LAS VEGAS -- D'Angelo Russell hasn't had that moment yet. The Los Angeles Lakers' new franchise point guard has shown flashes of his brilliant balling, but he's yet to take over a game with his supreme talent. Instead, he's working hard to adjust to the next level of competition, alongside teammates he's practiced with only a handful of times, surrounded by an Internet culture that thirsts for instant gratification. Russell's own patience might be what's being tested the most during Summer League, though.
"Every game matters to me, and me being competitive, I forget that it's just Summer League," D'Angelo said about his first taste of NBA competition. "I'm trying to get better so fast instead of being patient and letting it come to me." Russell wants to win every time he steps on the court. He wants to excel, not to be heralded by fans, but because he strives for greatness. For a player of his caliber, it's frustrating to watch him struggle to put it all together. It's also easy to forget that this group of players is not only trying to learn not only how to play together, but is also running the meticulous Princeton offense for the first time.
"It's an adjustment. The plays that we've got, they were thrown at us really quick," D'Angelo explained when asked about the Lakers' offensive sets. The Princeton offense is a system that takes the ball out of the point guard's hands and relies on off-ball movement, cuts, timing and screens that create scoring opportunities. The Lakers have yet to find any amount of success in Vegas running through the motions that are supposed to be the stabilizing blueprint for this young core, instead bogging down what should be a fast paced group that's guided by Russell's laser-precise passing.
"For us to run a different play almost every possession -- we might run it back-to-back -- but to run a different play every possession to keep the defense on their heels, it's something that we've got to have five guys buy into," Russell said of the offense. His face lit up like the Vegas Strip when he was asked an actual basketball question, and it was easy to see how eager he was to discuss his passion.
D'Angelo is at his best when he's working on the fly. His ability to read and manipulate a defense is uncanny, separating him as one of the most fascinating players of the 2015 NBA Draft. All it takes is a split second for him to zip the ball through the air and into his next highlight reel, and he's already graced the basketball court with his vision a select few times through Summer League. Those appetizers have left Lakers fans craving a delectable entrée, but the kitchen line is backed up trying to sort through brand new recipes with strangers they now call teammates.
It's frustrating to watch the Lakers stumble through their new playbook. Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle were supposed to be a cool breeze under the blazing hot Las Vegas sun, but instead have become a barbecue billowing with smoke from the hot takes sizzling within. These three young players who represent the future of the Lakers have yet to give the kind of unmistakable sign that eases the anxiety still bubbling after back-to-back franchise-worst seasons.
When those passes go awry or decisions don't pan out, Russell doesn't take it lightly. "Turnovers. That's what I look at the most at halftime. If I come out, how many turnovers do I have. I'm a risk taker," D'Angelo responded when asked about what matters to him on the stat sheet. "At this level, those really add up."
Those turnovers are a big problem right now for the Lakers' Vegas squad. Mark Madsen stressed that turnovers were the biggest issue for the Lakers following their loss to the New York Knicks and vowed he'd review film and address the problem. Russell's supreme court vision is unquestionable, but the fact that he's five steps ahead the rest of his teammates has made for a tough problem to immediately solve.
"I'm forcing it. I'm trying to make something out of nothing, and guys aren't open when I'm trying," Russell said as he critiqued his play. He shrugged off the notion that passing and driving lanes are closing quicker than he's used to, instead putting the responsibility squarely on his own decision making. D'Angelo's also aware of the lack of familiarity between the players he's trying to feed easy baskets to, and that it takes repetition to find the timing and awareness needed to acclimate his teammates to the kind of playmaking he's capable of. "Alot of the times, our guys aren't expecting it. It's just an adjustment."
The overarching theme of Russell's introduction to the NBA is adjustment. He's learning a system that pulls him away from handling the ball. He's figuring out the kinds of angles that will be available to him. He's playing against a level of competition that's challenging him every minute he's on the floor, as opposed to stomping on lesser-talented college athletes who'll never step foot on an NBA court. A player destined to conduct offenses as beautiful as Tchaikovsky symphonies doesn't just wave a magical baton. Everything falls apart when the orchestra's timing is off. "If you run a set and it breaks down, it's a quick turnaround. Five seconds and you need to get a shot off," D'Angelo elaborated when discussing the difficulties of running an offense the team is unfamiliar with that also eats up the shot clock.
Yes, it's going to take time and patience to watch his talent fully blossom, but the kind of ceiling he has should make it well worth the wait. "Summer League is great for the adjustment process. I feel like I'm going to get better every game, every practice," D'Angelo said when asked about his progress. "Once I get under the system and get the hang of it a little better, I think the better I'll possibly be."
Russell's development won't be complete over a two-week span in Las Vegas, nor will he be a fully-realized player once the season begins. Summer League is all about the process, and D'Angelo Russell is focused on what he has to do to become the point guard the Lakers expect him to become. Before burying a 19-year-old kid who wants more than anything to be the one who resurrects the Lakers' winning ways, think about everything he's seeing for the first time, take a deep breath, and give him the time he needs to adjust.