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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – D'Angelo Russell hasn't pursued the stature of the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft on Thursday night, as much as he's pursued its possessor: the Los Angeles Lakers. The stage, the burden, the long, long point guard shadow of the incomparable Magic Johnson, Russell has relentlessly chased it all. D'Angelo Russell has made his case.
He was talking inside in a suburban Southern California restaurant recently, awaiting his trip to New York for Thursday night's draft, and slowly, surely Russell has made the Lakers think longer and harder about his candidacy. Once, everyone was so confident Duke center Jahlil Okafor was the Lakers' easy choice, with Kentucky's Karl Towns fastened to Minnesota's No. 1 overall pick.
Only now, on the cusp of the draft, Russell keeps coming. He is a spectacular 6-foot-5 freshman out of Ohio State with a gift to accurately deliver passes at the most improbable of angles, to the most darting of targets. He comes with a developing jumper and a Showtime point guard presence that washes over him. As much as anything, Russell is a fascinating blend of confidence and cockiness harnessed within an understanding of how you heed the expertise and cull the lessons of those before you.
Russell makes his case to be the cornerstone for a Lakers revival, wanting desperately the chance to earn Kobe Bryant's trust, earn a mentoring for the duration of Bryant's stay in the uniform.
"If I were to go to the Lakers, I wouldn't want anybody to hand me anything," Russell told Yahoo Sports. "I wouldn't expect Kobe to take me under his wing. I think he will want to see a resemblance of that hunger and fire that he came into the league with as a young kid. No one needs to be nicest guy in the world, or needs to pretend to be that. He will see through that, pick all that apart.
"I've got to be me."
Russell has been coached hard, broken down and reconstructed into the world's best NBA guard prospect. At 19 years old, Russell never had the basketball privilege that comes with the sport targeting you as the next big thing – and that makes him so much surer of his preparedness to take the mantle of the NBA's glamour franchise. He had been raised in Louisville, a rising young talent playing in the shadow of Rajon Rondo, under Rondo's old high school coach, Doug Bibby, who had moved to Central High School where Russell had enrolled.
Rondo heard the comparisons, stopped into the old high school gym to watch Russell, and somehow it seemed like the freshman never played his best. "He didn't take me under his wing," Russell told Yahoo Sports. "I would've thought the same way as him, though, if everyone was saying, "Oh, [D'Angelo's] the next you.' And then you watch him play, and you think, "Oh man, I was better than him in high school.' "
Russell's father, Antonio, wanted D'Angelo groomed in a more intensive setting and decided to send him off to a basketball prep school. "Everybody wanted me to go to Oak Hill and then Kentucky, follow Rondo's footsteps," Russell told Yahoo Sports. Before his sophomore year, Russell found his way to Montverde Academy in Florida, where the coach, Kevin Boyle, had built a national reputation as a tough Jersey guy with a gift for developing great point guards and greater teams.
Soon, Russell was the fourth guard in the rotation, and Boyle sure didn't seem too interested in Russell's autograph. ''You're too cool,'" Boyle told him. "And 'too- cool guys' never make it."
Russell called his father and pleaded: Get me out of here. No chance, D'Angelo was told. Truth be told, three words ended that conversation: "Suck it up."
"I thought I was better than what I was," Russell told Yahoo Sports. "Coach Boyle gave me a reality check, told me: 'Dude, you're not that good. You can't do this, can't do that.'
"…Going to Montverde, it forced me to mature at a younger age. I'm 15 years old, at a boarding school, doing my own laundry and being told that I have to shave the two pieces of [facial] hair that I had been trying to grow forever."
Russell laughs, and offers a knowing nod: "I became a lot more self-sufficient."
Eventually, Russell became a tougher-minded, wiser point guard, and his plans for a two-to-three-year college stay at Ohio State transformed into a one-and-done scenario. Now, there are a host of teams trying to trade into the high lottery to secure him, league executives say. Nevertheless, Russell is glad to go to No. 3 Philadelphia or No. 4 New York.
Still, the Lakers are different. For him, they're still a standard. Kobe Bryant remains, Julius Randle is getting healthy, $24 million in salary-cap space could open, and, yes, such a part of Russell believes that he's the point guard to start bringing it all together, to bring it all back again.
"I want to work for it," Russell told Yahoo Sports. "I know I can earn it. I am not Magic Johnson and I'm not 6-9, but I am 6-5 and it gives me an advantage to see over the smaller guards. Watching Magic, you learned to turn your back, put the guards on your hip and then dice up the defense."
Russell understands his basketball history, and he'll concede that it's understandably hard for teams to pass on the potential of franchise centers – and that makes Okafor tough to overcome. Russell's gone to the Lakers twice for workouts now, and hopes they'll take into consideration how the NBA has transformed itself into a point guard league. He wants that job, and thinks he was born and bred and trained to do it.
Wherever he goes, Russell promises, they'll get that no-look pass, that tenacity, but the Lakers are still the Lakers. D'Angelo Russell is making his case for No. 2, for the chance to take the ball, the stage and basketball's biggest burden. Yes, D'Angelo Russell wants it all.
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