For a kid growing up in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant might have served as the inspiration to grow their game to an NBA level. In Cleveland or Akron, LeBron James might have been the muse.
When D’Angelo Russell was growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, it was Rajon Rondo acting as the example of what could be for him if he reached his full potential. Rondo had made it out and was competing for titles and earning All-Star bids with the Celtics, while Russell was just a high school kid with potential.
Russell has spoken in the past of how Rondo motivated him improve as a player when he was growing up, but he gave some of his most detailed thoughts on the subject yet in his recent appearance on the Vertical Podcast with Woj.
The Los Angeles Lakers young point guard may be a chic pick to have a breakout season this year, but he wasn’t always quite so heralded. Russell could have crumbled under the pressure of having to live up to comparisons to Rondo at such a young age, but he instead used them as motivation:
“It honestly gave me confidence, because I remember when Rondo came back to the city and play against us and scrimmage against us. I never played against anyone that was at that level, anyone that was as good as him, and I remember when he would come back and play against us he was so nonchalant, dominate us by playing around, like not really trying. I was like ‘man, I wanna be like that.’
“Doug Bibby (Rondo’s HS coach), he would always talk about what Rondo did when he was in high school and where he was mentally. So it helped me, it made me wanna think and study his game, so I remember in class or before class I would watch highlight tapes of him just trying to really study his game before practice and then go and try stuff I had just seen him do.”
Sometimes Russell even get a chance to show Rondo what he was learning from watching those highlights, but he says it was difficult to perform for a teenager trying to impress their role model:
“I give a lot of credit to Rondo because he would come support me and watch me play, practice against me, play one-on-one, full court, all types of things just to get me ahead of the next guy. I remember every time he would come watch me play I would never perform the way I wanted to perform. I would always be like ‘alright, Rondo is here I gotta [play well]’ you know? And [I never did] what I wanted to do. Now I remember the last time he saw me play in high school was in high school, and I put on a show, and it was because I didn’t know he was there.
“It was so much pressure he puts on because there’s not a lot of guys that make it where I’m from, he put so much pressure on guys to wanna make it to where he was at. As far as being a pro player, I mean, he won some rings and all and not a lot of guys do that, but he’s one of the few that did, and he’s from the city so he really put on and paved the way for guys like me and a lot of upcoming guys that are from the city.
“I know a lot of guys that are upcoming that we’re trying to pave the way for them to just give them that motivation, like when you think of Louisville, Kentucky, you think of Muhammad Ali, in any sport there’s a few people that have made it out but when it comes to basketball, you know Rondo, you know D’Angelo Russell. So that’s the main focus right now, as far as from the city.”
But Russell’s initial performances didn’t exactly have people lining up to put his name in with those Louisville legends. They didn’t even leave Rondo impressed enough to mentor Russell himself:
“I was in the position he’s in, as far as, people kept comparing me to him or Bibby just kept throwing me at him, or throwing him at me. He was telling him to take me under his wing and he was just like, he didn’t say it but it was just self explanatory like, ‘I don’t know this kid, who is he, every time I see him play he don’t do nothing, why would I just give him my respect.’ So I had to perform.”
Perform Russell did, enough to get recruited to Ohio State, where he broke out and pushed his stock all the way to the point where the Lakers took him second overall in the 2016 NBA Draft. Once in the NBA, Russell got the experience of facing Rondo again, this time as a peer. He didn’t shy away from the pressure:
“When we played the Kings, the first time I played him, I was like “dang, I’m on the court with Rondo.” And I knew him way before, but I was actually on the court competing against him and I saw how he slowed down the game and really controlled the whole game. I was like ‘dang.’
“So the next time I played them, I had a little breakout game or whatever and that’s when I kinda felt like I can play with this guy, I can compete, I am supposed to be here. From that point on, our conversations are different. Like when I talk to him it’s asking him about a play or what he saw here, not what I can do, or (what’s it like in the NBA) like not a fan type question. It’s just all about earning your stripes I guess in this league.”
Russell certainly earned his stripes in the game he describes, dropping 27 points and four assists in one of the first breakout performances of his turbulent rookie campaign. When or if Russell will produce like that consistently is up in the air, but it was interesting to listen to him describe how the former Lakers nemesis helped him get there.
H/T Dillon Hiser of Lakers Outsiders for assisting in transcription. All quotes transcribed via the Vertical Podcast. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.