SACRAMENTO — The ball splashed into the basket seemingly every time Lakers rookie point guard D’Angelo Russell shot the ball. He ran the offense and called his own plays while his teammates eagerly obeyed. He proved he deserved to finish out a close game.
The Lakers did not receive the bottom-line result they wanted, a 118-115 loss to the Sacramento Kings on Thursday at Sleep Train Arena marking a second consecutive loss. But the Lakers (8-29) received everything they wanted from Russell, who posted a career-high 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting and four assists in 28 minutes off the bench. But just as nearly everyone around him gushed about his growth, Russell saw an incomplete picture.
“Ya’ll ain’t seen nothing yet,” Russell said. “That’s all I’m going to say. They got lucky. The world hasn’t seen anything yet.”
As Russell said those words, what has he envisioned in his mind?
“You got to see,” Russell said, smiling. “I know I want I can do. Ya’ll just have to see.”
Russell’s thought process stemmed from two areas.
The first reason involved his present state. On a night where everything nearly turned in his favor, Russell’s final act did not. With Kings center DeMarcus Cousins nursing five fouls, Russell drove toward him at the basket in hopes to draw another foul both to take him out of the game and earn a trip to the free-throw line. Russell converted on the layup, which gave the Lakers a 111-110 lead with 2:36 left. But moments before the ball went into the basket, Russell landed awkwardly on his right ankle.
Russell tried to stay on the court. But Russell soon went to the sideline and told Lakers coach Byron Scott three chilling words.
“He said, ‘I can’t run,'” Scott said.
So Russell left the court with 1:46 remaining and headed to the locker room with Lakers trainer Gary Vitti. The Lakers wound up losing in the final moments. Kings guard Rajon Rondo made a floater to give the Kings a 116-115 lead with 21.7 seconds left. Rondo forced Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson to commit a turnover with 6.8 seconds remaining. After Cousins converted on two foul shots for the 118-115 lead, Lou Williams missed a 3-pointer that could have forced overtime.
“I probably would’ve hit some bogus shot and we would’ve won it,” Russell said. “Everything was happening for us. The basketball gods probably blessed us on that one.”
If only Russell could sound as confident about his health. The Lakers called Russell’s injury a moderately sprained right ankle after x-rays turned out negative. But Russell hardly sounded certain if he can play when the Lakers host the Oklahoma City Thunder (25-11) on Friday at Staples Center, a game in which the Lakers have listed him as questionable.
“I don’t know. I have to see how I feel,” Russell said. “It was just a sprain. It was no fracture or anything. But when you roll your ankle, only time and rest can tell.”
The other reason for Russell’s unsatisfied feeling stemmed from his supreme confidence.
Even as he expressed frustrations with a bench role, limited minutes and rookie hiccups, Russell never wavered in his self-expectation that he would live up to the hype as the Lakers’ No. 2 draft pick. After spending recent weeks in the weight room and working on his outside shot and post moves, Russell believed it marked only a matter of time before he saw that unfold in real time.
“I just know what I’m capable of,” Russell said. “So when I don’t do it, you can throw the excuse that you’re young and it’s a process. But I know what I can do. But staying patient and putting in the hard work and keeping God first. The sky’s the limit.”
It appeared Russell had no limit against the Kings. That led Scott to say, “I thought he played great.”
As the Lakers quickly nursed a 25-4 deficit midway through the first quarter, Russell watched on the bench dissecting how he could improve the Lakers’ stagnant offense and defensive sluggishness. Once he checked in at the 6:55 mark, the Lakers closed out the quarter with a 17-14 lead.
From then on, Russell offered highlight reels. He forced a steal from Cousins that led to a fast-break layup. After Lakers forward Brandon Bass forced another turnover, Russell sprinted across the court and finished.
Russell seamlessly moved off the ball. He cut backdoor that sparked Kobe Bryant to dish him a no-look pass for an open layup. Russell spaced the floor to give him enough room to convert on a catch-and-shoot opportunities.
After he nailed a 20-foot jumper to reduce Sacramento’s cushion to 104-97 with 8:36 left, Russell strutted out his jaw. Russell then navigated a pick-and-roll that gave him an open-pull up jumper that cut the Kings’ lead to 106-101 with 7:31 remaining, leading Russell to shake his head with swagger.
“He’s been playing like that for quite a while,” Williams said. “He picks and chooses. He has a hard balance of knowing when ot distribute and when to score. He put his scorer’s hat on and put out a valiant effort.”
Russell fulfilled that job description in the fourth quarter while Bryant sat on the bench. Then, Bryant routinely clapped his hands and pumped his fist anytime Russell made a big play.
“I wasn’t worried about it,” said Bryant, who had 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting in 31 minutes. “Even if I had 15 or 17 minutes or something like that, I’d much rather watch the young guys play. They played really really well and worked really really hard. It’s important for them to figure out how to close those games out without me on the floor. I’m obviously not going to be there next year. It’s important for them to learn how to do those things.”
It’s also important for Russell to gain respect from his teammates.
“I know the work I’m putting in. I really just want to build the confidence of my teammates to look at me if I make a playcall or I call something,” Russell said. “Me being young, I’ll definitely mess up a lot more than I’m going to make the right play. But I want my teammates to be able to trust me and look at me as a veteran guard running the team.”
Russell has often shared his teammates hardly granted him that respect. He also has admitted Scott had reduced his playcalling. But how did those issues play out on Thursday in Sacramento?
“It was great,” Russell said. “I tried to lead vocally and put guys in the right spot. But it didn’t work that way. It was more lead by example and make plays for others and make good plays for the team. It played out well.”
So well that Russell left his teammates marveling at his greatness.
“What he did today was amazing,” Clarkson said. “Hopefully he carries over it the next game and keeps continuing to do what he’s doing.”
Moments later, uncertainty emerged on if that will happen. Russell walked along with Lakers assistant Larry Lewis to the team bus with a noticeable limp. But that hardly diminished Russell’s confidence amid his hopes soon to put on a show that he has dreamed of doing over and over in his head.