With D'Angelo Russell, the concern has always been about maturity more than basketball ability. Byron Scott couldn’t ignore the talent but was reluctant to let him loose, bumping heads with his promising rookie with a tough-love approach that was intended to make Russell earn what he wanted most – the ball in his hands and the trust that he could run the team as he saw fit.
Even before Scott relented, Russell sought the approval of his teammates on the Los Angeles Lakers, putting their opinion of him ahead of Scott's or anyone else's on the coaching staff. Russell was finally beginning to earn their respect, as evidenced by the mob of revelers hopping on his shoulders in a March 1 win against Brooklyn in which they learned he has ice in his veins. After a recent string of 20-point games, Russell was asked about the most difficult challenge he faced as a young point guard in earning the trust of veterans.
"You've got to show it,” Russell told The Vertical. “You've got to show it. When I show it every once in a while, people see it and then once I get the opportunity to show it all the time towards the end of the year, you really get to see it, so it's cool."
But any progress Russell gained on the court has been shattered by a violation of trust off the court from which he won't easily recover. In what seems to be a prank run afoul, Russell recorded Nick Young discussing cheating on his fiancée, pop star Iggy Azalea, and Russell reportedly has been shunned by his teammates after a gossip website got the video and released it last week. In the aftermath, a fractured Lakers team lost by 48 points in Utah on Monday, matching the worst defeat in franchise history.
Professional athletes are trained to be guarded and to view the locker room – and its expansive outposts for connectivity among teammates (homes, hotel rooms, charter planes, practice courts, etc.) – as a sanctuary in which they're allowed to freely express themselves without fear of being shamed or violated publicly, especially by one of their own. This can't be easily brushed aside as a rookie mistake because Russell, who turned 20 last month, was a teammate long before he became a professional basketball player.
Hitting record on his phone has now put three people in extremely uncomfortable positions. Young played with Gilbert Arenas as a rookie, so he has experienced pranks before – Arenas once took the wheels off Young's car and placed the vehicle on cinder blocks. But the situation with Russell could now also affect the woman he plans to marry. Young certainly made errors of his own – being unfaithful to Azalea (who thanked Russell for the video on Twitter) and talking about it. Even if unintentional, Russell exposing Young as if he worked for TMZ, however, has made him more of a pariah among his peers.
An apology is a good start but the finish line for Russell – not only as it relates to Young but anyone who is or will be his teammate – is uncertain. Russell is in the beginning stages of his career, one in which long-lasting reputations are built and cemented. Stellar play and winning can come to the rescue down the road, but damage control will require considerable time and work. Kobe Bryant recovered from a similar incident involving Shaquille O'Neal – Bryant mentioned O'Neal's infidelity to investigators in Eagle, Colo., when he was charged with sexual assault in 2003 – and is mostly revered on his way out.
Russell has slumped some in his past eight games. While he hasn't established himself as a franchise cornerstone and Bryant was unwilling to declare him ready to carry the torch for the organization, the Lakers remain relatively high on the player they drafted second overall last June. But his latest mishap as added some credence to the early season criticism from Scott, who questioned Russell’s attitude and preparation. Scott didn’t want to let Russell lead the Lakers when Russell had no idea where he was going. Russell was drafted to be part of the foundation of the future, to help usher in the post-Bryant era, provide flair and help attract potential free agents. Anyone considering the Lakers might wonder what kind of mess in which they are stepping.
This season can't end soon enough for Russell or the Lakers, who have matched their embarrassing play with eye-rolling behavior elsewhere. They have the league's second-worst record and are on pace to finish with the fewest wins in franchise history, completing a precipitous three-year decline. Last week, Young and teammate Jordan Clarkson were accused of sexually harassing two women at a Los Angeles intersection; the team later stated its "support" for the two players, who called the incident a “miscommunication.”
Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis will probably finish first and second in Rookie of the Year voting for a class that has considerable depth. But the players drafted between them – Russell and Jahlil Okafor – have had tumultuous rookie campaigns, shrouded by unconscionable losing and very public growing pains.
Russell and Okafor were linked the moment the Lakers took the potentially exciting playmaker Philadelphia coveted over the player who led Duke to a national title in his only season with the Blue Devils. Okafor has been able to move past his early transgressions – fighting outside a club, having a gun pulled on him, speeding – and avoided drawing more negative attention during a 76ers season headed down the toilet. But Russell has managed to produce a closing act on a horrifically bad season, somehow hijacking the only remotely positive aspect the team had going – Bryant's farewell tour. Russell's recovery from this incident will take much longer than the steps he takes in the immediate fallout.
Once the news cycle has moved on and the Internet memes have subsided, Russell will face a more difficult challenge than earning the opportunity to play and learn from his mistakes: He will have to win and win over people who don’t necessarily have a reason to trust him.
More NBA coverage from The Vertical: