To call D’Angelo Russell’s performance in the Western Conference Finals against the Nuggets disappointing would be quite the undersell. Even in a four-game sweep, Russell was played off the floor for the Lakers, leading to him being benched in the final contest while playing just 15 minutes.
The jokes were aplenty this offseason — and many of them were quite enjoyable — but they were laced with a bit of truth to them as well. It led to an important offseason for Russell. His contract indicated the hit his value took and the questions that followed him this offseason were valid.
But Russell remained unfazed and, aided perhaps by the fact Darvin Ham named him starting point guard before training camp could even begin, Russell has been arguably the most impressive Laker through the opening three preseason games.
His scoring has been easiest to see on the stat sheet, including his 21-point outburst on Wednesday. But his impact has extended past his scoring. One of the interesting areas he’s taken steps forward, at least in the small sample size, is on the defensive side of the ball.
Russell has sought out ways to make a difference on that side of the ball, like taking a charge vs. the Kings. It’s an intentional decision made by Russell after last year’s failures.
“Last year, they found a way to get me off the floor by not playing defense, I guess,” Russell said after Wednesday’s game. “So, trying to be a reason to eliminate that, not give them a reason to not have me on the floor. Try to be as dangerous as I can on offense and try not to be a liability on defense. That’s what I’m working on. I’m trying to do it now before the season so I can continue to practice those good habits.”
It’s a great amount of self-awareness from Russell and a level that few players tend to show in the league. Instead of doubling down on what perhaps got him to where he is, Russell acknowledged flaws in his game and is looking at improving them.
Ham, who deserves credit for backing his point guard and building a relationship with him, has noticed the attempts at change this preseason. Speaking after Wednesday’s game, Ham talked about all the areas D’Lo has impressed so far this preseason.
“He and I communicate about play calls, trying to get other people involved and getting others the ball,” Ham said. “Him picking his spots to be aggressive. Him doing a great job baiting the defense and getting them to be off-balance. Finding people at the rim and him getting opportunities at the rim as well as threes and mid-range and him finding the pen man. He had a couple of turnovers but those are sacrificial turnovers, him trying to get the ball to a teammate. It’s been wonderful man, it’s been wonderful.”
If the Lakers are going to make the final jump from Western Conference title contender to NBA Finals, it’s going to require improvements from multiple players on the roster. Most looked other directions for improvement, whether it be from Jarred Vanderbilt or newcomer Gabe Vincent, among others.
But Russell could very much be part of that improvement. If he’s able to do enough things to stay on the floor against the Nuggets along with being an offensive weapon, for example, that’s a huge improvement from last season.
And if the Lakers can piece together a number of improvements like that, it could be the difference between a Western Conference Finals sweep and a potential 18th title.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.