D’Angelo Russell processed the question for just enough time to flush it, staring back at the inquisitor with silence for roughly five seconds. No words were going to fully express the confusion or frustration he was feeling. So when someone wanted to know what exactly Los Angeles Lakers coach Byron Scott told him he needed to do to earn Scott's trust, Russell had no words.
Scott has shown little patience with the Lakers' highest draft pick in three decades, taking a tough love approach to make the kid earn it, to humble him as he tries to adjust to playing the league's most difficult position in its most glamorous locale. The payoff for that approach has yet to take shape for Russell, who has greater concerns than simply pleasing his coach.
"I'm not trying to show him anything," Russell recently said. "I'm really trying to show myself and my teammates that I belong out there, not the coach. Because they're looking to me for the play, not past me to him for the play. It's a growing experience."
Before Scott removed him from the starting lineup Monday night and once again asked the second overall pick of last June's draft to watch the conclusion of a loss, Russell had been reduced to sideshow status in the grand Kobe Bryant farewell tour.
The Lakers are in an awkward period as the franchise undergoes a necessary rebuild while paying respects to an all-time great, meaning Russell's personal development has been deferred for a year to allow Bryant to go out on his own terms.
"Can't do nothing about it. Just be a fan. Every time you watch, just be a fan and observe his every move," Russell said of Bryant. "He's our Michael Jordan. In my era. He still makes it look easy. You can say he's struggling, missing shots, but he still makes it look easy. When a guy like him says, 'That's a great call.' You're like, 'Yeah. That was a great call.' He knows his stuff."
With his resistance to analytics and the elevation of the 3-point shot, Scott is often characterized as a coach so old-school that he did homework on stone tablets. But Scott hasn't always been the type to make young players undergo some initiation process, having already coached Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving as both won Rookie of the Year awards. A member of the Cleveland Cavaliers during Irving's rookie season noted that Scott gave Irving the freedom to stumble and sparkle. "He let him go," the player said of Scott’s handling of Irving. "That sort of makes you wonder what's really going on [with Russell].”
Scott denied that he has taken a different approach to coaching Russell as opposed to Paul or Irving but made it clear that they are just different players. "I think both of those guys were probably more mature and a little bit further ahead from where D.A. is right now," Scott said. "He still has a way to go. Those guys were a bit more polished when they got in the league, so it wasn't much I had to do with them. Just give them the ball and say, 'Do this and that and this.' This kid, I'm going to have to start from scratch pretty much. But I still think he's going to be a pretty damn good player."
Russell lacks the lateral quickness to turn corners and that explosive first step to just blow by opponents, limitations that contribute to his struggles on defense. He also hasn't shown enough in the first few weeks of the regular season, preseason or even summer league to suggest that he will match the success of Paul or Irving, perennial all-stars at their positions. But he was taken No. 2 with the hope that he would at least come close, especially as the Lakers prepare for life without Bryant. Scott's decision to sit Russell late in games is confounding even for some members of the Lakers’ front office who were swayed to bypass Kristaps Porzingis and Jahlil Okafor because Scott favored the flashy point guard from Ohio State, league sources told Yahoo Sports. The season already is lost for a franchise that desperately needs to hold on to its top-three protected first-round pick, and Russell would like the chance to find some solutions on the floor.
"It's real tough trying to make everybody happy as a young point guard. It's even tougher because you're not really getting an opportunity to learn from your mistakes," Russell said. "Coach is making his decisions, and I just ride with it."
Russell felt that he started improving and gaining some confidence in the games leading up to Scott replacing him and second-year forward Julius Randle in the starting lineup Monday night with Lou Williams and Larry Nance Jr. Russell finished with nine points on 4-of-12 shooting with two assists and two turnovers in 21 minutes in the Lakers’ 102-93 loss to the Toronto Raptors. Scott plans to re-evaluate the starting lineup and rotations in five to 10 games, but Russell's immediate objective is learning how to balance his instincts to score with the need to share.
"Point guard position, you've got to feed everybody and try to feed yourself. So that's the toughest thing," he said, adding that at times he gets in his "own selfish ways.”
“You've got Kobe demanding the ball and you've got [Randle] needing a touch, big man in the middle [Roy Hibbert] needing a touch, [Jordan Clarkson],” Russell said. “Very hard."
Russell is a late bloomer who last came off the bench when he was a high school sophomore. That's when he left his hometown of Louisville to transfer to Montverde Academy, a prep school in Central Florida led by Irving's former high school coach, Kevin Boyle. Russell remains confident in his playmaking talents, as evidenced by his fearlessness in attempting the highlight pass. In an otherwise embarrassing loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, Russell uncorked a no-look curveball that weaved through three defenders, right into the hands of Randle.
"I been doing that, man, I can do that," Russell said. "People got to put me in a position to do that, I can't force it. I rarely have an opportunity to do that, to showcase it because we're not playing good basketball, losing as well. Even though we’re struggling, we know what we've got to do. Got to be the same player."
While explaining how he developed the vision and flare to make those spectacular passes, Russell provided an answer that could help him navigate through his rookie predicament.
"Growing up in the ghetto, man, you figure out little things that a lot of people don't get an opportunity to figure it out," Russell said. "I'm trying to figure things out without looking like I'm forcing it."
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