to his coach criticize him for mistakes almost every 19-year-old rookie would make. Meanwhile, his shooting numbers have ticked up, and he has demonstrated the sort of feel — as both a passer and scorer — few teenagers bring.
Look at his change of pace game — how he speeds up and slows down to sniff out passing lanes and keep the defense off-balance, and finally springs forward with plenty of space to launch a pull-up …
A lot of guys can go from zero to 60. Not that many can go from zero to 45 to 10 and amp it up to max acceleration in the span of a few seconds. Keep calling this dude a bust, though."
Today's sports media is almost embarrassing when it comes to the way it treats certain players. You couldn’t come into the league with any more pressure than Russell did. He was the second pick of the 2015 Draft and sandwiched in between three prominent seven-footers with myriad abilities. Many Lakers fans wanted them to draft Jahlil Okafor or Kristaps Porzingis and build around a towering, multifaceted big to kick off the post-Kobe era. Instead Russell has to break into the NBA as a backcourt understudy of the Black Mamba, during the legend’s final season and farewell tour.
Everyone knew the Lakers would stink and this season would be chalked up to a Kobe farewell and nothing more, but the success of the bigs drafted around Russell and his slow start under the demanding Byron Scott and the at times unbearable and unrealistically competitive Kobe, only added to the insults and made the first half of his rookie season a living hell.
Evan Longoria is a baseball player, but I remember a conversation I had with him recently. He told me that his career would never have gone so well if manager Joe Maddon didn’t give him constant encouragement, let him be himself and play through the rough times.
Scott admitted early in the season that the learning curve for Russell would be strict and unforgiving.
“That’s my job, to try to win basketball games and in the meantime try to develop young people," said Scott in a November ESPN article when the Lakers were 0-4 to start the season and Russell was struggling. "I’m not always thinking about necessarily developing (the young players). I’m always thinking about trying to win. The development part comes secondary to that, but in practice and everything is where you really work on the development part.”
Russell’s 39-point explosion was the third straight game in which the rookie scored at least 22 points. Gutting out this season and counting on some free agent saviors in 2017 is all good and well, but in the meantime Scott is looking for a star to emerge this season, preferably in the backcourt. A guy that has the confidence, heart and audacity to emerge from Kobe's shadow and return the Hollywood franchise to elite status.
The way Russell has handled the bright lights and big expectations is commendable. The way he has maintained his confidence, despite premature attacks on his game, is a sign of leadership, mental toughness and a quality you only find in franchise players.