The Los Angeles Lakers are finding out a cold, hard truth during free agency. They might have a blue chip prospect in D'Angelo Russell, but established players have seen every character flush in and out of the league. An untested player is a gamble to put your career into the hands of, and the most attractive pieces on the Lakers' roster have never even practiced together yet. The Lakers need to create tangible proof things are really, truly on the upswing in Los Angeles.
The decision to draft Russell was an important step for the Lakers' franchise. It carved a clear path that the front office was committed to march through into free agency. Recruiting quality frontcourt talent seemed like a great plan with the players that were coming off of contract. Instead, secondary targets like Tyson Chandler, Robin Lopez and even Ed Davis were off the board before the Lakers made their first signing. Does that doom the Russell pick, backfiring on a team that was operating under false pretense of acquiring a big man?
Not at all. Russell is an incredibly talented point guard that has star potential. The available guards in free agency were either unattainable by the Lakers, or were not as valuable a player as D'Angelo. There's even an argument to be made that drafting Russell had more of an impact than signing any of the available non-max free agents. Mitch Kupchak has gone on record stating that the selection of Russell had nothing to do with free agency, but there's also no reason for him to say otherwise. No matter what, it's worth remembering Los Angeles has come out ahead after a franchise-worst season. It wasn't long ago that the Lakers were a ping pong ball away from surrendering their lottery pick to the 76ers.
It's one thing for the Lakers to miss on players because of the unknown quantities on the roster, it's another to be on the losing end because the young core that's supposed to be the foundation of the franchise doesn't look so promising after all. The lack of established players around this group of Lakers is going to make it a very different experience than LA has grown accustomed to, but it will force them to develop together quickly. The man who will be threading them all together is the player handpicked with the second overall pick to lead the purple and gold into the future, and hopefully Kobe Bryant can help guide him through the deepest waters he's ever swam in. Whether or not the Lakers drafted the right players is about to be put through an 82-game test.
D'Angelo will make his first impression on the NBA on July 10, when the Lakers begin Summer League play in Las Vegas. The wounds of free agency will heal each time he has the ball in his hands, but it's only the start of a long journey that can make or break the Lakers' ability to draw talent to the team next summer. Russell will have to take his bumps and bruises while he learns how to compete against the best basketball players in the world on a nighty basis. The sooner he finds his footing, the better the Lakers look as a team. This is the player that's going to orchestrate the offense, making how he performs a key selling point with their on-court product. If the NBA really is a guard's league now, having one of your own to groom is a dream scenario.
LA will have even more salary to burn next summer and can't afford to be blanked for the third straight year. It's impossible to control the way the market moves when it comes time to give free agency another shot, but how this young core performs -- especially their most important player in Russell -- is going to be the proof players need before considering signing with the Lakers. Other teams have salary space or ways to clear it, and the "Hollywood" pitch is tone deaf in the current NBA landscape. What matters is substance.
The silver lining that's presented itself through this stressful free agency phase is how much this team will learn to rely on itself. The Lakers can now fully embrace their youth movement without the need to pretend they're doing otherwise. LA has been criticized for living and dying through signing or trading, but this has quickly transformed into the kind of organic rebuild that can cleanse the Lakers from within. They need to prove they can develop players, and their players need to prove they're worth playing with. It's time to go to work.
With no All-Star talent expected to take the spotlight in LA, it's the perfect opportunity for D'Angelo Russell and this young team to take center stage and shine.