Los Angeles -- Around four hours before D'Angelo Russell put the finishing touches on a 27-point performance in the Los Angeles Lakers 107-98 win over the Orlando Magic, the rookie guard made his most difficult shot of the night.
"Did you get that on video?" Russell asked witnesses after he danced in celebration of the miraculous halfcourt shot he made while doing a rapid sit up from a lying position on the Lakers' halfcourt logo. The innocent joy served as yet another reminder that Russell is still barely 20-years old, a baby in NBA terms. Still, over the last month Russell's game has clearly matured, serving notice that success and fun are not mutually exclusive concepts.
It wasn't quite his career-high against the Brooklyn Nets, but Russell and his fellow young co-stars had Staples Center rocking once again on Tuesday night. Russell was especially electric in the third quarter, scoring 14 of the Lakers season-high 39 points in the period.
"A lot of reads are coming more second nature to me," Russell admitted after the game. "I just feel like I'm getting better, as far as individual progress and knowing when I mess up, and getting better from game to game."
That ascent has been evident over the Lakers' last seven games, with Russell scoring more than 20 points in all but one, all while shooting 47.9 percent from the field and a scorching 44 percent on three-pointers. The Lakers are also scoring 107.9 points per 100 possessions while Russell is on the floor over that period, with Russell using a team-leading 29.2 percent of possessions.
"Our young guys have been getting better and better each month," said Lakers head coach Byron Scott. "I think from the start of the season we knew it was going to take these guys time, it's just a matter of how much time."
The answer is apparently about four months. And despite rumblings earlier in the season that Russell's issues were that he didn't take things seriously enough, if anything, the exuberant guard is having more fun now while he's having success.
"It was fun," said Russell. "Especially when you know you got the win."
It's likely even more fun to be the driving force of the victory. Russell's devastating combination of cuts to the basket and post-ups led to him scoring nine of the Lakers first 11 points in the third quarter. "If I recognize a mismatch, I try to do that every game," Russell said of the latter weapon.
Tuesday night it led to the Lakers increasing their lead from six points at halftime to 13 at the end of the third. In the fourth quarter when it was time to close out the game, Scott went with a lineup featuring Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Jr., and veteran wing Metta World Peace, trust he wasn't necessarily willing to show in his young players earlier in the year.
Scott spoke before the game about Russell being more vocal as a leader in the absence of Kobe Bryant, so against the Magic he treated him like one, bringing him back to secure the Lakers' second straight victory even though the paradoxical veteran-rookie Marcelo Huertas was playing well in his stead.
The newfound trust in Russell is the largest story to come out of the Lakers' 14th win of the season, bigger than any viral video. It took some patience, but Russell is playing well enough to earn a larger role; well enough that he might just hurt the Lakers' odds of adding another top-three pick to their impressive young core.
Fortunately for fans of the purple and gold, if the exuberant rookie keeps up this level of play, losing that pick may not matter. And thanks to the wonder of television, just like D'Angelo's ridiculous warm-up shot, we have that on video.
All quotes obtained firsthand. All stats per NBA.com. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.