EL SEGUNDO — Hours had already passed since D’Angelo Russell scored seemingly anytime he took a shot.
But just because the Lakers’ loss to Cleveland on Sunday at Staples Center had ended, it did not mean Russell’s shooting would end. After becoming the youngest Lakers player in franchise history to post a career-high 40 points in a regular-season game, Russell carried that sharp shooting late on Sunday night at the Lakers’ practice facility.
Both instances left Lakers coach Luke Walton both encouraged with Russell’s development and curious with the big-picture implications.
In his first start at shooting guard after coming off the bench for the previous three games, Russell dazzled the Lakers with efficiency (14-of-22 from field), passing (six assists) and steadniness (one turnover). With Walton featuring Russell at the starting shooting guard spot again for when the Lakers (20-50) host the Clippers (41-29) in a designated home game at Staples Center, Walton expressed hope Russell’s effectiveness will not solely hinge on how often his shot drops into the net.
“It’s when he’s engaged and doing other things, it allows him to make those type of shots because you’re in rhythm and when you get those open looks. In my experience, they tend to go in a lot more when you’re doing all the other parts of the game the right way,” Walton said. “A lot of times if his shot is not going in, it’s natural for most young players, they rely too much on whether they’re scoring or not to affect how they’re playing the rest of the game. He seems to be disengaged when the ball is not going in for him.”
With Russell’s shot going in for him on Sunday night, he carried that sharpshooting afterwards to the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo. But instead of viewing that moment as a sign of Russell’s strong work ethic, Walton painted a nuanced picture on how his routine fluctuates as much as his play.
“If he was here doing it, I loved that,” Walton said. “But we’re all about developing habits right now. If that’s something he’s doing, let’s do it all the time. Good game, bad game and make that part of our routine. Like I said the whole year, he’s done a great job of working. He’s been putting in the extra time before and after practice. If he wants to come back to the gym at midnight, I’ll all for it.”
Walton’s all for Russell’s improved play, obviously. Russell joined LeBron James (2004, 06), Stephon Marbury (1999) and Michael Jordan (1985) as the only players 21 or younger since 1983 to post at least 40 points and six assists while committing one of fewer turnovers.
The Lakers noted an interview transcript incorrectly quoted James calling Russell a “special player,” a compliment James actually leveled toward Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving. But James and Irving had both praised Russell’s performance. Irving also encouraged Russell afterwards.
So even if the Lakers dropped their fifth consecutive game, Walton took solace in Russell’s career night as he evaluates how he plays off-the-ball while Jordan Clarkson runs the point.
“When we get further down this path, no it won’t get reassuring we’re getting career-highs and not winning,” Walton said. “But for now, I think it’s great for them to continue to have this individual success and reinforce the idea of the work they’re putting in every day is paying off. They’re having that type of success in the games. Eventually, that has to turn into winning if it will mean anything. But for now, it’s good to see that.”