The Los Angeles Lakers lost again on Friday night, but for the second consecutive game the team received a moral victory in the form of a breakout performance from their 2015 second overall pick, D'Angelo Russell. Jordan Clarkson's ankle injury allowed Russell back in to the Lakers' starting lineup and he delivered, setting a career high in scoring for the second consecutive game with 24 points and tying his career high of 6 assists.
"Coach is really giving me the opportunity to just lead by example," said Russell. "I've always had confidence. That's something I've never lacked. It's just about opportunity." Opportunities are something Russell has (finally) had plenty of in the Lakers last two games.
Russell's usage rate (a measurement of what percentages of the Lakers' plays end in him scoring, assisting, drawing a foul, or turning the ball over) sits at 22.6, second on the team but trailing Kobe Bryant's monstrous 29.6 usage rage by 7%. Over the last two games, however, Russell has been given the reins to the offense and posting a 33.9 usage rate as a result. He has also increased the percentage of his teammates baskets he assists on from 20.6% to 23.1%, baby steps towards becoming the playmaker the Lakers hope he can become.
"If somebody's open just get them the ball," said Russell when describing his in-game playmaking thought process. "If it's a clear shot to attack, I got to do it. I'm starting to figure out how to create a pace to the game that forces everybody to play with you."
Russell is creating that pace with two skills he has brought to the table since game one: rebounding, and the ability to ignite the fastbreak off of those rebounds. The 6'5 pulled down six boards against the Spurs, and used them to get the Lakers out in transition and quickly into their offense, like on the three plays in this gif:
Russell also showed improved patience to make plays as well, such as this probing pick and roll below:
The way Russell "midgeted" in and out of the paint while avoiding
man-mountain Spurs forward Boban Marjanovic before finding Brandon Bass for a dunk showcased comfort below the basket we had not yet seen a ton of.
Just as notable as Russell's still developing playmaking skills against the Spurs was his scoring, especially his three point shooting.
"It's the shot that I'm getting," Russell said after going 5-10 from behind the arc, another new career high on a night full of them. "[Opposing defenses] are going under screeens. I guess [because I am], I don't know, a rookie or whatnot, I have to prove myself in the league that I can make that shot. If they go under, I'm just taking what they give me."
A good exampe of the sequence Russell described came late in the third quarter, when Jonathon Simmons was just a bit overzealous going under Roy Hibbert's screen and was left sprawling when Russell crossed back behind the three-point line:
Russell was also able to hit threes as a floor spacer, a talent he will have to continue to display if a backcourt of himself and Clarkson is going to work long term:
When players did respect his shot and tried to fight through screens, Russell was able to keep them on his back and punish the Spurs with his mid-range jumper (Russell is shooting 45.5% from the left elbow):
Or use the head start to find his way into the paint for a layup:
Ultimately we have to note that for all of the promise displayed, one of Russell's best games of the season came in a game the Lakers lost by 22 points. Both he and the Lakers still have a long way to go to be able to hang with the best teams in the league, a process that is not going to be completed this season. As Russell said to end his postgame remarks, all he can do is "keep working, keep watching, keep learning, and see what happens."
Lakers fans have no control over the first item on D'Angelo's to-do list, but the last three are good advice as the regular season chugs along and we continue to get more information on what Russell and the rest of the Lakers' young core can be.
You can follow this author on Twitter @hmfaigen. All stats per NBA.com and all quotes transcribed via Time Warner Cable Sportsnet unless otherwise cited.