Perception is reality. The cliché has been uttered so many times at this point, the words seem to leap off the page with as much explosiveness as Roy Hibbert in the fourth quarter. No matter the phrase's pervasiveness, we seem to forget its unavoidable truth and are somehow surprised when our reality is once again warped. D'Angelo Russell's rookie season is no different, so what effect might be felt on next year?
Russell served as perception's victim last year, as a solid rookie season was seen as subpar by many. The campaign fell short of the expectations held by his draft status and that come with playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. Byron Scott (go ahead, roll your eyes -- here I am talking about Byron again) unleashed a narrative nationally of immaturity that probably held some truth, but also served to take attention away from Scott's own shortcomings as a coach. Anytime Russell came up in conversations swayed by Scott's media sessions, compliments were rarely anything more than backhanded, at best. The result: frustration, from all involved.
Russell will never enter a season devoid of expectation, but they can be somewhat lowered. Depending on the moves made around him and barring some kind of miracle, the Lakers will not sniff the playoffs next year. Expecting them to do so next year would be borderline -- no, actually -- ridiculous. Combine how many see Russell's rookie campaign with the direction this season will likely go in and the crop of youth surrounding him and the pieces are in place for what might be quite the sophomore season.
First and foremost, Russell is surrounded by guys in a similar situation.
Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr. and whomever the Lakers select in this month's NBA draft all join Russell as young guys looking to represent and uplift a franchise coming out of the darkest days of its history. There will obviously be other pieces surrounding that core, but those four guys will have each other to lean on, making each burden just a little easier to bear, and lean on each other they must.
You know who else enters next season with a little something extra to prove? The guy replacing the aforementioned bearer of bad takes. Luke Walton's expectations will likely be much higher than Russell given the success he's enjoyed with the Golden State Warriors, but again, he'll have others to lean on, starting with his starting point guard. Walton will benefit from a talented, young lead guard hungry to prove himself and Russell will benefit from the spacing, movement and freedom to perform.
Just for example, one area in particular Russell stands to benefit from Walton's presence is in the assist department, a frequent knock on the rookie point guard's season. "How dare a point guard fail to average even four assists per game. He's obviously selfish. Trade that bum. He's basically the worst thing to happen to the Lakers since Barack Obama." Okay, that last point was specific to conversations held around the dinner table at Irwin family gatherings. Walton's high-octane and spacious system will lead to more efficient sets, which, combined with the team's improvement around Russell, will probably result in quite the jump in the box score.
Can't you see the narrative now? "Wow, look at Russell's passing ability. Where was that last year?" Well, whoever might say such a thing during next season: It was always there, it just so happened Byron thought the best use of Russell's passing ability was with simple passes to the wing so guys like Kobe Bryant and Lou Williams can iso the Lakers' season into damnation.
Back to perception, though. Look at the guys who received more Rookie of the Year or All-Rookie Team votes. Compare their seasons to Russell's and it's pretty hard to understand the disparity in support shown in those areas. Again, I'm by no means saying there weren't issues on display throughout last year. Russell's consistency on defense will absolutely have to improve if he and the Lakers wants to take the step forward they might think they're capable of. The point I'm making here is pretty simple: It simply was not nearly as bad as many thought.
When Russell's second season is put into proper perception (and his coach doesn't take every opportunity to complain to beat writers and the national media alike about these damn spoiled millennials), it's pretty easy to see how the narrative can shift altogether. Yes, one would hope Russell will take noticeable steps forward in his own game, but just watch; as perception shifts, so will reality.
Follow the author of this column on Twitter at @AnthonyIrwinLA.