CLEVELAND — The nostalgia swept over Lakers coach Byron Scott as he reflected on coaching Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving during his first two NBA seasons.
“I thought he was the most talented point guard I had,” Scott said. “He didn’t have any weaknesses offensively.”
The realism hit Scott as he evaluated Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell with 30 games left in his rookie season.
“He still has a whole lot of room to learn about this league and about playing that position,” Scott said. “But the thing I like about him is he’s willing to learn and willing to accept the criticism to try to get better.”
When the Lakers (11-43) visit the Cleveland Cavaliers (37-14) on Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena, Irving and Russell will symbolize how both evolved both as a player and how they have viewed playing under Scott.
Irving won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in the 2011-12 season after leading his class in points (18.5), ranking second in assists (5.4) and finishing third minutes played (30.5). Four years later, Irving looked back at that time with fondness. He called Scott a “leader.” Irving also credited how Scott developed him.
“Effing up on a lot of things and [Byron] being there to protect me every single time,” Irving recalled. “I’m learning and being given the keys to the organization and accepting responsibility and knowing how to become a better professional. Knowing all the things he was teaching me are things I’m starting to understand now.”
Through 52 games into his rookie season, Russell has ranked fourth in his class in points (12.1), third in assists (3.3) and fourth in minutes played (27). Russell had occasionally admitted he wished for a larger role after losing his starting spot 20 games into the season. He also had expressed hope to close more games out. But in recent weeks, Russell has softened his stance so much that he even argued he did not deserve a starting spot. Russell even partly credited Scott for his development.
“He kind of doesn’t really put you on a leash,” Russell said of Scott. “He kind of lets you learn from your own mistakes. I talked to a few vet guys and they say that’s kind of the way where they didn’t have it that way. So it’s almost a good thing.”
Interestingly, Russell said Irving is not one of the players he has consulted with about Scott despite assuming the same role. But Scott spoke with clarity on both of his point guards.
Despite noting Irving’s defensive limitations, Scott described Irving as “a lot further along” during his rookie season than Russell. So much that Scott argued Irving “was more prepared from an offensive standpoint than Chris Paul was his rookie year” when Scott coached in New Orleans in the 2005-06 season. Scott then argued Russell “still has a lot of room to grow,” and the areas go beyond fulfilling what Scott described as Russell “bridging the gap” between his scoring and passing as well as his defense.
“He was just a little bit more mature,” Scott said of Irving during his rookie season. “At 19, he was a little bit more business-like at practice and games. D’Angelo still has a playfulness about him, sometimes in practice he’s joking around and losing a little bit of focus.”
The majority of Lakers’ practices are closed to the media. But Russell spends the tail-end of practice often working on his shot as well as various ball-handling and shooting drills with Lakers assistants Thomas Scott and Larry Lewis. Russell will do the same thing about 2 1/2 hours before each game. But Russell has often concluded his sessions attempting half-court heaves or one-handed 3-pointers.
“I didn’t say it was a bad thing. It is a bad thing at times,” Scott said. “There’s always a time to be serious and there’s always a time to joke around. So I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I’m saying he’s 19. I understand it, I’m not saying it’s bad or good, but Chris Paul wasn’t like that and Kyrie was a little bit, but not that much. But like I said, again, they’re all different. And I accept that.”
That might explain why Scott only offered a “maybe” on if Russell would reclaim his starting spot immediately after the NBA All-Star break next Friday against San Antonio at Staples Center.
“I got a week in Mexico to just relax and not think about it. I’ll think about it next Wednesday,” Scott said. “Some time after the All-Star break I’ll put him back in the starting lineup. There’s no time table on when that will be.”
Irving hardly had to wait as long for his starting position. He may not have started during training camp. But Irving recalled that he “didn’t want to come in and waste any more time or wait for any veterans.” Irving also recalled with fondness completing the endless running drills Scott features in training camp. Scott handed the starter’s role to Irving just before the 2011-12 season began.
“But I had to earn it. I respected him a lot for that,” Irving said of Scott. “I came into the first day of training camp trying to take everybody’s heads off as a 19-year-old kid. I wanted to prove that as a No. 1 pick, I was worthy of being that. That was the mindset I had coming in and he respected that.”
From afar, Russell has also respected Irving’s game.
“He’s got some things you can’t really work for, God-gift with the ball in his hands,” Russell said of Irving. “You can watch film on him and how he gets his handle like that. But it’s something he was probably born with.”
Russell hardly sounded as complimentary about his own game. Although he said he has been playing “great” recently, Russell described his rookie season another way.
“It’s had its ups and downs,” Russell said. “Searching for that consistency is the key. So I’m looking for that.”
So is Scott, who insisted he has Russell’s interests.
“I’m always thinking back after I’m hard on him in certain occasions that he’s 19 years old and he’s just a kid playing in a man’s world. I know the potential is there,” Scott said. “D’Angelo has a chance to be a great player in this league. He has a ways to go. But he’s making some progress.”