The Los Angeles Lakers are set to begin a new era on Wednesday night, fittingly enough against one of the franchise’s former head coaches in Mike D’Antoni and the Houston Rockets.
D’Antoni’s final season in Los Angeles triggered the run of three consecutive seasons that saw the Lakers end up in the NBA Draft Lottery and having to rebuild through the draft. While each pick over the course of the past three years will play a vital role in the future of the Lakers, perhaps none will be greater than D’Angelo Russell.
After an overall impressive rookie campaign that endured its ups and downs, many expect Russell to lead the next generation of Lakers, theoretically taking the torch left behind by Kobe Bryant. Are the Lakers Russell’s team now? As Russell told The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski, new head coach Luke Walton is subtly pushing his point guard to be that leader, while easing some of the pressure and expectations.
“He hasn’t really said that to the team, it’s more just little things. When we bring it in to the huddle, he’ll say “what do we got point guard?’ And he’s talking to me, and I’m like ‘oh, we got team on three.’ So it’s just like a sense of urgency of just little things like that, it’s never been a sit everybody down [and say] ‘Hey, D’Angelo’s our guy.’ It’s never been like that and I wouldn’t want him to do that. It’s more at the end of the day you have to earn it, and if you have that credibility to earn it guys will respect your voice more.
Having to earn that credibility has already proven to show Russell the vast difference between this season and his rookie year. Establishing the experience from a year ago until now has gained him respect from his teammates.
“So when I speak now, people kind of listen and kind of look to me for guidance if they don’t know a play. That’s the best feeling for me, because I know last year if I didn’t know a play or somebody didn’t know a play they couldn’t come to me and ask me. I was the point guard but I just didn’t know, this is my first year, my first go-round, and I’m worried about so many other things, not where you’re supposed to be.
Being a point guard in your first year is so hard, and then this year I’ve developed that chemistry with guys to where if they don’t know they know they can come to me because I know, and I’m just so focused this year as far as just leading the best way I can and performing the best way I can so this team can be the best it can be.”
Of course, now having that empowering figure at head coach is another vast difference from last season under Byron Scott. Throughout the course of Russell’s rookie year, the tension between him and Scott was evident. Russell began the season in the starting lineup before being relegated to a bench role and having to fight his way back to being a starter. With Walton now in the fold, Russell will no longer have to look over his shoulder.
“I feel like Byron, he did that to a certain extent, as far as that guidance and keeping you on a leash at the same time, but with Luke it’s more of, he gives you free range from the start. It’s all new to him so he’s realizing what guys can do and what they can’t; what their strengths are.
He’s done a great job of putting guys in a position to [use] their strengths, and as far as being the point guard it’s the hardest thing to figure out. From day one, he’s always told me ‘shoot the ball, if someone goes under the screen, shoot the ball. If you’re open, shoot the ball. You have to be aggressive. I know you like to pass this and that, but you have to be aggressive.’”
Along with being a 19-year-old rookie, the root of the struggles Russell endured on the court last season appeared to stem from not necessarily understanding his role in the offense. During his lone season at Ohio State, Russell was a lethal offensive weapon with a balanced attack, scoring at an elite rate while dazzling spectators with his incredible vision and passing.
Early in Russell’s first NBA season, he often appeared timid as he tried to sort out what type of player he needed to be — a pass-first or scoring point guard. But as the season progressed, Russell developed into a guard that can score in bunches and allow his passing ability to feed off of that. Walton knows the scoring prowess of Russell will open up a number of things for the Lakers offense, as long as he just remains aggressive.
“Just from that conversation alone I’ve always had that aggressive mentality and the game has been so much easier for me just because last year my mentality was ‘pass first, shoot second,’ because I was trying to be a point guard, and thinking that being a point guard you have to get the most assists.
You have to get guys going, and in a certain sense you do but being aggressive is what’s going to open that up. A lot of guys in this league are successful that don’t really shoot the ball but they’re still aggressive, and they’re getting to where they want to go and then making that play. Luke has really helped guide me to that point.”
If all goes well, the relationship between Russell and Walton is one that will last for many years to come. The Lakers set out in the offseason to find a head coach that could help usher in a new generation of players and lead the franchise back to prominence. Whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen, but with Walton at the helm, Russell is poised to be the next face of the Lakers.