BY: KWAME FISHER-JONES
Los Angeles Lakers’ guard D ’Angelo Russell had a tumultuous, and at times peculiar, rookie campaign. Yet, through his perseverance the guard proved his NBA future should be worth the fuss.
The Lakers’ rookie was called everything from a bust to stool pigeon, yet those cries left the second overall selection unfazed. Thus confirming that regardless of the circumstances Russell possesses, among other things, the power of conviction.
The strength to remain true to one’s self in a world dead set on constant change, can at times be empowering. This would come to fruition numerous times throughout the Louisville native’s rookie year.
The young man’s ability to remain steadfast, for better or for worse, bore a certain resemblance to a retiring legend, when he too was breaking into the league. To be clear this comparison is not based on the player’s skill set, but rather their mindset.
There was a time when Laker legend Kobe Bryant was deemed “different” from his teammates. Some players even went as far as to call the Bean a “snob” or ‘reclusive” during his infancy stages of his career. In time the future Hall-of-Famer’s production, play and results (not his personality) would eventually win over his teammates and the league.
D’Angelo can relate to Bryant in that regard.
Russell’s 2015 season seemed eerily familiar to those very same circumstances that greeted the future five time NBA champion. The point guard’s attitude and specifically the way he interacted with his teammates remained a point of emphasis throughout the year.
The rookie’s on court personality felt a little to “showman-ie” at times for some. Lakers Head Coach Byron Scott would state, just a few weeks after pushing to draft the point guard mind you, “he aint Magic”. That comment at the time, and now a full season later, never felt like a ringing endorsement. It actually came across more like an attempt to squash the “pup’s” bark.
In a January 26th match-up against the Dallas Mavericks, Scott would bench Russell for “trying to take over”. This was a shock to no one and safe to say even Hellen Keller saw the move coming. The coach would say in the postgame press conference “I love the fact that he has confidence. When it gets to the point where it's cockiness, then we've got a problem."
Thus confirming the thin line between bravado and arrogance that “D-Lo” was fast approaching.
It often takes a village to raise a child, but in the case of Russell those villagers have been nothing short of cruel. Such events have not deterred the former Buckeye, in fact, at times it appears to fuel him.
That “tough love” could serve as a motivator of sorts. The demeanor and behavior of the guard suggests the treatment will push him to cash in on his unique talent.
Those very intangibles were on display this season and should be the driving force behind what could manifest into an exciting career for the Ohio State alum. The immeasurable facets are often overlooked or in most cases missed when evaluating a player, and while “D-LO” was selected second overall there were many who questioned if the point would be ever be worthy of such a selection.
In fact, yours truly questioned the guard’s explosion and inability to finish through contact, even going as far as using that as a deterrent for the Philadelphia 76er to consider not drafting him.
What was missed, has managed to profess itself during the season in the form of Russell’s mental toughness. Furthermore, the rookie’s ability to play fast and aggressive, regardless of the circumstances should make everyone a believer.
Now it is unlikely that the young man will ever be a volume scorer, in the mold of say a James Harden or Steph Curry. The guard is “moment over mass” when it comes to scoring. Meaning his scoring comes at critical spots in a game rather than throughout. When the opposing club appears to be going on a run that is when the guard will look for his shot.
This explains why his total points scored and points per game average may be less than sizzling, while reiterating just how mentally tough the former Buckeye is.
When most rookies were hitting the rookie wall Russell was putting in work. The guard would score at least in double figures in his last 10 games of the season. In addition, since March 1st Russell would cross the 20 point plateau seven times, highlighted by a 39 point performance on March 1st and a 32 point game in April.
Not bad considering those were his 59th and 79th games of the season.
Russell indeed grew as a player, perhaps not at the pace some would have liked but grow he did.
As some of his rookie brethren struggled through mental and physical fatigue, the Laker began to flourish. Yet, the grind did not cease and to be frank there was certainly more struggle then success at times.
The not so subtle beefs with Coach Scott, the public comments about coming off the bench,
the disagreements with Kobe, the on court frequency for ill-timed trash talking, and the bizarre Nick Young fiasco all were baffling at times. Moments like that would have been enough to break most young ball players, if not all.
Yet, D’Angelo kept coming, he kept pushing and that persona trumps any singular game performance.
The guard proved early in the season he wanted to run to the moment rather than running away from the moment provides insight on the young man’s mindset. That very mindset revealed a sense of entitlement and/or a level of expectation that he and only he was fit to decide the games.
The sheer fact that Lakers’ teammate Jordan Clarkson felt inclined to request that Russell simply “don’t say anything stupid”, when asked a question during All-Star weekend points to the irreverence that lies within him. That very irreverence will undoubtedly be necessary in the dark days of the rebuild LA is currently marred in.
That Laker fans is what makes the great, well great.
Their uncompromising belief in their talent over all else, and even in the role of novice Russell displayed that very belief that he knew more then all others.
The guard that evoked the name of Magic, was forced to endure a beginning more like Kobe.
And much like Bryant he stood tall.
Once the self-inflicted wounds come to an end, all that will be left is the persistent vetting process of becoming and remaining an NBA star. Rest easy Laker fans your latest draft pick has shown he is equipped to shine just as bright as his predecessors.