The Los Angeles Lakers and their fans have come to expect instant success. With a rich tradition of winning, rebuilds that have turned into instant contenders with blockbuster trades and superstars who’ve defined the last three decades, the Lakers have had to clear a high bar in order to keep moving forward.
Now with No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell on board and anchoring an improved roster, there’s a rising expectation that the Lakers will again be able to execute one of those expedited turnarounds in order to re-enter the crowded Western Conference postseason picture. That optimism is rooted in false logic.
The selection of Russell, a 19-year-old playmaker who was born the same season that Kobe Bryant was drafted (1996), indicates the Lakers are prepared to welcome a new era. This isn’t about going all out to get KB that elusive sixth ring. This isn’t about selling out in order to feed a starving fan base. The Lakers have tried to acquire their next superstar — twice — to the post-Bryant era, but without success on the trade market and even less in free agency, a changing of the guard is well underway.
That’s going to require patience — patience from the fans, patience from Kobe, and most of all, a ton of patience from Russell. With fans expecting, and sometimes demanding, instant success, Kobe wanting to go out on his terms and Russell tasked with running a team from the onset, that’s going to be a difficult process for all involved.
It’s not clear if Russell will start at the point from the first game of the season, but he should be there before long if not. While Jordan Clarkson showed he’s capable of filling that role last season, remember he too struggled at times when first receiving the chance. Clarkson will also spend more time off the ball this season, which isn’t a surprise considering the makeup of the Lakers’ roster. With a small-forward depth chart that starts with Kobe and ends with Nick Young, Russell and Clarkson are going to be the featured members of the backcourt.
Russell, while realizing the potential, also has a good perspective on patience, a critical thing to understand for someone at his age and in his role (via Lakers.com):
“I feel like we’re dangerous for our team. We both rebound. We both can push the break, and we both can run the wing. So if he gets it and I’m running the wing, he can set up the offense or make the right decisions and vice versa with me. I feel like it’s dangerous, and we can play together easily. I think it will just take some time.”
On top of that, Russell understands what he’s going to need to do in order to be successful. Instead of coming in with a “look at me” attitude in a desperate attempt to validate his draft standing, Russell is taking a humble road that he hopes help to breed success in the long-term:
“That’s with anybody around here. It’s like they try to have the best of the best around here. Everybody’s opinion matters to me. I’m 19 years old. I’m just coming in like a sponge to whatever I’m willing to learn.”
Rather than crumbling under the enormous mountain of pressure that’s been placed upon his still-developing shoulders, Russell has handled it all in stride while facing rising expectations. Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen, who was the head coach of Los Angeles’ Summer League team, expounded on Russell being able to find balance (via Holly MacKenzie of Complex Magazine):
“There was so much hype about being the No. 2 pick. Phil Jackson spoke about D’Angelo during the season and broke a rule and the New York Knicks were fined. There’s been so much expectation, hype, and really pronounced media scrutiny on D’Angelo, but to see him interact with the others, with his teammates, with the coaching staff, with the fans, here’s a great young man who not only wants to be great on the court, but he wants to be a great human being away from basketball.”
While we tend to treat pro athletes — who live their private lives on a public stage — as emotionless robots incapable of dealing with the issues that face us all, the reality is that Russell is a 19-year-old kid still growing up on and off the court. It’s going to take time for Russell and the Lakers to reach their collective potential, and patience is going to be paramount for the guard, his team and those who tune in to watch him every night.