Perception, expectations and confidence are the three volatile ingredients currently serving to mix up D’Angelo Russell’s rookie season.
Prior to his professional career beginning, Russell had become a draft darling. The eye of seemingly every guard-needy team picking inside the top five selections, the 6’5” playmaker out of Ohio State began to skyrocket up big boards.
The Los Angeles Lakers, a team more accustomed to winning championships than investing in draft picks, had to make this selection count. With the post-Kobe Bryant era looming heavily overhead and the team having seemingly searched for an answer at point guard since Nick Van Exel was on the roster, Russell was identified as Byron Scott’s next project. After helping to groom both Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving, expectations began to rise that Russell’s ascent would be faster than some had projected and well ahead of his peers.
Before playing a single game, the 19-year-old was viewed as the Lakers’ new franchise face and crowned King of Los Angeles by a fan base that had been salivating for his arrival and desperate for him to assist in the team’s slower-than-expected turnaround.
The perception was that Russell was a superstar; the expectation was that he would immediately take over Kobe Bryant’s team and the rookie’s confidence would soar. He was going to play alongside Kobe, his path to a starting job was clear and the bright Los Angeles lights were going to shine on him every single night. It was a dream, but in reality the very beginning of Russell’s inaugural campaign has quickly turned into something closer to a nightmare.
A player who thrives with the ball in his hands, Russell has already been asked to take a backseat to both Jordan Clarkson and Kobe Bryant at different times when he really should be the one with the rock. Rather than emphasizing Russell’s individual development by allowing him to learn and play through mistakes, Scott has kept him on an incredibly short leash, often sitting him in favor of veteran Lou Williams during fourth quarters and consistently critiquing his play in the media.
Scott’s tough-love approach is fairly outdated in an age of personalization, and Russell’s individual development means everything to a franchise that needs him to fulfill every ounce of his potential. Instead, Russell’s growth has been stunted at different points and his confidence has predictably diminished in the process. That is a toxic formula.
Scott isn’t treating Russell like a pupil or student of the game. Instead, the head coach is babysitting his rookie with his version of timeout being a fourth quarter benching. Russell is understandably frustrated because of his desire to learn, but right now he can’t get into the proper classroom.
“I want him to get to the point where he can really, really run the offense and understand who hasn’t touched the ball, who’s hot and who’s not,” Scott said of Russell. “That’s going to take him a while. But I like the direction that he’s headed.”
How can a 19-year-old build his confidence when he has to look over his shoulder after every play to make sure he’s going to stay on the floor? How can Scott or anyone else expect a playmaker learning the point guard position to immediately flourish with an entirely new cast of teammates and responsibilities while adjusting to the NBA game? How is Russell supposed to get to that point if he isn’t allowed to stay on the floor and play through his mistakes?
This is not about making excuses for Russell’s inconsistent play, but it is an acknowledgement of what the rookie is dealing with as he tries to navigate through his first experience as a professional. This kid has the weight of the world on his shoulders while attempting to put together a Lakers puzzle whose pieces—at least for the time being—don’t fit together. As quickly as Russell is trying to learn everything possible about his new teammates, the 19-year-old is still very much learning about himself.
No matter how many games are ultimately lost, the only victory that matters for the Lakers this season is that their young players all take a step forward. There is value in the process regardless of the results, and nobody arrives at success without experiencing failure. Scott and the Lakers want their rookie to earn the keys to the kingdom, but there is no way for Russell to do that if he doesn’t have the blueprint to the castle.
There is plenty of time for Russell to turn around his rookie year, and if Wednesday’s career-best performance is a sign of things to come (14 points, six rebounds, three assists, team-high 31.5 minutes), the story can and will change. For now, Russell will continue to explore the kingdom’s playground, wait for the door of opportunity to be drawn down and be ready to pounce through the opening when he finally gets it.