Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton said after a preseason game against the Denver Nuggets that D’Angelo Russell had the ability to average 20 points per game in the NBA.
“As a point guard, he’s got a lot more responsibilities than just getting his average. But he has the ability and skill to average 20 points a game,” Walton said via the LA Daily News.
Nine months later, Russell found himself out of the Lakers’ plan for the future. Magic Johnson and the Lakers shipped the point guard to the Brooklyn Nets in a deal that was focused around getting rid of Timofey Mozgov’s contract.
In a fresh start with a franchise that desperately needs a star, Russell is still capable of blossoming and turning into a player Walton envisioned averaging 20 or more for a season.
He was surprised by the move, but Russell is ready for the new start in Brooklyn. The talented guard is ready to lead.
“I didn’t look at it as a negative,” Russell said via Newsday. “I looked at it as a celebration, and I can’t wait to get in the gym with these guys and just learn from them. I’m going to try to lead by example first, get guys’ respect and just go from there.”
With rumors swirling around the NBA spectrum before the draft that the Lakers were looking at De’Aaron Fox and Lonzo Ball, Russell quickly became expunged — especially after Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka selected Ball with the second overall pick.
Nets GM Sean Marks took advantage.
Russell is the type of player that is worth gambling on for Brooklyn. The 21-year-old averaged 15.6 points per game to go along with 4.8 assists. Per 36 minutes, his averages equal out to 19.6 points and six assists per contest — numbers Walton knew he was capable of getting to.
The maturity problems were evident. But the expectations were too high for him as a teenager deemed to be the successor to Kobe Bryant.
The talent is there to flourish under Kenny Atkinson and Marks is well aware of that.
“When you’re able to get a talent like that in your gym, you’re excited about that. Kenny, the players, they’re excited about getting a young player with a lot of upside,’’ Marks said via the New York Post. “Any time we get Kenny and his coaching staff’s hands on somebody, who knows where it goes.
“But I’m not concerned about the maturity and so forth. What I am concerned about is what he brings and what our culture is, and how we can help develop him as a basketball player and a young man,” Marks added.
While the league is moving toward position-less basketball, Russell has the ability to play either guard position. With his size at 6-foot-5, the former Laker could play next to another former Laker himself, Jeremy Lin.
“Kenny and I talked about it. To have both those guys I think that gives us a lot of versatility. We have Jeremy … and now D’Angelo [who] can all break defenses down and handle the ball and shoot the ball from outside. They’re a threat, so we’re looking forward to that,” Marks said via the New York Post. “I’m not worried about how they’ll get along on the court.”
Russell has shown the league what his ceiling could be, including a 39-point performance in which the Nets were front and center to witness on hand.
Russell sealed his memorable performance with a game-clinching triple —a moment NBA fans should remember.
“I’ve never seen him come home and have that kind of smile on his face,” LaShawn Gilliam, a friend long-time friend of Russell said.
During his rookie campaign, the former Ohio State Buckeye reached the 20-point mark 13 times, but struggled with consistency next to Bryant. The consistency issues heightened as Byron Scott pulled Russell in-and-out of the lineup on several occasions.
But he overcame the struggle with his continuance of work in the gym. Teammates saw it.
“He’s one of the first ones in the gym every morning,” Lakers guard Tyler Ennis said via the LA Times.
The issues with Nick Young and Scott overshadowed Russell’s talent and commitment in basketball. His love for the game was clear when he hit the game winning shot against the Timberwolves back on April 9 — a game that occurred after the passing of his grandmother.
The Nets’ plan — implemented by Marks — is slowly coming together. And Marks’ plan includes Russell.