D'Angelo Russell made his return to the Los Angeles Lakers' starting lineup on Sunday night against the Chicago Bulls and showed that he has earned his place on merit, and not just the pedigree of being the team's second overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Russell wouldn't have it any other way.
"I feel like I want to just keep proving that I deserve to start." Russell told media after the Lakers' loss. "That I deserve to be out there and play crunch time minutes, and with these last few games I want to show that."
Show that Russell did, scoring 15 points on 6 of 13 shooting to go with 6 assists and 1 steal in just over 34 minutes, and his coach was impressed enough to declare that Russell will start for the remainder of the Lakers' season. Russell's combination of smooth scoring and intuitive playmaking were on full display against Chicago, with Russell's proficiency on mid-range pull-up jumpers especially sticking out.
The 19-year old rookie has shot 46.5 percent on pull-up jump shots this season, with this go-to allowing Russell to score with ease even when it appears he is settling:
Russell utilized his already growing strength to knock E'Twaun Moore off balance on this play, giving him space to pull-up and knock down his jumper with ease. Russell does not boast standout speed in a league with more sprinters who double as point guards than ever, but the threat of jumpers like this will keep his man off balance enough that he will be able to get to the basket anyway.
Another way Russell is able to get easy looks at the bucket are his better-than-advertised post-up skills:
On the play above, Russell is able to seamlessly turn a driving opportunity into a quick hitting post-up over the much smaller Aaron Brooks, who had neither the length nor strength to stay in front of him. Actions like this are one of the ways Russell's above-average size for the point guard position give him an advantage, and it's an aspect of his game he should look to continue developing over the Lakers' final 25 games.
One area where Russell is already pretty productive is in using ball screens to both score himself and make plays for others.
Pau Gasol is not exactly known for his rim protection, but Russell is able to aggressively take the ball to the basket one on one against after navigating two seperate screens from Roy Hibbert.
Russell also used pick-and-rolls to set up teammates who were not screening for him, one way to avoid being predictable out of the action.
On this play Russell saw that Gasol had successfully cut off the basket after his pick-and-roll with Brandon Bass and quickly flipped the ball to Julius Randle, who was able to take one hard dribble and get to the cup for one of the sophomore forwards' few assisted baskets of the night. The other one Russell gave him was even more impressive:
Watch that play 10 times and you will have 10 different theories on how Russell got that ball through to Randle, and the Lakers' newly minted starting point guard thinks the team's two most recent lottery picks can continue to build on the chemistry between them as they get more minutes together.
"I just kept preaching 'let's grow together,'" Russell said of what he was telling Randle while the two were sharing the floor. That growth can't happen when the two are on the bench, another reason Russell rejoining Randle and Jordan Clarkson in the starting lineup is a positive.
But more than just starting, Russell says he wants to finish games as well, and on Sunday night his coach gave him a chance.
After botching his initial attempt when Taj Gibson blocked him, Russell recovered the ball and brought it back out. Then, late in the shot-clock, the rookie was the opposite of gun shy, letting fly a three-pointer that found nothing but the bottom of the net, courage reminiscent of another recent franchise player in Lakers history.
While it's far too early to predict Russell's career arc could look anything like Kobe Bryant's, the Lakers' youngest player seems to have the right attitude about the home stretch of the season.
"I just want to get better," Russell said of how he will approach the Lakers' last 25 games. "I feel like I still have something to prove."
Russell's game against Chicago will ultimately serve as a footnote in the tale of his career, but it was a step in the right direction that he played well when rejoining the starters, one small positive that can help salvage a mostly lost season for Los Angeles.
All stats per NBA.com. All quotes transcribed via Time Warner Cable Sportsnet. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.