The Los Angeles Lakers selected D'Angelo Russell with the No. 2 pick knowing he would need time to grow. Rarely are point guards ready out of the box, and rarely is potential as tantalizing as his. That's just one of the reasons why, when it came down to picking between a plug-and-play big man in Jahlil Okafor and the dream of what Russell can become, the Lakers decided it was time to invest in a new point guard.
Russell's since been jostled from the starting lineup, to a reserve role, to sitting out of the closing minutes in close games, all to come back to the starting lineup as the season comes to a close. For a kid who turned 20 just a few weeks ago, that's the kind of winding path that leads to late arrivals.
But arrive he has, blossoming just in time for spring.
D'Angelo has taken the reins of the Lakers since being granted the opportunity -- a word he's used quite a bit since head coach Byron Scott gave him the nod with the starting unit -- and it's led to the best stretch of his young career. To boil it down to a single game, the 39-point outburst he unleashed on the Brooklyn Nets to open the month of March stands as the signature moment of his rookie season. Russell set a new season-high for points scored by any member of the 2015 NBA Draft class, and a new franchise high for points scored by a rookie in a regular season game. He became just one of 12 rookies in NBA history to drain at least eight three-pointers in a single outing, something he did as he tore the Nets apart. Literally and figuratively.
It's all starting to come together for Russell and it's a pleasure to watch. He plays with a measured calmness that's deceptive, seemingly probing the game of basketball in his mind while handling the ball on the court. Some question if he's stuck in neutral because of his pacing, but watching him outplay a defense after piecing the puzzle together in his head is blissful. Patience will be a keyword with Russell through his foundational years in the league. Patience needed to allow him a chance to figure out how he can make an impact against the best basketball players in the world night in, night out.
Jordan Clarkson made a name for himself when he was given a similar opportunity post All-Star break last season, taking over as the starting point guard. Jordan had an impressive close to his season, suddenly looking like an actual piece in the Lakers' rebuild. Russell's replicating that process, and that patience is paying off.
Here's a look at Russell's 2015-2016 pre and post All-Star numbers compared to what Clarkson accomplished in the same position last season:
The silky smooth jumper that's been floating through Staples Center in the dreams of Lakers fans for months is finally becoming a reality. Adjusting to the NBA three-point line is one of the hardest tricks these basketball magicians have to learn coming out of college, but Russell's learning how to pull that rabbit out of his hat on demand. While it's unfair to expect D'Angelo to continue shooting 48 percent from three-point range, that's just how impressive he's been since taking over as the starting point guard. That's just how good he can be over any given stretch.
D'Angelo's rookie season hasn't been all smooth, either. His off-ball defense is a work in progress that leads to many frustrating baskets, while his on-ball defense is akin to being a game-time decision. There are games and sequences he sticks to his man, using his length and size to disrupt drives, and others where he looks as likely as Steve Nash with a busted back and blown hamstrings to stop his assignment from getting to the rim. Turnovers are going to be the big area of detriment through the early years of his carer, even if the box score numbers dwindle over time. Russell wants to make plays, and in doing so, often finds himself caught with nowhere to go but the other end, chasing down a streaking opponent after he tries to squeeze a pass through an impossible window. Maybe that amounts to one or two turnovers a game, but when it happens, it sticks out like a Celtics jersey on Figueroa.
Russell hasn't had a rookie season filled with arena-rattling putback dunks like Kristaps Porzingis, unquestioned dominance like Karl-Anthony Towns, or consistent scoring touch like Jahlil Okafor, but he's held on to his confidence in an otherwise morose season. His belief in himself has never wavered, remaining focused on the tall task at hand: Leading the Lakers into a new era.
Is he the next great point guard in the NBA? Forget the answer; I'm just glad it's the Lakers who get to find out.