EL SEGUNDO — As the presumed face of the Lakers’ young roster, D’Angelo Russell sat at his exit meeting and heard some honest words on what would it take to become that person. Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson, general manager Rob Pelinka and coach Luke Walton outlined three qualities Russell needs to improve before becoming the face of the Lakers.
“Leadership, consistency and changing my body as much as possible,” Russell said following his exit meeting on Tuesday at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo.
Russell spokes those words in a matter-of-fact tone. The Lakers’ second-year guard also sounded humbled as he talked. The Lakers’ front office had harped to every player about improving their body-fat percentage and varying degrees of consistency. But with the Lakers selecting Russell with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NBA draft, they had hoped Russell would offer a dose of leadership along with his scoring and passing.
During his rookie season, Russell had often said he needed to earn the credibility from his teammates before becoming a leader. Russell also was mindful of Kobe Bryant’s commanding presence. But on Tuesday, he found the credibility issue as “kind of an excuse.”
“You need the credibility to a certain extent, but if your teammates see you doing it and what you’re trying to preach or they witness you trying to do the right thing at all times when no one is looking, it gives them a better perspective on you,” Russell said. “I feel like this year for me, it wasn’t consistent enough with my play, with my communication and everything. It wasn’t consistent enough for them to respect what I had to say.”
On one hand, Russell offered performances that could leave the Lakers hopeful about his future.
He averaged 15.6 points, 4.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, numbers that only Johnson matched as a Laker in his sophomore season. Russell also became the seventh player in NBA history to average 19.6 points, 6.0 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes in his sophomore season, which also included Johnson, LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, Steve Francis and Michael-Carter Williams. After averaging 14.2 points on 39.2 percent shooting and 4.7 assists in 26.5 minutes before the All-Star break, Russell then averaged 18.5 points on 42.5 percent shooting and 5.0 assists in 33.3 minutes per game afterwards. He also saw his playmaking improve throughout the season.
“This year with everything we went through as a team gave me a better blueprint on how I was going to try to attack the leadership qualities I know I have and bring them to light,” Russell said. “Sitting back and thinking of what I can do for each one of my teammates to better them, what I can do and not what anybody else can do. This year gave me a better perspective on that.”
On the other hand, Russell conceded “he was inconsistent at times.” His shooting worsened from his rookie season (41 percent) to his second season (40.5 percent). After averaging 2.6 turnovers before the NBA All-Star break, Russell averaged 3.1 turnovers per game afterwards. He also scored in only single digits in 14 games. Hence, the Lakers front office stressed to Russell about “being consistent.”
“The best thing about that is I can control that,” Russell said. “I can control how much work I put in for me to be consistent. I knew how hard I worked last summer and I saw the outcome for this year. So I’m just excited. I got a better feel for it going into my third year.”
Though Russell declined to share specifics on how he will improve those qualities, he admitted he faced a different dynamic in high school (Montverde Academy) and in college (Ohio State).
“I had always been in a leadership position, but it was where I had to go be the leader,” Russell said. “It was natural to me. What I said to players and how I came prepared to work, it was all natural to me. It was never I had to come this way because everybody is watching or anything like that. It’s all new. I’m ready and excited for it.”
Russell also has experienced a different wave of emotions in different weeks.
In what he described as a “crazy day for me,” Russell found out on April 9 that his paternal grandmother passed away. He initially told Walton, “I was getting on the next flight; I wasn’t going to play” during that night’s game against Minnesota at Staples Center. But Russell missed his flight as he pondered what to do. Family members talked with him as well as his best friend, who offered some perspective in what Russell called “a detailed conversation.”
“This is the start of your legacy. You will remember this day forever,” Russell’s friend said. “You play good or play bad, you will remember it. You play bad, the thing about that is you will remember you played bad and try to do whatever you can the next time to try to play well. If you play good, the same thing, you’ll try to keep that consistency up when adversity hits you or what not.”
Russell then recalled “something triggered in me to play.” He then made the game-winning 3-pointer in the Lakers’ win over Minnesota to cap a 16-point performance on 6-of-19 shooting, four assists and four rebounds.
“I don’t really care if I played good or bad,” Russell said. “It was really trying to win. That was my main focus throughout that game. My teammates and coaches made it easier to play. I didn’t really care about running the play. Anything like that was to do what’s good for the team and to make the team win. We won. That was a great feeling.”
After that, the Lakers granted Russel permission to miss their last two games so he could fly to his hometown in Louisville, Ky. to grieve with his family and attend his grandmother’s funeral. The Lakers also allowed Russell to have his exit meeting on Tuesday after holding meetings with the other players last Thursday. Russell expressed appreciation for the Lakers’ support, which also included sending hs family flowers.
Russell also expressed appreciation for his grandmother. Though she did was not necessarily interested in sports, Russell learned two distinct qualities from her during their close relationship that applies to the basketball court.
“Growing up, she was really a ‘you learn from your mistakes’ type of person,” Russell said. “You kind of got the freedom to do whatever you wanted. But when it wasn’t right, you really knew. She let you know. But she was definitely a spoiling type. We had everything growing up.”
With Russell’s father not growing up with a father, his grandmother’s characteristics were passed down through two generations.
“She was really big on right and wrong,” Russell said. “What’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. There’s no secret to it. She kind of lived by it.”
Russell also has pledged to live by the Lakers’ honest feedback on what he did right and wrong.
“I worked my tail off. I don’t think you’re going to play perfect every game. But limiting the games you don’t play to your abilities. That’s my main focus,” Russell said. “Honestly a lot of things we do being young in this league is winging it. You just wing it. I try to go into every scenario with the best attitude and prepare the best I could possibly prepare for. Honestly, it’s just winging it and trying to stay positive after that.”