The Los Angeles Lakers’ decision to trade D’Angelo Russell will stand not only as a controversial decision, but one that will always trace back to where the franchise winds up in the next few years. The trade, which was executed to shave Timofey Mozgov’s contract off the books while making a clear path for Lonzo Ball, was deemed necessary by Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka.
Truthfully, we don’t know whether the Lakers won, lost or drew even with the trade yet. That answer may be fleeting until years down the road, when Ball is more than eight games into his career, Kyle Kuzma becomes a perennial All-NBA team member, Josh Hart’s place on the team becomes clearer, and the summer of 2018 comes and goes. All we know is that Russell is gone, a huge salary sink in Mozgov was corrected, and Lonzo is the new franchise point guard of the purple and gold.
Ball and Russell will be linked through the remainder of their careers, if only to Lakers fans. It’s nigh impossible to think about them playing against each other without coming back around to that fateful trade. What Lakers fans should also be thinking about, however, is what we can learn from watching Russell go from NBA Draft lottery prospect to actual NBA player.
Perhaps it’s perfect timing for this matchup following Ball going scoreless against the Portland Trail Blazers Thursday night. It was a stark reminder that, despite how quickly Lonzo dismisses the difficulty of making the jump to the pros, there’s a huge learning curve when you’re playing against the best of the best every night. Much like D’Angelo did, Lonzo also deserves time to develop before being buried after poor performances.
The comparison to Jason Kidd is oft-used for Ball, but let’s keep in mind that the future Hall of Famer made his debut in 1994. That’s over two decades ago, and the NBA is a completely different league than it was back then. Kidd becoming an all-time great guard also could make him an exception, as opposed to a comparable trend.
Instead, let’s compare Russell’s first eight games as a Laker to Lonzo’s:
The guards aren’t far apart by the numbers in the early days of their Lakers careers. Lonzo fills in the auxiliary stats, like rebounds and assists, a bit more than D’Angelo. In Russell’s corner, his shooting percentages are slightly better (despite still being poor), and he was also playing less minutes per game than Ball out of the gates.
The numbers alone don’t fill in the context of what was going on around them during their rookie seasons. Russell was playing under head coach Byron Scott, during Kobe Bryant’s farewell season. Lonzo is one of many featured young players on a Lakers team being molded by second-year head coach Luke Walton. Their circumstances couldn’t be much different when looking at them one-to-one.
D’Angelo’s stats improved throughout the season, and he wasn’t doomed after eight so-so games as a rookie. He ended his first season as a Laker averaging 28.2 minutes, 13.2 points, 3.3 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. His shooting percentages went up, shooting 41 percent overall and 35.1 percent from outside, his most notable improvement.
As much as many are itching to laud Lonzo as either the next big thing or the next big bust, we simply don’t even know what he’s going to be by the end of his rookie season. Logic, and common sense, tell us that Ball will have become a better professional basketball player once Game 82 is in the books. His career has truly only just begun.
Ball may not be stringing together the kind of games fans had hoped to see out of their new star player immediately, but that’s fine. The signs are there in the way he pushes the pace, reads the offense and defensive lanes well, and plays the game as a whole. The results may not be there yet, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t being built toward game-by-game.
Russell’s time with the Lakers ended after two seasons, with fans becoming divided on whether he was, or wasn’t, meant to be a key piece of the franchise’s future. Patience grew thin on many fronts, and eventually that chapter came to a shocking end.
This has been a long way of saying that, before that same divide is created regarding Lonzo’s early career bumps and bruises, let’s give him time and a real chance of growing up to become something more than a 19-year-old in his first days as an NBA player.