D'Angelo Russell's rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers has been marked by quite a bit of chaos in the wake of legend Kobe Bryant's ongoing and all-consuming farewell tour, and no small amount of friction with head coach Byron Scott about the proper role and development of a teenage point guard in the best basketball league in the world. As yet another awful Lakers season circles the drain toward its conclusion, though, the just-turned-20-year-old Russell has started to come on strong, with no performance stronger than his explosion against the Brooklyn Nets at Staples Center on Tuesday.
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The Louisville-born lefty and No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft went off against the similarly scuffling Nets, scoring a career-high 39 points on 14-for-21 shooting, including a scorching 8-for-12 mark from 3-point land, to go with six rebounds, three assists and a steal in a team-high 35 minutes of work to lead the Lakers to a 107-101 win without Kobe, who sat out with a sore right shoulder.
Despite snapping an eight-game losing streak, the win was actually kind of damaging for the Lakers in the big picture. At 12-49, L.A. now has the second-worst record in the NBA and is just 3 1/2 games ahead of/behind the 15-45 Phoenix Suns, who have looked like the worst team in the league for months. If the Lakers wind up falling outside the top three in the 2016 NBA draft, their first-round draft pick will go to the Philadelphia 76ers, thanks to a pair of past trades; at this stage, winning games actively harms the Lakers' chances of keeping a high lottery pick, the kind of infusion of young talent they'll need to help expedite their rebuilding efforts after Bryant retires after this season.
On the other hand, seeing the high lottery pick they already have in the fold put forth such a tremendous performance — a game full of commanding pace off the dribble, bedeviling the Nets with an array of floaters and confidently snapping off quick-release catch-and-shoot triples — must have felt like a long-awaited payoff for Lakers fans who have stayed strapped in throughout a season marked by frustration, disappointment and defeat. After spending much of this campaign seeing Scott play fast and loose with his minutes and opportunities, especially late in contests, Russell played all 12 fourth-quarter minutes on Tuesday, scoring 16 of his game-high 39 in the final frame to keep Brooklyn at bay.
It was even more fun to be reminded of Russell's panache and sense of the moment. After drilling a pair of 3-pointers, including a deep pull-up 27-footer, to seal the victory in the final minute, D'Angelo played to the hysterical Staples faithful by telling them in no uncertain terms that he's built for the late-game pressure cooker:
After going from Hotline Blinging to "ICE! IN MY VEINS!" I kind of can't wait to see where Russell goes next.
"To be honest, I was running out of celebrations," Russell said after the win, according to Greg Beacham of The Associated Press. "I thought of one, and it was the first thing that came to my mind."
D'Angelo Russell is really fun, you guys. As we sludge through the dog days of the NBA season, he's also showing us that he can be really good, and that his January proclamation that we "ain't seen nothing yet" might have been much more than mere boasting.
His 39 points were the most by a Lakers rookie since the great Elgin Baylor nearly 60 years ago, and the most by any NBA rookie in five seasons, equaling Jordan Crawford's output in March of 2011 and trailing Blake Griffin's 47 two months earlier. Since Scott reinserted him into the starting lineup in L.A.'s second game after the All-Star break, he's averaging 21.4 points, 4.8 assists and four rebounds in 32.2 minutes per game, shooting 55.2 percent from the field and 62.1 percent from deep over the last five games. He's also got the highest True Shooting percentage of any rookie over the past 10 contests.
The control Russell has shown earlier in games — along with injuries to preferred closers Bryant and Lou Williams — has led Scott to give his young gun more opportunities late in the game, though the famously crusty coach continues to reject criticisms of his "old school/tough love" approach, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:
“At times, he probably doubted himself, doubted us and doubted the system,” Scott said. “He was trying to figure it out and figure it out his way, like most young people.” [...]
After averaging 12.4 points on 42.2 percent shooting and 3.3 assists in 26 minutes per game as a reserve, Russell recently shared he feels he has played on a longer leash. But Scott argued that tug-and-pull simply coincided with Russell’s progression amid his expectation “to get me to trust you.”
“I wouldn’t say I’ve loosened up. I’ve probably been even more demanding of him. But I also have given more freedom as well,” Scott said. “He’s growing and has some confidence and is becoming a little more comfortable in the system."
He showed that comfort and took advantage of those opportunities against Brooklyn on Tuesday after receiving some pre-game text-message advice from his dad, according to Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com:
"Are you hungry?" his father asked.
"Yeah," Russell replied.
"Eat," his father said.
Russell did more than that, devouring the Nets and offering clear evidence that, Scott's concerns about him unduly trying to take over games and about whether he's really earning a leadership role aside, the Lakers should put the ball, and their trust, in the kid's hands more often. If they do, more cold-blooded finishes could be coming soon.
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