Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every week day, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at D’Angelo Russell.
Finding his way back to the Lakers after six years, it didn’t take long for D’Angelo Russell to embrace the Los Angeles spotlight once again. As part of the Russell Westbrook trade package, Russell returned to the purple and gold as an improved and more mature point guard.
It didn’t take time for the Lakers’ 2015 No. 2 draft pick to prove that he fits significantly better alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis compared to Westbrook. Russell’s shooting, playmaking, crafty ball-handling skills and shot-creation abilities were a welcome change of scenery.
He averaged 17.4 points and 6.1 assists in 41.4% three-point shooting in the 17 regular games he suited up for post trade deadline. Despite being in and out of the lineup due to ankle issues, Russell played a huge role in the Lakers’ incredible turnaround late in the season. That ended up continuing in the first and second round of the playoffs, where he had a couple of remarkable moments.
But then in the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, Russell’s weaknesses were exposed. The Nuggets consistently targeted him on defense to the point that he was borderline unplayable. He couldn’t keep up with Denver’s imposing physicality and size which decreased his minutes and production. He ended up averaging 6.3 points and 3.5 assists on 13.3% three-point shooting leading up to the Lakers’ downfall.
But despite his subpar performance in the conference finals, the Lakers rightfully didn’t give up on Russell in the offseason. They signed him on a team-friendly deal worth $36 million for two years, making it a convenient agreement for both parties. The Lakers benefited by retaining a quality asset and having a tradable contract down the road — a move they likely will decide based on the 27-year-old’s performance this season.
So now, the question for Russell heading into the season is if he can be valuable enough to stay with the Lakers for long run. Will he be able to prevent them from having to upgrade in the point guard position come trade deadline?
More importantly, will Russell be able to earn the Lakers’ trust to perform deep in the playoffs assuming they make it far once again?
What is his best-case scenario?
The best-case scenario for D’Angelo is if he becomes at least a top-five player on the team and performs well consistently, both in the regular season and the playoffs.
As the team’s starting point guard, it would be ideal for Russell to keep up his production from the previous regular season or, better yet, improve defensively. If he can consistently average 17 points in 41.4% three-point shooting throughout the season then there’s no doubt that the Lakers will be a more lethal squad offensively.
Russell’s ability to shoot the ball at a high percentage, play-make and shot-create is what makes James and Davis’ jobs easier, which is why his presence is so vital. He has to make sure that his presence is consistently valuable by not getting played off the court.
There’s no doubt that Russell will be extremely useful throughout the regular season but the biggest question for him is really how he holds up come playoff time.
The best-case scenario for him is to be able to keep up with some of the best point guards in the league and prove to the Lakers that they don’t need to upgrade their point guard options as the season goes on.
As someone who was drafted by the Lakers, It would really be nice if Russell finally finds a permanent home in Los Angeles and becomes that homecoming point guard they’ve longed for years.
What is his worst-case scenario?
The worst-case scenario for Russell is if his impressive preseason stint so far doesn’t carry over in the regular season, causing the Lakers the need to make moves at the deadline. If the veteran gets traded, he’ll be on his sixth team in 12 years — which won’t exactly help his reputation.
Another worst-case scenario for Russell is if his defensive weaknesses continue to get exposed come playoff time. If that happens then there’s a chance that he may never play for a contending team again. He’s supposed to be at the prime of his career and that will go to waste if he doesn’t make the best out of the situation he’s currently in.
If Russell’s second stint with the Lakers involves him getting played out of the rotation during the playoffs, then his contract won’t look like a friendly deal anymore. His name will most likely be brought up in trade conversation during the offseason, ruining the perfect homecoming opportunity for the Ohio State University product.
What is his most likely role on the team?
To nobody’s surprise, Russell is going to be the starting point guard of the Lakers and will be tasked to play a lot of minutes throughout the season. He’s going to handle the ball a lot and will be expected to produce through his playmaking and scoring chops. It’s his responsibility to make James’ job easier and put his teammates in the best position to succeed on the court.
The good news is that Russell is already off to an encouraging start in the preseason. He’s played all five games so far and is averaging 17.8 points, 6.2 assists on 55.5% three-point shooting.
He looks very confident with his jumper and seems to already be in tip-top shape physically. He’s expressed his desire to improve defensively and has been showcasing that in spurts. Russell has easily been one of the Lakers’ best players so far in the preseason.
Only time will tell if Russell’s commendable preseason stint so far will translate to his performance this year. The status of his tenure with the Lakers will really depend on his development as a two-way player and whether or not he can earn their trust. But at the very least, the point guard is already showing early signs that he belongs in Los Angeles for the long haul.
You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani