The last time he stepped on a basketball court in a live game, D’Angelo Russell lay nearly motionless on the ground after he landed with a hard thud. He then needed support as he limped to the locker room. Russell then spent the next five days sitting out amid the Lakers’ conservative efforts to ensure his bruised glute did not morph into something more.
But once he successfully went through pre-game warmups on Sunday, Russell soon brought back to life the images that made the Lakers fall in love with him and select him second overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. Russell directed the offense. He made passes few anticipated. He looked confident.
All of which helped the Lakers conclude a 126-71 victory over Maccabi Haifa on Sunday at Staples Center, as Russell posted five points on 2-of-2 shooting and 11 assists in 18 minutes off the bench.
“When I get the ball, I like to pass,” Russell said. “So if a guy knows me, he’s going to be running, running, running just to get an easy bucket or get to the foul line to get himself going. He knows if I’m open, I’ll get it to you. If you’re open, I’m going to get it to you. Half the time, you won’t know you’re open.”
Yes, everyone from Kobe Bryant to Nick Young to Ryan Kelly enjoyed that experience. But after Russell made the Lakers’ starters intrigued about his potential, Lakers coach Byron Scott played him off the bench “mostly because he was coming off an injury.” Yet, his injury hardly seemed to be an issue. Scott observed that Russell “moved pretty well” and only showed signs of fatigue stemmed from his absence. Russell conceded he “doesn’t have the flexibility as much” before contending he “felt good” and that he could have practiced and played this week if not for deferring to the Lakers’ insistence on playing it safe.
Hence, Scott sounded open about featuring Russell off the bench again.
“I don’t know if I’ll stick with it yet,” Scott said. “But I liked what I saw. They look pretty good and looked pretty in sync for the first time playing against each other. I’ll experiment with it a little bit more and see what happens.”
The experiment against Maccabi Haifa worked, though it should be noted the Israeli professional basketball team only featured one player with past NBA experience (former UCLA product Dijon Thompson). Kobe Bryant may have led the Lakers with 21 points on a 6-of-10 clip, 4-of-6 mark from 3-point range and a 5-of-6 finish from the foul line in 19 minutes. But Young (16 points), Kelly (15 points), Lou Williams (13 points) and Tarik Black (12 points) all cracked double digits partly because of Russell’s presence.
“Everybody treated it like it was anybody’s show. Nobody was forcing anything. They made it easier for everybody to be successful,” Russell said. “I tried to make the right play. Fortunately, I was surrounded by great players that at this level can make shots. I was spoiled to be in that position to kick it. Guys were shooting and making the shot.”
That happened as quickly as it took Russell to dish off a nifty pass.
Russell found Young for an elbow jumper. Russell zipped the ball to Black as he cut to the basket for an open look. Russell connected with Kelly and Lou Williams on two possessions where they stood in the corner beyond the arc for an easy 3-point shot. Russell performed a give-and-go with Bryant, where he fed Russell on a baseline pass from the far perimeter.
“He’s got great vision and great touch,” Bryant said.
So great that Lakers center Roy Hibbert offered a bold prediction regarding Russell’s prospects.
“I told him, ‘He’s shooting for Rookie of the Year,'” Hibbert said. “He should be, but he’s very modest.”
Russell sure sounded modest afterwards. He repeatedly expressing gratitude for his teammates getting open than taking credit for his own court awareness.
“I’ve never been blessed to play with great shooters around me,” Russell said. “I feel like whatever lineup I’m in, I’m going to make the best out of it. But I’m spoiled to have guys like that around me, it’s even better to have that opportunity. When guys are making shots, you’re just dishing out assists.”
And to think, the concern about Russell earlier involved other things. How long would it take for Russell to heal his injury. Could he bounce back from a shaky preseason debut where he posted five points on 2-of-8 shooting, three assists and two turnovers against Utah. For one night against inferior competition, Russell assuaged those concerns with each pass he threw.
“That’s what he does,” Lakers forward Julius Randle said. “He gets everybody involved and makes the game easier for everybody.”