As the clock wound down, the Los Angeles Lakers looked lost. Trailing by two to the Utah Jazz, the play that had been drawn up by head coach Luke Walton fell apart on a botched screen between Julius Randle and Lou Williams.
Fear not, because the ball was in the hands of D’Angelo Russell, the 20-year-old tabbed to take over the house that Kobe built. He stepped back, fired…and hit nothing but air. Ballgame.
The Lakers had let yet another game slip away, and the reaction across social media was as swift and knee-jerk as ever. Despite coach Luke Walton’s insistence that the final play of the game broke down because of his error and not Russell’s, cries of “bust” and demands to see the young guard traded rang forth with the real-world weight of a two-year old’s temper tantrum.
Our instant, emotional reactions have become the norm in our interconnected world where everything is expected to be analyzed and instantly labeled “good” or “bad”. We see this play out with movies, phones, music, and just about anything else that one can form an opinion on, which really isn’t any different than the way things always were, it’s just that now our voices can be heard (or read) by so many more people via these interwebs.
Russell is certainly no bust, and just about every advanced metric supports that. His shooting has slumped to be sure, but his production still compares favorably to other left-handed guards when being viewed at a similar stages in their careers, via basketball-reference.com:
Keep in mind that, at 20, Russell is considerably younger that Dragic, Van Exel, Stoudamire, and Ginobili, yet is putting up similar per-36 minute numbers.
Still, the anti-Russell backlash is real, and one has to wonder what is going on in Los Angeles.
Sure, there are poor souls who refuse to let go of Russell’s videotape transgression from last season, forever cursing his name because he broke the unwritten “bro code”. Whether it was accidental or not, they consider him a snitch, which is an unforgivable crime (apparently worse than infidelity, anyway).
However, it’s not just this particularly upset group of Lakers fans that have been voicing their disdain for Russell. No, there is more going on here than a technological blunder.
Instead, there is something fundamentally flawed about Russell that irritates some of the Lakers faithful, and it will be difficult for him to ever rectify it.
He compares just fine to Mike Conley, Manu Ginobili, Nick Van Exel, Damon Stoudamire, and Goran Dragic, all good players. But the Lakers don’t need good, they need great. They need a superstar.
Lakers fans are well aware of the shift that has taken place in the NBA. Stars are extremely difficult to acquire once another franchise has them, and the recently agreed upon CBA makes this truer than ever. As such, the absolute best way to get a superstar is to draft one, period. This is particularly problematic for the Lakers because they likely won’t have two of their next three first-round picks thanks to the ill-fated Steve Nash and Dwight Howard trades.
Bottom line, the margin for error with the picks the Lakers do have is zilch.
They can’t afford to just get a guy in the draft, even if that player happens to be very good, like Russell projects to be. They need the guy, the superstar, and that’s who Russell was hyped to be coming out of the draft (remember when Byron Scott put his foot in his mouth and compared Russell to Magic Johnson? Hello, unrealistic expectations!).
In other words, the problem is that Russell is not Kristaps Porzingis, who does appear to be the guy, and was passed up by the Lakers on draft night in 2015.
The conventional wisdom at the time was that Porzingis was a project and one who would likely never be strong enough to be a force at the rim, which meant he would have to play power forward. As such, it didn’t make sense to draft him when Julius Randle was already the team’s four of the future.
As it turns out, we were very wrong. Porzingis may be thin, but his length, rim protection, and outside shooting ironically makes him the perfect fit next to Randle, and every night he appears to take a step closer to full-blown stardom.
Never mind the fact that the Philadelphia 76ers, who are all about trusting the process and taking talent over fit, also passed on Porzingis with similar concerns to the ones the Lakers had. Instead, they selected Jahlil Okafor, because anytime you can draft a center-only player in three consecutive drafts, you have to do it.
When Russell air balled that three against the Jazz, the frustration boiled over. The number two pick should be a star, and the Lakers can’t settle for anything less, so if Russell isn’t destroying the league Godzilla-style by now, then he must be a bust, especially if Porzingis is tearing up the league like a skinny Ivan Drago.
It’s an understandable mindset, but still a flawed one.
Watch the way Russell zips the ball across the court, finding open shooters in rhythm, or the way he gets a step on his defender and then puts them in jail on his hip, almost comically daring them to try to recover.
He takes big shots without fear, something that is a skill in and of itself. Sometimes he misses badly like he did against Utah, but you better believe he’ll want the ball back in his hands when the situation comes up again. Having ice in your veins doesn’t necessarily mean that the shot drops every time.
For all the hype that Brandon Ingram deservedly gets for his freakish wingspan, the 6’5” Russell’s own super stretch arms, which measure 6’10, are often overlooked. He uses this extra reach to shoot over the top of defenders in the post and has already shown better-than-average shot blocking for a guard.
Plus, let’s not forget his ability to fling no-look wonder passes when defenses least expect it, and his behind-the-back fake threatens to become Rondo-level good. It’s going to take patience, but this kid has real potential to become a major threat in the NBA.
Maybe Russell will never be a superstar, or maybe he will, but to focus on all the things he doesn’t only blinds us to all the things that he is.
And what he is, despite the naysayers, is a damn good basketball player.