You never quite know where a journey may take you. One day you’re here, the next you’re over there, with nary a clue as to how you got from point A to point B. D’Angelo Russell’s journey with the Los Angeles Lakers began with his name being announced as the second-overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, but to get to the point he’s at now required passing through destinations B, C, and D.
Somehow, someway, he’s found himself back with the team that needed him all those years ago. They arguably need him now more than ever.
The stakes have never been quite as high for D’Angelo as he embarks on his second stint with the franchise that originally placed their future in his hands. While he’s had a taste of first-round playoff action in his time with the Brooklyn Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves, the bar is always set at championship-or-bust in Los Angeles. Now, it’s as if he’s back to finish what he began. The original centerpiece of the Lakers’ rebuild is back, with business to tend to.
Russell answered the call against Toronto, with a dazzling 28 points, 9 assists and display of technical prowess that reminded the city of Los Angeles exactly why he captured their hearts in the first place.
“They’re lucky I sprained my ankle, simple as that. I was ready to go crazy, ready to have fun with this and embrace the challenge and opportunities, all the pressure, whatever you want to call it,” Russell said in his walk-off interview after splashing and slashing the Raptors back to extinction.
Coincidentally, it was the first Lakers’ home victory against the Raptors dating back to November 30, 2014. All that last one took was a triple-double from Kobe Bryant (31 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds) while starting alongside Jeremy Lin, Jordan Hill, Carlos Boozer, and Wesley Johnson.
Time flies, don’t it?
The margin for error has been razor-thin for this seasonal iteration of the Lakers, particularly with the always-looming injury concerns around Anthony Davis and 38-year-old LeBron James. As losses piled and pressure mounted on the front office to do something — at times transforming into a plea for anything — patience paid off and the organization was able to make their hand on the river after chasing what felt like a prayer all season.
Whether it’s too little, too late remains to be seen, but the Lakers are playing with a new energy. The eye test is obvious, and the 8-3 record following the trade deadline is tangible proof. From eye-rolling over sixth-seed predictions, to the fifth seed being within reach.
Thus far, the results of acquiring a point guard that is a threat from deep (44% since his return to the Lakers), turns the ball over at roughly half the rate of the previous Russell (13% vs. 25.7% turnover rate), and is a shifty craftsman with the ball in his hands have been positive. Watching Russell navigate pick-and-rolls, discombobulate dinosaurs and launch asteroids from deep was a sight to behold Friday night. It’s almost easy to forget the Lakers were down 22-10 in the first quarter.
“I feel the flow, honestly,” Russell said when asked by Michael Corvo of Clutch Points about his decision to ride the moment and launch pull-up threes through the closing quarter.
“I used to take more of those throughout the flow of the game, and I started realizing they were bad shots as far as offenses. We get a stop, we’re pushing it, everybody’s crashing trying to run in transition. They think I’m about to make the right play, but really I’m just all out on this three that might turn this place upside down if it goes in. And I can feel the energy.”
“Turn the place upside down” he did, the crowd blowing the roof off Crypto.com Arena Staples Center as he drained all four of his three-point attempts in the closing quarter.
“I work on it, I trust it,” Russell said of those bold pull-ups.
The full toolkit was on display, with D’Angelo showing he’s continued to hone in on his innate talent while carving his path through the NBA. He’s a father now, the young kid we all remember out of Ohio State now 27 years old and raising a child of his own. The journey has continued to mold Russell, perhaps preparing him for this very moment. The ups, the downs, the return.
No longer is he the Lakers rookie at Summer League trying to force the issue due to his lack of patience. He’s continued to improve his understanding of the game and is more mature than the 19-year-old once handed the keys to Laker Land, the result of finding his own way outside of Los Angeles over the last five years. Now, it’s his younger teammates looking up to him as a leader.
“He’s a really good basketball player that plays the game the right way. You don’t really see him too many times in the midst of a game making a wild play,” Austin Reaves said of D’Angelo following their victory over Toronto.
Ultimately, your journey may just bring you back to where it all began. An unexpected opportunity to chase the ghost of what-never-was for a chance at what-might-just-be.
You can follow and catch back up with Drew on Twitter over at @DrewGarrisonSBN.