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During the third quarter of the Los Angeles Clippers' Friday win over the Los Angeles Lakers, the Clippers' television announcers lamented Lakers coach Byron Scott's handling of rookie guard D'Angelo Russell, whose first NBA season has been marked by inconsistency — of performance, of minutes, of opportunity and, seemingly, of support from his head coach.
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“I really wish Byron Scott would just give D’Angelo Russell the keys and say, ‘Go for it, man,’” said [Don] MacLean, who also works as a private player development coach and worked with Russell before June’s draft.
[Ralph] Lawler agreed with MacLean, saying, “I cannot understand any reason not to. … What’s going to happen, you lose?” [...]
MacLean, who led UCLA to the Elite Eight in 1992 and played nine seasons in the NBA, said Russell “might be the best passer I’ve ever seen” but is “still playing tentative.”
“If Byron Scott would say, ‘You know what, D’Angelo? I don’t care if you turn it over 15 times tonight, you’re going to play 35 minutes, go for it," he will figure it out," MacLean said. “He really will.”
Informed of MacLean's comments on Monday — after Russell had spoken in recent days about feeling somewhat adrift since Scott benched him for "trying to take over" a game against the Dallas Mavericks — Scott responded sharply in self-defense:
Well, first of all, to Don, that's why you not coaching. Let's put it that way. You don't let a guy go out there and just almost embarrass himself or kill himself by playing 35 minutes and creating 10, 12, 15 turnovers. I mean, the one thing it can do is self-destruct him as an individual. So what I try to do, as far as teaching him, [is to] also protect him from making mistakes like that. My job is to help these guys develop and that's what I'm going to continue to do.
Scott further explained his approach to handling Russell, which he said is aimed at trying "to get him to understand how to play the game of basketball on both ends of the floor [and] getting him to understand what this game is really all about," according to ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes:
"That's what I was taught a long time ago — you just give [rookies] a little bit at first, to give it all to them and try to take it back is much harder. Give them a little bit and then give them a little bit more, give them a little bit more is a lot easier." [...]
"I got to about the end of the day before the night of the first game before I made up my mind to start him, him and [Jordan Clarkson], see how this combination works. They played together in the Summer League. Maybe they'll have some type of cohesiveness that will really help them on the basketball court. After I saw for a while that it wasn't working and [the] other thing, and I think I told you guys this before too, when I took him out of the starting lineup it was more of not that he wasn't playing great, it was more to let him know, you still haven't earned this, you still have to fight for this."
Scott then referenced Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who came off the bench early in his career before becoming a starter.
"Nothing's given. Prime example's Kobe," Scott said. "I didn't want [Russell] to just feel, 'This is who I am, I should be starting on the Lakers because I'm the second pick.' No, you're starting because you work hard and you earn it."
Scott's comments, as they tend to do, raised more than a few eyebrows:
... including those of MacLean, who responded to Scott's dismissal of his critique on the Petros and Money show on AM 570 Sports:
It's hard to argue that last bit, as the Lakers continue to slouch toward the can't-get-here-soon-enough end of what will in all likelihood, for the second straight season, wind up as the worst year in franchise history. And yet, there have been times when the Lakers have seemed to have some juice ... including, most recently, a mammoth second-half comeback against the Sacramento Kings that fell just short, helmed by an unleashed Russell:
NBA.com's David Aldridge recently spoke to Russell about what worked that night:
DR: Really, it was my emotions. When you feel like you belong, your confidence starts to go up. I just feel like I know what I'm capable of as a person and as a player, and I know the work that I put in. Nobody's perfect; nobody's going to come out and perform their best every night. But looking for that consistency. I felt like I found some consistency that night. But I'm still going to have multiple turnovers. I'm still going to have multiple rookie lapses. I mean, it happens. I know what I've done to get here, and I know the work I've put in to get here, so when I have nights like that, I'm just confident in myself. I'm just like, I know I can do this. [...]
[DA]: Just generally with Byron [...] he's old school. I get it, 'cause I'm old myself. But are the lines of communication open between the two of you?
DR: At this day and age, you kind of have a feel for what you did wrong. It might sound weird, but you don't know what to ask. So like, I turned the ball over. I know I turned the ball over and I'm coming out of the game. I'm not sure if that's why you're pulling me out, but I'm not sure what to ask. 'Cause I know I turned it over. There's nothing that you can possibly say that's going to bring that turnover back, or anything that I can possibly do. But it's like, I don't know what to ask. It's like, he wouldn't, I don't know, tell me if I don't ask. So that's where it's kind of a blur.
[DA]: Is that just part of being a young guy — not knowing? You don't know what you don't know?
DR: That's the best way to put it. I don't know what I don't know.
Of course Russell doesn't know. He's 19 years old, trying to learn how to be a full-time point guard in the best league in the world. He's trying to do it with precious few teammates you'd unreservedly say are "good" — for all the gifts and charms of Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams and Julius Randle, they're all sort of good with an asterisk — and trying to do it in the shadow of one of the most unprecedented and all-encompassing season-long carnivals in recent NBA history. To top it all off, he's also apparently trying to do it without a clear understanding of what's expected from him.
Scott said he removed Russell from the starting lineup not because of how he was playing, but to remind the rookie that he still hadn't earned anything. Now that Russell's in the midst of a bad run and feeling lost, Scott says he'll likely reinsert him into the starting lineup after the All-Star break. Why? What's changed? What principles underpin that decision? If it's because Russell has shown Scott he's working harder to earn the opportunity, then great, but it sure seems like it's just Scott shuffling the deck without any real rhyme or reason and leaving Russell twisting in the wind, wondering which way it's going to blow next.
If Scott really is trying to protect Russell, whatever he's trying to protect him from doesn't seem nearly as damaging as deliberately taking a path that undercuts the daring and playmaking confidence that made Russell such a tantalizing prospect. On its face, Scott's reluctance to put too much responsibility on young players' plates makes some sense, but the Lakers are 9-41 and going absolutely nowhere, and young players only get better from getting the opportunity to play through their mistakes. Giving rookies a little bit at a time might be better than giving them everything at once, but giving them nothing they can depend on is worse than both.
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