SAN ANTONIO — His head kept shaking back and forth. Lakers rookie point guard D’Angelo Russell sounded confused over something that had nothing to do with a complex playbook or defensive rotations. It had everything to do with Russell trying to process that Lakers coach Byron Scott would feature the team’s No. 2 draft pick as a reserve.
“Hopefully, I can look back at this and laugh at it,” Russell said.
Four days later, Russell easily could have as he reclaimed his starting point guard spot. It wasn’t because Scott suddenly had second thoughts on his lineup. It was because Lakers second year guard Jordan Clarkson became unavailable after spraining his right ankle.
But Russell quickly latched onto what he once lost. In the Lakers’ 109-87 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Friday at AT&T Center, Russell posted career-highs in points (24), shooting clip (9 of 23, 5 of 10 from 3-point range), assists (six) and minutes played (37).
Afterwards, Russell provided more answers on that growth, a stark contrast to his initial confusion four days earlier on his previous demotion.
“I’ve always had confidence,” Russell said. “That’s something I’ve never lacked. It’s just about opportunity. I’ll keep preaching until the end of the year. It’s opportunity.”
Russell did not always receive the opportunity he craved.
He often sat out of fourth quarters for different reasons. Scott favored Lou Williams to close out games both because of his veteran presence and because Scott believed Williams played better. Scott favored Marcelo Huertas in blow-out games because he did not see the value in his rookie point guard gaining any playing experience in a non-competitive environment with teammates he would not play with in a normal rotation.
It appeared fewer opportunities would arise with a new bench role. As the Lakers lost on Monday to Toronto in what marked his first game as a reserve, Russell matched season-lows in points (nine) and minutes played (21). Hence, Scott recalled rating Russell’s growth a “5” on a scale of 1 to 10 two weeks ago.
But at Kobe Bryant’s encouragement, Russell closed out the Lakers’ loss on Wednesday to Minnesota amid his strong play. He wound up finishing with 23 points on 8-of-20 shooting, 3-of-8 from 3-point range and three assists in 32 minutes. Though he missed a potential game-winning jumper, Russell made a 7-foot-bank jumper to force overtime. On Friday, Russell nearly duplicated that effort.
“Those things are just starting to click for him even more,” Bryant said. “That game in Minnesota gave him a great amount of confidence, the second half because he sees what he can do. He trusts what he can do. And I think tonight he picked up where he left off.”
Russell did that in different ways.
He attacked the basket as Scott had wanted, finishing on a series of finger rolls and layups. He also probed into space and waited for teammates to become open inside, such as when he found Brandon Bass open for a dunk.
“If it’s a clear shot at attack, you 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.”
Russell often found Bryant and Williams open on the perimeter. Russell set them up from the top of the perimeter, off pick-and-rolls and baseline drives.
“If you stay aggressive, I feel like I can pass the ball if somebody is open,” Russell said. “I’ll make the pass at the last minute or create for somebody when they don’t know they’re open. I always feel like I have that tendency. I want to keep building on it.”
After shooting only 33 percent from 3-point range this season, Russell looked more for his outside shot. He created shots for himself when he had an opening. When Russell played off the ball, he spaced the floor properly and appeared ready on catch-and-shoot opportunities.
“It’s the shot I’m getting, going under screens,” Russell said. “I’m a rookie and I’m just trying to prove myself in the league that I can make it. I’m taking what they give me.”
And Russell fulfilled this job description by finally playing off of instincts instead of information overload.
“You feel like when you get to this level, you have to outthink people,” Russell said. “That’s where I messed up. It’s playing and taking what the game gives me.”
Yet, it does not appear Scott will give Russell what he craves the most.
Russell became consistent enough this week for Scott to adjust his growth to a “7” on his 1-to-10 scale. But it is not enough yet for Scott to proclaim that Russell has regained his starting job back.
“He had two really good games. The trick is doing this for a week, two weeks, a month,” Scott said. “In that time, you might have one or two bad games. But with that consistent effort and consistent development getting better each night is what you have to strive for.”
Russell also experienced some limitations. He could not test his skill against an established point guard, as the Spurs rested point guard Tony Parker. Most of Russell’s damage came against Spurs third-string point guard Ray McCallum. After entering the fourth quarter with 8:12 remaining, Russell also missed his last five shots.
But within four days, Scott seemed to soften his patience on Russell. He conceded he needed to understand the process any rookie experiences in adapting to the NBA on a new team with a new playbook, new teammates and new schedule. Scott also anticipated Russell would fully blossom by either January or February should he keep granting him opportunities.
“Byron can tell the future, I can’t,” Russell said, smiling. “I have to keep working and keep watching, keep learning and see what happens.”
But Russell sounded more clairvoyant on what would need to happen for Scott’s foreshadowing to come true.
“It’s just relationship with Coach,” Russell said. “You have to build that relationship with your coach. I may be a rookie coming into this league. But I didn’t get here by accident. Once I get that trust with my coach, I know I’ll have that opportunity more and more.”
At least for a few days, Scott granted more of that trust. That left his prized No. 2 draft pick rewarding him for showing a stronger investment than when he showed only four days earlier that left Russell scratching his head.