SAN ANTONIO, TX — The Los Angeles Lakers continued their youth movement Friday night against the San Antonio Spurs after letting the younger players finish the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves earlier in the week.
After coming off the bench for two games, D’Angelo Russell’s return to the starting lineup was a pleasant surprise, although somewhat necessitated by an ankle injury to fellow youngster Jordan Clarkson. The second overall pick from this year’s draft was recently sent to the bench along with Julius Randle by Lakers head coach Byron Scott after starting the team’s first 20 games.
To cap off a week of turmoil, Russell responded with a career-high 24 points (a game after putting up a then-career-high 23 vs. Minnesota) while adding six assists and six rebounds in the Lakers’ 109-87 loss to San Antonio.
“It’s just opportunity,” Russell said. “The opportunity that I got now wasn’t the same earlier this season. You had the opportunity, but I feel like I was thinking too much instead of going out there and just playing. Guys are starting to see, ‘He knows what he’s doing a little bit.’ I think it will just only get better.”
Prior to these last two 2o-plus-point outbursts, Russell hadn’t gone over 17 points in any game. Now with one-fourth of his rookie season complete, he’s finally starting to find his way in the NBA, to the delight of Scott and Lakers fans everywhere.
“If somebody is open, give them the ball. If not and it’s a clear shot to attack, you [have] got to do it,” Russell said. “I’m starting to figure out how to create a pace to the game that forces everybody to play with you. Because if your big guys take the ball out quick and you get it down the floor, people are waiting for you to make a play call. By that time you are trying to create off a ball screen because people are trying to get you….just that pace I’m starting to figure it out.”
Despite the last two strong games, Russell still has plenty of room for improvement. He still shot under 40 percent over the two contests and keeps finding himself getting erased too easily by frontcourt players in screen-and-pop situations. But even with the holes still remaining in his game, Russell has made too much progress for even Scott to overlook.
“He’s put together two really, really good games,” Scott said. “The next step really is consistency. The trick is doing this for a week, two weeks, a month.”
With the Lakers sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference with the franchise’s worst-ever record through 23 games, the maturation of Russell will continue to be a big storyline the rest of the season. Russell admitted after the game that this little string of success can be attributed to comfort he’s gaining with Scott, and it only highlights how the development of this relationship is big for the Lakers’ future.
“You’ve got to build that relationship with your coach and know that you’re a rookie coming into this league; but you didn’t get here on accident,” Russell said. “So once I get that trust with my coach, I know I’ll feel like I’ll have that opportunity more and more.”
When asked to evaluate Russell’s growth since training camp, Scott said that on a scale of 1 to 10, Russell is at a 7. If Russell continues to truly come into his own the rest of the season, Scott will have no choice but to slide the young point guard up the scale in the direction the Lakers franchise needs him to go.