The Los Angeles Lakers not only kept their top-five protected pick on NBA Draft lottery night, they were the only team to move up in the draft, jumping from fourth to second overall. Now the question of who the Lakers will pick is resonating throughout Southern California. The players available for the Lakers to select largely depend on what the Minnesota Timberwolves do with the first overall pick.
There have been rumors floating around that the Wolves may select skilled center Jahlil Okafor (and his giant hands) out of Duke. Should that scenario play, the Lakers should unquestionably take Karl-Anthony Towns; the shot-blocking, sweet shooting big man who many have sitting atop their draft boards as the best player available. Towns would be a no-brainer pick for the Lakers, as not only is he the prototype modern-center with rim protecting capabilities and a solid jumper, but he also complements fellow Kentucky alum Julius Randle perfectly.
For now though the Lakers have to assume that the Wolves will come around to the consensus that Towns is the best player in the 2015 draft class, and as such they take him first overall. Without Towns on the board the choice Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss must make likely comes down to Okafor or Ohio State guard D'Angelo Russell. While we can't completely dismiss international point guard Emanuel Mudiay he currently appears to be a distant fourth to the trio of Towns/Okafor/Russell.
Most mock drafts currently have the Lakers selecting Okafor with their second pick, and fans have latched on to that notion, plastering photoshopped images of Okafor (and Towns as well) in Lakers uniforms across social media.
Our current SS&R poll understandably has Karl-Anthony Towns as the favored pick by a large margin, but after that Jahlil Okafor has more than double the votes of D'Angelo Russell. However, the race between the two is closer than the pro-Okafor sentiment sweeping through Los Angeles would suggest.
D'Angelo Russell is a very real contender for the second overall selection if Towns is off the board. With a strong workout he could find himself donning the Golden Armor instead of the big man from Duke. While the NBA has had the general sentiment that finding bigs takes precedence over guards, that trend may be changing.
The modern NBA has been pushing more and more toward guard-oriented play, with screen and roll actions and ball movement dominating offensive schemes of the top teams. While Lakers coach Byron Scott may not agree, guard play and three-point shooting has become integral to running an efficient offense.
While Jahlil OKafor is a talented player, D'Angelo Russell fits the new breed of NBA basketball perfectly. He shot 41 percent from three in college while dishing out five assists and grabbing 5.7 boards, and his ability to see the floor to find open teammates is a major weapon. Even off the ball he can occupy a defense with his ability to make teams pay for losing track of him with his shooting skills. Versatility is important, and Russell's ability to contribute in a number of ways shouldn't be overlooked.
At 6'5" he's already big for a point guard, and his impressive 6'9.75" wingspan compounds that height advantage and allows him to shoot over defenders easier than most guards. His long arms also help him amass more steals (1.6 per game at Ohio State) and deflections in the passing lanes than those with shorter, T-Rex-style arms.
Good teams get defenses out of position and find open lanes to the basket or kick outs for uncontested threes, and Russell is fantastic at doing just that, especially out of the pick-and-roll. He moves well off the ball to find open space and can get his jumper off quickly if the defense doesn't rotate fast enough, and his tight handle allows him to slide past his defender after even the slightest mistake. If that wasn't enough, his passing can be breathtaking. He finds cutting teammates with pinpoint accuracy, often hitting them with a slick pass before they even realize how open they are.
All of this goes a long way to mitigate concerns about Russell's athletic ability, which has been the biggest knock on him in NBA circles. Teams are rightly concerned about whether or not he has what it takes athletically to become a star, but NBA history is littered with players whose skill level made their perceived athletic faults a non-issue.
Russell also plays the game with the kind of flair that would ignite the Staples Center crowd. No-look passes, killer ball-handling, and deadeye shooting are all part of the package with the lefty assassin. The Lakers could certainly use that kind of showmanship to give their brand a fresh feel. While winning trumps fancy passing and ankle-breakers, Russell is able to incorporate eye-popping plays with efficient basketball, which is an enticing combination for any general manager.
What all of this means is that, in today's NBA, D'Angelo Russell may very well be the draft pick with the highest chance of becoming a superstar, which is something the Lakers badly need.
Jahlil Okafor, meanwhile, is also an incredibly talented player. He catches everything near the basket and has post-moves, counter-moves, and counter-counter-moves that frankly haven't been seen from a college player in years. However, he does have a number of question marks that continue to hang over him.
His defense can be lacking in pick-and-rolls, and at times he looks disinterested. Okafor's rebounding is only so-so for a player with his size and strength, and his free-throw shooting is Dwight-Howard-level bad. After watching the hack-a-whoever fest that has plagued the NBA playoffs thus far, general managers have to be at least somewhat concerned about adding a player who is such a liability from the stripe.
None of this is to say that Jahlil Okafor is a bad player, because he isn't. He's phenomenal, and if he can improve on the defensive end of the court this summer he should be an impact player from Day 1 in the NBA. To overlook his flaws though and decree that Jahlil will be a better NBA player than D'Angelo Russell is a dangerous assumption to make..
When drafting talent teams typically get themselves into trouble when they worry about fit over simply taking the best player available, with the classic example being the Blazers passing on Michael Jordan partly because they already had Clyde Drexler on their roster. However, when the talent level is as close as it is between Okafor and Russell, fit does have to come into play.
While the Lakers already have a gem of a combo guard in Jordan Clarkson on the roster, one thing that stood out this past season was just how well Clarkson plays alongside another aggressive, attacking guard. In the rare moments when Jeremy Lin was having a Linsanity flashback, he and Clarkson were flying around the court on the offensive end, driving to the basket, kicking the ball out to open shooters and becoming twin whirlwinds of pick-and-roll precision.
D'Angelo Russell's shooting and passing ability would allow him to be a more effective partner in crime to Clarkson than Lin ever was, and the Golden State Warriors have shown just how potent a pair of guards can be when they are on the same page. The Warriors may have the Splash Brothers, but a Clarkson/Russell combo could become a lethal Slash and Splash combination.
Furthermore, in terms of roster-building, adding a combo guard to join Clarkson makes life easier on Mitch Kupchak this summer. While the Lakers need help everywhere on the floor, the addition of another guard who can immediately slide into the starting lineup would allow the team to more easily shift Kobe Bryant to small forward, where his own declining athleticism will be less of an issue.
Moving Bryant to small forward would allow the Lakers to shore up their weakest position (Wesley Johnson, 'nuff said) and also one that features very few unrestricted options in free agency. With Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, and Tobias Harris all restricted and likely to be matched by their incumbent teams, the few unrestricted wings like DeMarre Carroll and Danny Green will be in high demand and costly to sign. With Kobe and Nick Young holding down the fort, the Lakers at least won't have to break the bank to sign a non-superstar wing just to fill a roster need.
While passing on Okafor to go with Russell would leave a hole at center, that happens to be the position with the most unrestricted free agent depth this summer. Marc Gasol, Greg Monroe, Brook Lopez, and DeAndre Jordan are just a few of the names that will be available for the Lakers to target. While there is no guarantee that Mitch Kupchak will be able to land one of these talents, if the team gets word prior to the draft that one of them would at least be interested in signing up with the purple and gold, it could push the needle towards taking D'Angelo Russell.
Also noteworthy: if the Lakers do indeed draft Russell, it would likely kill the possibility of signing volatile point guard Rajon Rondo, which would be a Matrix-style dodged bullet.
Regardless of whether the Lakers draft Jahlil Okafor or D'Angelo Russell, fans can feel confident that they will be getting a fantastic young player with tons of potential. In the end the decision will likely come down to in-person interviews and workouts, and Mitch Kupchak and the front office have earned some measure of trust when it comes to identifying talent in the draft. They will make the best decision possible for the future of the Lakers, and fans need to keep in mind that it might not be as cut-and-dry as simply taking whichever big man Minnesota passes on.
One final thought on why D'Angelo Russell could very well end up being the pick and not Okafor: the 2014-2015 NBA MVP race came down to James Harden and Stephen Curry, and it's nearly impossible to watch Russell play without getting the impression that he is a mash-up of both players. While hitting that level of play is certainly the absolute best-case scenario for Russell's transition to the NBA, it isn't completely out of the question either. Who wouldn't want to watch a young, talented, and thankfully beard-less Harden-Curry tearing up and down the Staples Center for the next 10 years?