Los Angeles — After D’Angelo Russell and the Brooklyn Nets beat the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night to mathematically eliminate them from playoff contention, it would be easy to draw a narrative connection between the confidence Russell showed in doing so and his emergence as an All-Star, to tell the tale as old as time of a proverbial young player gaining confidence as they found their footing in the professional ranks. To imply that Russell simply needed a fresh start to truly break through as an NBA player.
But while some of that might be the case, and it would be easy, like most narratives, it also wouldn’t be entirely true.
“He was pretty confident from day one,” said Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson with a chuckle. “He’s got a natural confidence about him. Now that he’s playing well it really is coming out.”
It came out in the form of 21 points and 13 assists as Russell made the rest of the Lakers’ season officially meaningless, but it was on display from the moment he started warming up.
When Russell was a Laker, he acted like, well, a 19 or 20-year-old during warmups, joking with coaches and taking shots from around the floor with the casualness of a kid pantomiming their favorite basketball player while shooting wadded up paper into a trash can, before occasionally wrapping up his routine with half-court shots from his back.
Now? Russell is all business, talking with a team trainer before diligently going through reps with a resistance band and doing lunges with a medicine ball, each rep exactly the same in its calculated precision and seriousness.
Then, after several reps of high-stepping from baseline to half-court while pulling a trainer holding him back with a resistance band like a boat towing a jet ski and doing a bit more individual stretching from the floor, Russell jets to the locker room silently to finish prepping for the game.
He’s more mature, exactly at the time he should be.
“His humility the day he arrived, and his work ethic. Those are the two things that have elevated him,” Atkinson said. “Then, quite honestly, this is his fourth year in the league. This is when guys start to make a jump, so I think we’re a little lucky in that sense. We got him at the right time.”
Hindsight is 20/20, but even at the time, it wasn’t hard to see how all this could go wrong, and now it seems clear that the Lakers gave up on Russell at the wrong time, especially when considering that they have just one summer left to make use of the cap space they freed up by attaching Russell to Timofey Mozgov’s deal — a deal that has been moved twice since with much less attached than a No. 2 overall pick — and that Russell is now an All-Star, even if he’s about to get more expensive come free agency.
But Russell, all-business after the game as well, said the night wasn’t about proving his former team wrong, even if he did seem to take some glee in silencing a few of their fans.
D’Angelo Russell tells Lakers fans to pic.twitter.com/gaKdE4ykgW— Anthony Puccio (@APOOCH) March 23, 2019
“I knew it was a business game for us,” Russell said. “[The media] made it a big deal for me, but I took the pressure off my teammates. We just came out and focused on what we needed to focus on.
“This is where I started, it’s definitely a place that gave me an opportunity. How many guys started somewhere and it was forgotten throughout their career?” Russell continued, before addressing how it felt to eliminate that place he started, and a place that so badly hopes you’ll forget him and how they treated him on the way out, from playoff contention officially while he’s in the middle of the best season of his career.
“It sounds good on paper, but at the end of the day, we’re not playing them, we’re not competing against them for seeding,” Russell said. “Just a win is good enough.”
That’s an exceedingly professional answer, and it’s worth acknowledging that Russell has admitted that he didn’t know what it took to be a professional during his time in Los Angeles. What that doesn’t mean, however, is that he couldn’t have learned. If the Lakers think that’s the case, then it’s a lesson they’ll need to heed as they handle the rest of their young talent moving forward, and if they think Russell never could have developed such professionalism here, it’s worth asking why not.
Ultimately, though, it’s fitting that it would be Russell to deliver the final dagger. In a season defined by the Lakers front office’s hubris coming back to bite them, perhaps their biggest mistake dealing the death blow was so perfect a narrative that Hollywood producers would call it too cliche. Sometimes the easy narrative is true, I guess.
But the reason our brains like narratives in the first place is that they make things easy to digest and understand, to draw takeaways from. This is why Russell eliminating the Lakers from the playoffs is important, because it’s a learning opportunity, a chance to remember how he was treated and viewed on the way out versus now.
Young players take time to develop, and even Russell, as good as he is now, seldom showed the effectiveness during his first two seasons — outside of spurts — that Lonzo Ball has already shown when he’s healthy. Until this year, Russell had seldom played as well as Brandon Ingram was over the last 10 games of his third season before going down with an injury. And these guys haven’t even hit their fourth years like Russell has.
So it’s worth remembering how Russell was nearly universally viewed when he left — as immature and inconsistent — and that while Ingram has never really been the subject of the “immature” narrative that was used by so many to write off Russell, Ball has been, and both have had their inconsistency complained about, and not always unjustifiably.
However, almost all young players — and people — are a little immature and inconsistent, and while it’s not nearly the same as what Russell got run out of town for, it’s worth remembering how people overreacted to Lonzo Ball recording a diss track about his own teammate.
Over and over again, fans and the media react to stuff like this as if the player in question will never get more mature, that this is who they are, and that it’s some indictment of their character. It’s Principal Skinner on a loop, asking if they’re out of touch before deciding, no, it’s the children who are wrong.
Those are the moments when it’s important to recall not just how you acted and how professional you always were when you were 20 or 21, but also how Russell was viewed at the same age, and how he has now turned out just fine. The lesson is that it’s not always a fresh start that’s needed, although some will always draw that through line with Russell, and maybe they’re right to. But at the same time, Russell’s breakthrough also demonstrates the importance of patience with young players, and how very few are ever good, or anything close to what they will be when they hit their stride a few years after entering the league.
Put differently, the list of NBA lottery picks successfully given up on too early is probably a lot shorter than the ones given up on too late. If the Lakers decide they need to make a move for Anthony Davis this summer, fine. But if they don’t sign a second superstar with the cap space Mozgov’s contract would have been taking up this summer, the Russell trade will have been an unmitigated failure. If there is an easy narrative worth taking out of Friday night, it’s that maybe the young guys aren’t the problem, and the collective lack of patience with them is.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.