ONTARIO — D’Angelo Russell settles into the Los Angeles Lakers’ half-court offense with just over a minute left in the fourth quarter and directs what will someday sooner-than-later be considered his team. He waves for space from the weakside, motions for Julius Randle to set a screen for him, and proceeds to force a switch. Russell has the defense right where he wants it, rises up, and seemingly effortlessly splashes a three-point field goal over the top of the giant-in-comparison that is Juancho Hernangomez.
Such was the night of Russell, who scored 33 points while draining four of his seven three-point attempts. The No. 2 pick of the 2015 NBA Draft looks all grown out of his freshman digs and is primed to have a monstrous sophomore year for the purple and gold. With each flick of the wrist it’s becoming clearer that Russell has taken a giant step forward, but despite an impressive outing ending with a Lakers victory, the guard tasked with leading the franchise into the future was focused on the bigger picture.
“The thing about us right now is we don’t have an identity,” Russell said when asked if the team cares about winning exhibition games. “Other teams, they have star players, they’ve got glue guys, they know what they’re capable of.”
“It’s all about taking everything serious. Every preseason [game], every practice. Every thing we do is serious when we’re really trying to identify ourselves,” Russell concluded.
Sunday night in Ontario there was no question what the identity of the Lakers was as Russell filled up the scoring sheet. The second-year point guard wowed the crowd, controlled the game and ultimately looked like the best player on the court. Lou Williams went off for 25 points in his finest stretch since joining the team, Nick Young had a throwback-to-when-most-of-you-loved-me game, yet the night was decidedly dictated by D’Angelo’s excellence.
Even so, Russell was humble and focused following a dominant performance.
“When you say other teams you know their scrappy, or teams execute, or you’re not going to turn them over, teams like that,” Russell said. “When you say the Lakers right now you don’t really know, so we’re just trying to find it.”
The Lakers will need more than a few preseason games and offseason workouts to define whatever it is they are, but Russell’s clearly setting himself apart as the crown jewel in the rebuild. Take him out of the equation and it’s hard to envision where the franchise would be heading.
“To me [Russell] keeps getting better. It’s going to be an ongoing process, and tonight offensively he got it going with his shot,” Walton said of Russell’s strong game and back-to-back preseason performances.
“[Russell’s] been phenomenal all summer long. Coming in three times a day, always working hard, asking questions, doing what we’ve suggested and it’s carried into training camp and the early parts of preseason,” Walton added.
The identity of the Lakers is undoubtedly in the air until further notice, but after a year of watching the young core marinate in the Kobe Bryant crock pot and witnessing the first three games of preseason, there’s a blatant direction everything is headed. All roads lead back to D’Angelo Russell.
It’s not just about how decisive he’s been on the court while dissecting defenders, either. Russell is saying the right things away from the court, focusing on the kind of hard-nosed work ethic that a group of young players can use to guide them forward. Talent alone won’t propel them away from losses, and being young is no longer a crutch D’Angelo wants to lean on.
“We don’t want to go through a losing season. We don’t want to go through rebuilding as an excuse of losing,” Russell said. “We’re rebuilding but we can still find a way to win games.”
The search for an identity may lead the Lakers strange places as they build on top of a clean slate. Perhaps one night it will be “spectacular” defensive game from Nick Young that helps notch a win for Los Angeles, as Luke Walton described the veteran wing man’s effort. Yes, even Nick got a kick out of it.
“Yeah, of course” Young said of being used being called a “spectacular” defender. “I’ve been hearing that all my life.”
Russell won’t admit that everything is riding on him if the Lakers want to avoid another painful season, but the deeper into preseason they go, the more obvious it becomes. The second-year point guard looks poised to lead the offense, using his lethal southpaw jabs to knock out the opposition. Each pick-and-roll jumper serves as a crushing body blow, each three-pointer a hook to the jaw. The Lakers might just have a puncher’s chance on any given night once Russell can consistently look as phenomenal as he did in Ontario.
It won’t be magic willpower or luck once that happens, either. It’s all in the work being put in every single day.
“I told myself going into this year everything is going to have a business-like approach to it,” Russell said. “Every weight I lift, every practice, every extra shot I shoot is going to have a business-like approach to it.”
Patience will be key, as it was last season, but the payout could be immense. Take D’Angelo’s sharpshooting as example 1A. He’s been shredding the net from the perimeter through preseason, but there wasn’t a magic fix-all that he stumbled upon. It was tried and true practice.
“Nothing, all repetition,” Russell said when asked if he changed anything in his shooting motion. “I put in a lot of work this summer, getting shots up every day. I didn’t really take a break when summer hit. I didn’t know what it took to take time off, didn’t know what that meant, so I kinda went right into it, never really took the time off.”
Whatever identity it is these Lakers find themselves labeled with, Russell’s fingerprints will be all over it. Whether that’s with his slick passing, locked-in shooting or burgeoning natural leadership off the court.