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The Lakers are D’Angelo Russell’s team now

Los Angeles has a new centerpiece, and all signs point to a breakout.

It's clear that no one player can fill Kobe Bryant’s giant Nikes as the Los Angeles Lakers approach their first training camp in decades without him. That process will be a group effort, but what the early days of the post-Kobe era have also made crystal clear is this: the Lakers are D'Angelo Russell's team now.

Brandon Ingram could end up being the next big thing, Jordan Clarkson has shown plenty of scoring prowess, and Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. look poised to man the four spot for the next several years. The team brought in expensive veterans like Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to help lead the way, but the roster's construction and comments from the team make it obvious Russell is the engine the Lakers expect to run their machine.

That vehicle will only be in the prototype stages this season, but the Lakers have assembled a group of players that should fit reasonably well around their franchise point guard going forward. When running down the roster, it’s pretty obvious that was their goal.

At center, the Lakers are prioritizing behemoths to set bone-crushing screens for Russell to navigate on or off the ball (Mozgov, Tarik Black). On the wing, they have supplementary scorers who can defend the opposition’s best perimeter options (Deng, Ingram).

At shooting guard, they have a developing off-ball threat and secondary scorer who can also handle the ball at times to allow Russell to use his own floor-spacing skills (Clarkson, and Lou Williams somewhat fits this profile as well, outside of the “developing” part).

Nance, Jr. (athletic, low-usage screen setter who is a plus defender) profiles as a more seamless fit than Randle, but overall the context of the Lakers’ roster is designed with Russell’s particular set of skills in mind. Even the team’s new head coach, Luke Walton, seems to be specifically designed in a lab to get along with Russell on a personal level.

After a year in which he was marginalized by a Kobe-worshipping head coach during Bryant’s farewell tour, it sounds like Walton is planning to not only feature Russell more, but wants to make sure Russell and his teammates know it too. The opening to Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report’s excellent feature on Walton paints that picture, at least:

[Russell] is proud that Walton, from their first time together in offseason workouts, requested Russell's voice to break the team's huddles: "This is the point guard! He's the leader!" Walton bellowed. "When he speaks, guys, you gotta listen."

As did his comments to Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News:

“He’s ready to take the steps forward in this league toward becoming a leader, becoming a top point guard and competing every single night,” Walton said. “There’s a lot of growth to be had still. But he showed me he wants three things. He wants to be great. He wants to win. And he wants to lead. That’s what I want out of a point guard.”

His teammates also seem to believe Russell is primed for a breakout year, with both Clarkson and Ingram telling Mike Bresnahan of Spectrum Sportsnet as much during recent interviews.

So, other than a roster tailor made to Russell’s skills, why are Walton and Russell’s fellow players so confident he can break out this year? For one thing, despite the negative press Russell garnered last year as an alleged “disappointment” by a national media that essentially ranks rookies by who scored the most points, he was already pretty awesome last year.

Or at least, Russell was pretty awesome when Kobe Bryant wasn’t on the floor, as this chart from the Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor demonstrates:

And that’s as a 19-year old rookie playing in a horribly executed and unimaginative offense, under a head coach who Russell says (in a case of pointing out the obvious) literally did not give him “guidance.”

So not only was Russell secretly pretty awesome last year, but he told Oliver Maroney of Basketball Insiders he’s spent the offseason working on "consistency on jump-shots, floaters and finishing around the rim,” aka literally the areas of his game he needed to work on most.

Combine that work with the natural growth and progression of NBA lottery picks from their first to second year, add in a coach who plans to actually empower his point guard in a better (most likely, if only because it would nearly be an achievement to be worse) offense, then replace the Kobe Bryant black hole with a couple of lower-usage wing options and centers that don’t fall down nearly every time they try to move, and all of a sudden it looks like the Lakers and Russell have baked up a situation in which Russell almost can’t help but look awesome.

It’s important to remember that this growth won’t translate to some huge jump in wins or a dark horse playoff run. The Lakers still have a lot of growth to do, and a lot of lumps to take. But make no mistake, this is Russell's team now.

Think of the Lakers as like the White Walkers in the first season of Game of Thrones, and the rest of the league is Westeros. They will pop up as a threat people whisper of from time to time, but no one really believes it’s upon them.

In a few years, the rest of the NBA will have to hope they have their own Jon Snow. D’Angelo Russell has ice in his veins, and winter is coming.

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