With any high-ish draft pick comes a certain amount of expectations. Throw around the term “lottery pick” and suddenly the thought process turns to “this guy should be pretty good”. Jump into the top five or into the top two, and the player is expected to be able to alter the course of a franchise.
Now, turn on the spotlight that comes with playing in Los Angeles and for the Lakers and expectations get ratcheted up more. You aren’t just a top draft choice who should play really well and help lead your team to relevancy, you are pitted against players like Magic, Kobe, and West or Worthy, O’Neal, and Abdul-Jabbar as players who won’t just contribute to the upward trajectory of the team, but become a relevant name the entire league can hold up as a standard.
This is what D’Angelo Russell is facing after being selected second overall this past June. He’s not just another high draft pick, he’s the player who is supposed to pick up where Kobe left off; he’s the franchise’s next great point guard after Magic.
While I have been thinking about this for some time, this fantastic Russell feature by Holly Mackenzie for Complex Sports brought it back to the forefront for me. Mackenzie does a great job of weaving from Russell’s time in Las Vegas for summer league to his days at Ohio State and back through the draft process to what is ahead with the Lakers.
While the entire thing is well worth reading, this specific passage that caught my eye:
With the Lakers eager to get back on track after two disastrous seasons and playing in what could be Kobe Bryant’s final year in the NBA, there will be plenty of pressure. The franchise’s extended swoon combined with that significant roster turnover will likely turn training camp into a fierce competition for minutes, touches, and shots. If there’s anyone on the roster equipped with the skill set to keep all of the mouths fed it is Russell—but he’ll have to prove it.
“You’re young, but you’ve still got a voice,” Russell says of being a rookie point guard. “When you speak a lot of people listen, especially when the ball is in your hands, if they’re trying to get a shot or if they’re open and you’re not finding them. At this level I know I’m going to be playing with a lot of top players that you’ve got to make happy. Being able to do that and be aggressive at the same time is a challenge I’m looking forward to.”
When watching tape of Russell, it’s easy to see the things he does well. He’s a very good shooter, as a feel for how to score from all levels of the floor, and possesses wonderful court vision and instincts as a passer. These latter skills prompted his fellow rookies to earn the vote as his draft class’ “best playmaker”. But finding the balance between being a set up man and the guy who looks for his own is likely to be his biggest challenge.
Although Russell is young — he will not turn 20 until after the all-star break in February — he already seems to get it, though. As the above quote shows, he has a level of awareness and perspective that will serve him well. Especially when things don’t go well or when he doesn’t necessarily meet the level of play he expects for himself.
The coaches recognize this as well. More Mackenzie:
The biggest positive that the Lakers coaching staff took from his experience in Vegas was watching how he reacted to adversity. Rather than getting flustered or frustrated with those around him, he paid attention to things he needed to improve on as well as the ways the NBA game is different than college. Russell was the same player to his teammates during practice sessions whether the team had won or lost its previous game.
“It is rare any time you have a rookie [with] so much confidence,” Madsen says. “Most rookies enter the league so timid, really nervous. They were ‘the man’ in college and now going to the NBA, you’re dealing with grown men, you’re dealing with superstars. You’re dealing with financial endorsements that are massive. The pressure is that much higher. D’Angelo’s confidence never wavered and his love of the game never wavered.”
Some will always question whether Russell was the right pick. With a potential franchise big man on the board when the Lakers selected, this perspective is understandable. And while I was more than happy with the Russell selection, in reading the above and seeing him play, an even greater comfort exists. Whatever he becomes as a talent, the mindset he possesses combined with his obvious talent have him beginning his career in a good place.
Again, the entire Mackenzie piece is worth your time, so give it a read.