It’s no secret that the Los Angeles Lakers have been in a slump the last few years. After winning a whopping 5 NBA titles from 2000-2010, the Lakers have had a tough time getting anywhere near the post season. In fact, it’s been three long years since this team has even made an appearance in the playoffs. No disrespect to the great Kobe Bryant, but his retirement combined with the addition of head coach Luke Walton may be the fresh start this team needs to get back to who they used to be.
With some salary been freed up, the Lakers will have more flexibility to procure top level talent to add to the budding young core currently in place. One player to keep your eyes on is second year guard D’Angelo Russell. Given time and leadership this young stud could prove to replace some of what was lost when Kobe retired. While Bryant apologists shutter at scream blasphemy, it is a statement that deserves consideration in proper context.
So who is this Russell guy?
Russell is originally from Louisville, Kentucky and played one year in a local program as a freshman in high school before transferring to Montverde Academy in Florida. He played alongside Ben Simmons at Montverde to record back-to-back High School National Championships. In 2013, Russell committed to play for the Ohio State Buckeyes where he went on to contribute 45% from the field, 41% from 3, and 19.3 points per game during his only year with the team.
In 2015, Russell declared eligibility for the NBA draft and was selected as the 2nd overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers. It just so happened that his rookie season would coincide with Kobe Bryant’s final year in the league. What an incredible opportunity for mentorship for this young athlete. Russell played a total of 80 games his first year averaging 28.2 minutes per game. He tallied a rookie respectable 41% from the field, and 35% from three to average 13.2 points per game. When asked how it was playing for the first time in the NBA, Russell explained that rookies enter the NBA with a certain level of cockiness. They tell themselves they are the best on the court, but there’s no experience to back that up. He went on to say that playing in the NBA has given him a reality check, and now he knows where he needs to improve as a player. Time will tell how he improves, but this type of mindset is what NBA teams are looking for. They want players who have stellar work ethic but they also want players who will be coachable.
Looking at Russell’s preseason performance this year, it’s clear that the youngster took improvement very seriously in the offseason. His ability to facilitate the offense is quite impressive at such a young age. In this week’s loss to the Sacramento Kings, Russell tallied a whopping 11 assists. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t confidently taking shots when he gets a good look. Russell is also averaging just over 20 points per game. On October 9th, he combined with Louis Williams to tally 58 of the Lakers 124 points in their win over the Denver Nuggets. Perhaps the NBA has a new pair of Splash Brothers on their hands.
Aggressive scoring and crafty facilitating are some of the key things Kobe brought to the Lakers offense. Perhaps the biggest, most irreplaceable, quality Kobe brought to the game was an assassin-like approach to winning. He came to work to win games–period. This is the main quality Carmelo Anthony lacks, but I digress. If Russell can continue to develop his leadership abilities and confidence, we may be able to see the Lakers make a comeback of sorts this season.
However, I will take a moment to note that Russell had his name attached to far too many TMZ gossip headlines last season. Being that he is only 20 years old I will cut him some slack, but if he wants to be taken seriously as a future superstar he needs to keep it classy in his personal time.
It’s clear that the Lakers are dead serious about getting back on track given their decision to hire Walton. He brings a track record of success from the Golden State Warriors last season. He also has the ability to come in and change the culture and expectations to a more favorable outlook for the purple and gold. Russell has already complimented Walton and boasts of a much closer relationship with Walton compared to the now departed Byron Scott. For Russell and the Lakers all signs are pointing up!