D’Angelo Russell Is Still Loading For Lakers

“The more I watch D’Angelo Russell the more I think he’s just another guy. Doesn’t stick out, doesn’t seem to make impact plays.”

“Right now, he looks like a rich man’s Kendall Marshall.”

“Lakers should have drafted Okafor… Russell is extremely overrated.”

“D’Angelo Bust-ell.”

These are just a few quotes that I harvested from the internet following the Los Angeles Lakers debacle against the Sacramento Kings on Friday night. D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, had just shot 50 percent from the field and scored 13 points to go along with two rebounds and two assists. For a 19 year-old playing against veterans the likes of Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay, and DeMarcus Cousins most would consider that a successful night.

However, that hasn’t been the case so far for Russell. Fans across the league are chomping at the bit to label him a bust, and consider his struggles to be proof that the Lakers organization is in shambles.

There are two reasons for this, with the first being that the Lakers were embarrassingly blown out by the Kings, and the blame has to fall somewhere. Most of it has been directed towards head coach Byron Scott, some at Kobe Bryant, but nearly everyone on the team has found themselves within the public blast radius during this string of three straight losses. These struggles are exactly what fans were praying they wouldn’t see.

While expectations are relatively low for this season’s Lakers (by their standards, anyway), supporters are anxious to see the purple and gold claw their way back to contention. After two seasons in a row of misery, fans are looking for something, anything to give them hope for the future. Consequently, anything less than domination from the team’s young core of Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle is met with a disproportionate amount of frustration.

Secondly, Russell’s rookie contemporaries have almost all had at least one big game at this point, or at the very least shown flashes of brilliance. To the Lakers weary, sometimes paranoid fan base, the strong play of Jahlil Okafor, Kristaps Porzingis, and Emmanuel Mudiay, who the Lakers passed on to select Russell, is proof positive that something is wrong in the front office.

To that I say: breathe. Take a long, deep breath, hold it in, and then slowly exhale. Everything is going to be OK.

I get it, the Lakers have a ton riding on the development of their young players. The draft is now the best method with which to build a team, and with their 2016 first-rounder likely going to Philadelphia next summer and another one owed to Orlando in 2018, the margin for error is nil. Simply put, in order for Los Angeles to fully recover from the “basketball reasons” fallout, each of their young players have to live up to their potential — and then some.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on a bunch of kids, but these are desperate times. As a result, Russell is being unfairly raked over the coals, even at this early stage of the season.

Russell has unquestionably been thrown into the proverbial deep end, thrust into a starting role in front of the league’s largest fan base with just a year of college experience under his belt. Let’s not forget that Russell came from almost out of nowhere in college; no one was expecting him to be one of the top picks in the draft when his stint at Ohio State began.

Players like Okafor and Mudiay were touted as blue chip prospects for years, and playing in the NBA seemed to be an inevitability for them. They have had time to mentally prepare for this NBA journey, while Russell has had just months. His rise has been a whirlwind that would leave anyone’s head spinning, and the burden of not only adapting to being a professional athlete but also having the kinds of expectations that Russell has on him doesn’t make things any easier.

Furthermore, Russell isn’t the freak athlete that some of his compatriots are. Mudiay has a chiseled frame to go along with elite quickness and strength. Okafor is a mountain of a human being with almost comically huge hands. Porzingis is essentially a human Imperial Walker, stepping over everyone and everything.

None of those things necessarily equate to being a good basketball player, but they help. Most importantly, those physical advantages create a little bit of leeway when it comes to competing at the NBA level. For Russell, whose game is based around the use of angles and trickery, the margin for error is much, much lower because he can’t rely on his athletic attributes to carry him through. If Mudiay doesn’t come off a screen just right, he has the strength and quickness to create space and absorb contact. However, for Russell misreading an angle often means his attack is thwarted or his pass will be picked off. He has to play things perfectly, but so far, Russell hasn’t been able to hit that level.

It’s something he can certainly overcome. The NBA has plenty of examples of guards who weren’t elite athletes but still found success like Steve Nash, John Stockton, and Jason Kidd. It’s just going to take time for Russell to adapt to the pace of the NBA game.

We also can’t forget that the Lakers have a bevy of players who are more than willing to attack when the ball is in their hands, and the offense is currently run around them. Russell hasn’t been as aggressive as he needs to be, but he hasn’t been forced to step up the way Mudiay and Okafor have because he plays alongside Randle, Bryant, and Clarkson.

To complicate matters, Russell isn’t being put into an ideal offense- one based around the high pick and roll. At his best right now, Russell is a phenomenal passer who reads the floor better than most and can step into space and consistently hit the 20-foot jumper. More often than not, he is currently being used off the ball or initiating the Princeton offense with a pass to the wing and then cutting to the basket. The Byron Scott offense simply doesn’t play to his strengths at this juncture.

It’s the equivalent to asking Mudiay to become a spot up shooter or Okafor to be a stretch four. Russell gets criticism for not standing out, but he has yet to truly have an opportunity to play his game. Again though, it takes time. Russell has to prove that he is ready for an offense to be built around him before it can be done.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and NBA stars aren’t made overnight. For now, just enjoy the building process and remember that D’Angelo Russell is still just a 19 year old kid. The skill and talent are there, so let’s give him a chance to grow as a player and a person before we label him a bust.

if it’s any consolation, here are a few other quotes about NBA players early in their careers:

“James Harden is the biggest bust of the draft.”

“…to this point Steph Curry has been a tremendous bust.”

It’s far too early to give up on Russell. Hang in there, Lakers fans, and try to practice some patience.

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