Before the season began for the Lakers there were quite a bit of questions. I suppose there still are, but a strong start has at least temporarily quelled the doomsdayers. Back in training camp, as we were looking for things to talk about and discuss surrounding this team, I remember hearing an ad spot for a local radio show;
Is this finally the year D’Angelo Russell breaks out for L.A.?
Huh? Finally? He’s been in the NBA for like 16 months. What are we talking about ‘finally’ for?
Silly ad spots with hot takes are far from surprising, but to me this spoke to a much more irritating issue — expectations from Laker fans for Russell are absolutely through the roof. (I apologize. I have to put on my homer Laker fan hat for a minute.) Seriously. Laker fans. Get it together. There were people calling Russell a bust during Summer League of his rookie season. Summer League! Can we all shut up and remember this guy was born in 1996 for a minute, please? Maybe give him more than 12 minutes in the league before declaring he’s awful. At this rate, if he falls anywhere that’s not between Magic and Kobe, he’ll be seen as a disappointment to some, which is unfair at best and idiotic at worst. (Okay. That’s better. Sorry about that.)
Here’s the thing though. This kid might actually be that good. (Which has the potential to be annoying six months from now when everyone everywhere is going on and on about how they knew he was going to be good from the start. Last one I promise.) Although we would certainly all exchange one for the other, even if it was a little annoying.
What Excites Me Most?
What I see that has the potential to be the most fun from Russell is the scoring binges and three-point barrages, similar to what we saw Tuesday night at the onset against Brooklyn. It took him all of 50 seconds to bury three triples during one sequence, outscoring the Nets 9-2 during that stretch and forcing a Kenny Atkinson timeout.
It reminded me of this other guy who also plays in California.
Yes I know there have been a ton of Warriors comparisons, and we’re still lightyears away from saying this Laker team is even in the W’s neighborhood, let alone their street, but Russell’s quick strike capabilities have to remind you of Steph at least a little. And sure we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but it’s beginning to get kind of hard not to see the consistencies between the makeup of the two teams.
Yes, D’Angelo has been inconsistent. He’s looked great at times and has appeared to struggle at times — often in the same quarter. That’s how this goes. That’s part of all of this. The process of becoming a NBA All-Star really is like polishing some kind of rare stone, and that analogy has rarely fit a player better than Russell. We’ve seen bits of the gleam at times, and it looks like it could be extraordinary. But along the way he’s going to have nights where he scores seven in Minnesota or nine in Salt Lake City. But with that comes 23, 8 and 4 in Atlanta. Or 22 and 6 in New Orleans.
After last night’s game, Luke Walton told SSR’s Harrison Faigen “(Russell’s) shots are gonna fall some nights, some nights they're not, but we'll take it. I'm more impressed with the way he got after it defensively.” Luke knows. This dude is good. With potential to be great. It’s just about polishing the rest of the product to maximize the shine.
Most Immediate Improvements?
The most obvious answer is the turnovers, both in the stat sheet and when you watch the games. But turnovers aren’t necessarily the representation of disorganization they once were. In the free-wheeling offenses of today’s NBA, the ball’s going to find its way into the wrong hands on a more frequent basis.
One of the hardest things to develop for young teams is timing, and as point guard a lot of that burden falls on Russell’s shoulders. Having an offense that’s so dependent on precise timing, it’s not an incredible mystery as to why the team is averaging nearly 17 turnovers a game, with the primary ballhandler being responsible for three or four of them.
Still, if we look around the league a bit we discover Golden State turns it over about 16 times a night. Oklahoma City coughs it up 16.7 times a game. Hell, Houston hands it over 24 times a contest. So even while reducing turnovers is certainly a pressing improvement that needs to be made, the numbers are a little deceiving. The up-tempo teams that move the ball up the court, spread the floor and let it fly from anywhere are naturally more reckless with the basketball. D’Angelo is running a different Lakers team from the ones we’ve seen before. It’s unfair to judge them the way we did the others.
What’s Up Next?
Things get tough for D’Angelo and the Lakers over the next month. Between now and December 7 this team hosts the Spurs, Bulls and Thunder. They have a quick home-and-home with the defending Western Conference champions, followed by the current No. 2 seed in the East. Then they hit the road! It’s off to New Orleans, Chicago, Toronto and Memphis! Finally home for the Jazz before heading back to Houston.
There are Laker fans already talking about this potentially being a playoff team. We might be about to find out.