We are not ready for D’Angelo Russell


Earlier this month, Fox Sports’ Rob Perez got ahold of Lakers sophomore point guard D’Angelo Russell for a one-on-one interview. They spoke about Russell being given a green light on offense under Luke Walton, his game-winner in the Las Vegas Summer League, and Kobe Bryant’s all-knowing smirk. It was an honest look about how things will look in 2016 for the Lakers and the changes made now that Kobe and ex-coach Byron Scott are out of town. The site for this interview? The Call of Duty World Championships.

I’ll start by saying this — we are not ready for D’Angelo Russell. Anything you thought you did early in life to prepare yourself for cataclysm was insufficient; even watching Lakers games last year was far too little; I repeat, we not ready for D’Angelo Russell.

Coming out of college, there was legitimate debate over whether Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay was the top point guard in their class:

To this point, Russell has shot so well that he has made that question obsolete; if he can improve his physical work on defense, those comparisons will be silly in a matter of months:

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What we know now is they’re not similar players, and that’s for the better. D’Lo is best served with the offense at his fingertips, bending and pushing an opponent to his will. He can be an offense unto himself, regardless of if his raw assist numbers improve. Russell is a playmaker in every sense of the word.

Coming out of college, the draw of his offensive talent came largely from his ability to skate through the pick-and-roll and finish at will from everywhere on the court. A nifty collection of floaters, flips, and flicks put him on path toward becoming the second overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft:

The on-court product wasn’t all he offered Ohio State. Two years later, the basketball program was still using the draw of Russell’s magnificence to recruit players. It’s safe to say that Columbus wasn’t ready for Russell either. He was marvelous to watch, and continues to create a form of art yet to be named with each trip down the court. And just when you thought you might start to hate watching him, because of his dominance from a young age and the resulting inevitable rise of the Lakers, the humility began to show:

Even going into this season, scandals and benchings behind him, he took to the weight room and the practice court during the offseason. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; the hard-working young man made a story for himself in only one season in Los Angeles. The league wasn’t ready for D’Angelo Russell.

His rookie season saw him post totals of 16.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per 36 minutes. How did D’Lo describe it? “Looney tunes”. According to him, it “wasn’t real”; he got nothing out of it. This summer, though, has been about developing a winning mentality and having fun. Last season, Russell felt a lack of guidance from his teammates and leaders; listen to Scott elucidate, and it’s not hard to imagine why.

A back-and-forth relationship between the two culminated in a 17-win season and Scott’s eventual firing. It wasn’t the losing that was the problem, moreso the alienation of the young assets on the roster. Russell was ripped from the Lakers’ starting rotation, saw his minutes fluctuate, and was consistently called out publicly by his coach’s neanderthalian methods. Be it “cockiness” or simply having too much fun for Scott to handle, D’Angelo’s rookie year was marred by the failure to connect with Scott.

Oh, and this:

The explosion of this story out of the sports pages and into the tabloids was the last thing you’d want for a rookie; it seemed the Hollywood sign up in the hills had gobbled him up in the worst way. Though of course it was at the expense of a man who calls himself Swaggy P and was dating a pop-rapper, so no harm, no foul. The legend of D’Angelo Russell continued to write itself. In a random effort to save LA’s Chosen Son, Byron Scott called the Lakers a family when pushed about the Swaggy saga; a family they were not. If anything, the 2015-16 Lakers were the South Park children to Kobe’s Chef. 

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With Kobe having gone out in a fifty-chuck blaze of glory, the children are ready to play. Per Ringer writer and UM pal Kevin O’Connor, Russell’s usage rate blasted off to a cool 27.9 in non-Kobe minutes last season. That’s superstar-level stuff, and D’Lo had the production to back it up — 19 points, 5 assists and a 26% assist rate in those stretches. On a roster that now fits his style (a rim-rolling center and just about an acre of spacing in the half-court), Russell will have free reign to unleash his Kobe-less self on poor NBA defenses all season long. If the Lakers really are a Breakfast Club, D’Lo is undoubtedly their wily, footloose Emilio Estevez, scream-flexing his way around the library/court. I can’t imagine a library would be ready for an amped-up Russell, and for that matter neither are basketball courts.

As Harrison Feigen noted in his fun breakdown of how imprinted Russell’s style is on this team, the last hole to be filled was somehow the one that makes the madness work; a combo guard who needs support, two dynamo power forwards whose tables must be set, and a lanky wing whose fit is still TBD. These are the players Russell must mold to his liking. With the help of a coach like Luke Walton, who literally shouted his request for his players to listen to and learn from their point guard, that shouldn’t be difficult. Empowerment looms around every corner of this new Lakers’ regime’s fortress.

As is wont of the LA media and fan bases, the latest task in contextualizing Russell’s greatness will immediately become his place among LA’s greats. Wilt’s career here was short, and Dwight only lasted one season; two years is plenty long to wait before throwing around hot takes. But don’t worry, D’Lo understands his place here better than we ever could. Between color-coded bandanas and fresh kicks, Russell will sneak in a woke pop art Lakeshow like this:

I’m not ready for D’Angelo Russell. Have we ever had a young superstar who is simultaneously this wild and stellar?

Even science is on the level of us peasant bystanders when it comes to Russell. With arms longer than his height, measurables demonstrably higher than the average point guard’s, and a reachable range greater than Kawhi Leonard’s, the Basketball Gods set him up for success. Or rather, they set us up for a world-changing event watching this kid grow into his frame. I didn’t even mention his lightning-quick reaction time, which is faster than quarterbacks and professional drivers:

Listen: if you’re not downright giddy about the leap D’Angelo Russell is about to make, get out of my face. The tools are there, the ecosystem is perfect, and the story is inspiring. For a hard-working kid to make it to a big public school, shine in the Big Ten spotlight, get drafted second overall, and explode in the shadow of a superstar is beautiful. It’s why we watch sports, yet it will still shock us. We are not ready for D’Angelo Russell.

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