LOS ANGELES- From the second D’Angelo Russell entered the Los Angeles Lakers locker room prior loudly rapping along with music from his headphones, it was clear he wouldn’t lack for energy Friday night.
Russell grabbed a chair from in front of his locker and continued to rap and banter with Corey Brewer and Nick Young, all while watching film on the Milwaukee Bucks.
While his studiousness and energy didn’t result in a win, Russell’s 14 points on 5-9 shooting in 21 minutes was by far his best and most energetic effort since being moved to the bench.
"I just tried to be the best I could be while I was out there,” Russell said. “Pick and choose where my spots were and try to be there on defense, and just try to do what I could do to stay relevant."
In his effort at relevancy, Russell may have taken Lakers head coach Walton, president of basketball operations Magic Johnson, and general manger Rob Pelinka repeatedly imploring him to aggressive a little too literally.
The sophomore guard was ejected midway through the third quarter for getting involved in a fracas between Nick Young and Greg Monroe, who were also both ejected.
Walton was upset about the ejection, but not at his point guard.
“They told me that D'Angelo got kicked out for escalating the situation, but D'Angelo only responded after Monroe grabbed Nick by the neck and threw him. So if D'Angelo didn't push him, I would've been pissed off at D'Angelo. He did the right thing,” Walton said.
Before getting tossed for literally fighting, Russell showed the figurative aggression his coach was looking for. The sophomore guard drove to the bucket to score or drive and kick, and was more than willing to fire away when open from behind the arc.
Russell's shot chart before getting tossed was pretty solid pic.twitter.com/yFXDCdFyRh— Silver Screen & Roll (@LakersSBN) March 18, 2017
After several games of looking disinterested while lazily firing away from deep or tossing the ball away, the above effort certainly qualified as an improvement:
For comparison, here is Russell's first three games coming off the bench pic.twitter.com/VgVnQQ972r— Silver Screen & Roll (@LakersSBN) March 18, 2017
"I was trying to attack the hole. My jump shot wasn't something I was trying to depend on tonight,” Russell said. “They're a really aggressive team and I was just trying to get to the rim a few times."
Russell averaged 7.5 points on 12 shots while turning the ball over 22.6 percent of the time during the first two games of his stint on the bench. It looked like he had checked out on his team following his demotion. However, Walton said prior to the game that moving Russell to the bench wasn’t about how he was playing.
“He was having a great couple weeks coming out of All-Star. We were 1-7, and we wanted to try some other things. We're in a position that's unique in that we're not in the playoffs, and we might as well try different lineups and gather information and take it into the offseason,” Walton said.
Instead, the head coach wanted to see how his young guard would react.
“It's important for all of our guys to learn how to respond well with adversity and being put in difficult situations,” Walton said. “The only way to get better at stuff like that is to go through it, so I would expect him to find his way through it."
After initially not responding well, Russell answered with one of his more aggressive scoring efforts of the season, even if he didn’t necessarily agree that he hadn’t been aggressive enough.
"I thought I was (aggressive),” Russell said of his first few games off the bench, and when pressed on why his head coach and front office might have felt differently, he pled the fifth.
“I have no idea, but it is what it is," Russell said.
Whether or not Russell showed enough fight for his coach’s liking in his prior games coming off the pine, Walton was happy with what he saw against the Bucks.
"I think he was great. He was doing what we asked him to do,” Walton said. “He was trying to get downhill, he was trying to put pressure on the defense. He knocked down a couple jump shots,” Walton said. “He was playing his way into a good game, and he had really built up some momentum for us before he got tossed, so I thought it was good to see."
For his part, Russell claims he’s unworried about where Walton slots him in the rotation moving forward.
“I don't really care about starting or coming off the bench,” Russell said. "As long as I"m on the floor, honestly being able to get the opportunity to finish the game is what I really care about.”
If Russell continues to play like he did in the first half against the Bucks while avoiding any more fights, closing games seems like a safe bet.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.