The bench provided a visible reminder to D’Angelo Russell that he remained far from the finished product he wanted to become during his rookie season. So did a few of his contemporaries named Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor and Kristaps Porzingis that initially posted better numbers than Russell.
But when the Lakers (14-52) host the New York Knicks (27-4) on Sunday at Staples Center, the inevitable storyline between Porzingis and Russell will cast the Lakers’ rookie in a positive light.
Russell still ranks fourth in his rookie class in points (13.5), 14th in shooting percentage (42.7) and third in assists (3.5). But that does not fully account for his numbers in the 10 games since he has become a starter where has averaged averaging 21 points, 4.8 assists and 3.2 rebounds, while shooting 47.4% from the field and 46.3% from 3-point range. Since the NBA All-Star break, Russell has also topped Porzingis in points (19.8, 14.4) and minutes played (32.2, 25.5).
“Everybody else out there seemed to be worried and wondering if we did the right thing. Now everybody is looking at like, ‘Man, this man can play a little bit,'” Lakers coach Byron Scott said. “When you’re a high draft pick, everybody expects you to come out like guns are blazing and you’re supposed to sustain that for 82 plus games. That just doesn’t happen. I’m sure they’re extremely happy with Porzingis over in New York just like we’re extremely happy with D’Angelo right now.”
Scott reported he and Russell never talked about where he stood among other rookies. But Scott stressed to him not to pay attention toward any of the public scrunity before saying, “We took you for a reason and we know you’re going to be a hell of a basketball player.
Russell admitted monitoring specific rookies, such as Towns and Phoenix’s Devin Booker, since they remain close friends. But Russell continuously downplayed rookie comparisons during his initial struggles, arguing that plenty of their journeys depend on opportunities and roster construction. Even as Russell’s game changed, his sentiments stayed the same.
“It’s all about the opportunity,” Russell said. “Everybody has a different route toward reaching their potential. Some people bloom early and some people bloom late. If I’m a late bloomer and I’m around this league for a long time, I would prefer that any day.”
Russell admitted Sunday’s matchup represents a “statement game to try to separate yourself.” But he quickly argued “the real show” will involve “Kobe’s last matchup against Melo.” Even if Scott has continuously called for and liked Russell’s defensive progression, it’s not like he’s going to guard the Knicks’ center anyway.
“Could I have predicted this? No, not really,” Scott said. “Everybody’s learning curve is different. With D’Angelo, he’s starting to get it on both ends of the floor. He still has times where he loses that focus every now and then. But that’s what you expect from a 20 year old.”