The Los Angeles Lakers' 101-82 loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday night might have finally done what a rough Las Vegas Summer League, tougher regular season debut, and benching couldn't: reveal the first cracks in D'Angelo Russell's seeming unbreakable self-confidence.
Russell has had to put up with a certain subset of fans decrying his selection on draft night, with some calling him a bust before he even put on an NBA uniform. Still others screamed that the Lakers should have selected Duke big man Jahlil Okafor. Russell took those criticisms in stride, and has continued to do so for his entire rookie season thus far.
As recently as the team's last game, a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, Russell tried to explain to reporters that he doesn't let critics get to him because he knows that even historical greats get criticized, and thus he doesn't expect his up and down NBA performance will be enough to keep some from having negative opinions of him.
However, the rookie whom Lakers head coach Byron Scott benched earlier this week for being overconfident sounded anything but after the Lakers' tenth consecutive loss:
D'Angelo Russell on his season: "I feel like I was improving. Now I feel like, I don't know, not really as much."— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) February 1, 2016
Since his coach pulled him out of the game against the Dallas Mavericks and called him out publicly for "trying to make the big shots" Russell hasn't even taken the little ones. The rookie guard has taken 4 less shots per game since the late benching, resulting in his usage rate dropping from 23.5 to 19.1. He has also been less accurate, shooting just 31.8% in those three contests, down from 41.3% on the year. The percentage of Russell's teammates baskets on which he assists while on the floor has bumped up from 18.8% to 22.6%, but so has his turnover ratio, from 13.8% to 22.6%.
Three games is an exceedingly small sample size on which to make definitive judgments, but the numbers don't paint a pretty picture. Neither does the eye test. Since his latest public spanking, Russell has looked more passive on offense after having recently tried to seize control of the reins. He has often been content to bring the ball down, make an initial pass, and then serve as a floor spacer rather than looking to create. It hasn't been super pretty:
It would be an overstatement and inaccurate to suggest that Russell has done this every time down the floor, but instances like the ones above have been far more common over the past three games than they were before.
Russell has acknowledged needs time to adjust to playing point guard, but not only has he still been the Lakers' best creator for a good chunk of the year, he also needs those reps to develop and grow. Instead, the Lakers' offense has basically been a sequel to "50 Shades of Grey" (with less lane penetration) the way its handcuffing its most effective playmaker.
Russell's scaled back usage has also coincided with a drop in the Lakers' offensive efficiency, from an already second to last in the league 96.6 points per 100 possession to 89.8 over the past three games, which would be historically awful if prorated over an entire season.
Scott, without a hint of sarcasm, told reporters after the game that he worried about the team losing confidence, and while Russell said he didn't think that was an issue; his public admission that he doesn't feel as though he's improving should worry the front office, as should his newfound passivity. While Russell is not blameless for his struggles, it's hard not to look at the season-long trend of his head coach condemning his performance in the media after games as a factor as well.
Russell will likely be fine, but if Scott's post-game quotes are now not only making the Lakers a national laughing stock, but negatively affecting the development of arguably the team's most important player going forward, then the team may have to step in and do something sooner rather than later, or Russell may not be the only one that stops improving.
All stats per NBA.com. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.