D’Angelo Russell is not in the running for Rookie of the Year. As a matter of fact, the former Buckeye star has been just a bench player for more than half of the Lakers’ games this season. Still the Lakers’ guard put on quite the show Tuesday night against the Nets, scoring 39 and assisting on 3 other buckets while grabbing 6 rebounds. He even followed up Tuesday night’s performance with a 24 point, 6 assist game against the Nuggets. But what does Russell’s recent production mean for the Lakers, and can the 20 year old be expected to keep up this level of play?
The thing is, Russell has kept up this level of play. Although Russell has been seen as a disappointment, something that makes sense as the 2nd overall pick is mostly a backup, it has been more than just the last two games that have seen Russell adjust successfully to pro ball. Russell’s numbers have improved every month in the NBA, save January. His PPG and APG have increased from October all the way through March, with a bump every month of the season. And in the past six games, all of which Russell has started, 5 of those 6 games have seen the guard score at least 15 points. The one game he didn’t, was the start that he played less than 30 minutes. Even then he still shot 60% from the field and 75% from beyond the arc in that game. So it is far from just one game that has Laker fans excited for the future. Instead it is the prospect of an ever improving player that has already shown the ability to score, leading the Lakers possibly back to the playoffs.
Now the chances of the Lakers making the postseason this year on a scale of 1-10 are about a negative 43, and even that is being generous. LA’s 2nd best basketball team has a lot of work to do to overhaul arguably the worst roster in the NBA, but Russell’s late emergence has gone a long way in making fans optimistic for the future of the NBA’s most storied franchise. And despite their lousy record this season, the Lakers’ future is actually set up to be very bright, and Russell’s increased success is at the center of that future.
As odd as it may sound, it is actually a very good thing that the Lakers are the worst team in the Western Conference. Even with Russell’s increased productivity in the past 6 starts, the Lakers are only 1-5 in those games. So how can one be excited about a team so terrible despite great play from one player? Because the Lakers are in a great position in the upcoming draft lottery. An abysmal 12-50 record gives LA the 2nd worst record behind (or ahead) of 8-win Philadelphia, meaning the Lakers have a great chance at one of the top two picks in this year’s draft. Why is that important? Because there is a prospect this season by the name of Ben Simmons who is set to make some team’s frontcourt a whole lot better, and who’s frontcourt could use more help than the Lakers (Roy Hibbert anyone?!)? And before you say that 76ers are still more likely to have that 1st pick, know that they still have a trio of top-6 picks that play in Philly’s frontcourt, and as good of a prospect as Simmons is, it’s going to be tough to play Nerlens Noel, Joel Embid, Jahlil Okafor, and Simmons on the court together, regardless of how good each player is. So with the Lakers’ struggles, despite Russell’s play, and Philadelphia’s already overpopulated low post, Los Angeles is about to add another great player to help out D’Angelo Russell.
And the addition of Simmons may only be the 2nd biggest news of the offseason if the Lakers can get into the Kevin Durant sweepstakes. But what Russell’s impact may be on this team’s offseason is at a position that is often a second thought to fans, the head coach. And even though some people are giving the Lakers’ head man, Byron Scott, some credit for his handling of the rookie, most people will see that once Russell started games for the Lakers he played well and will ask for Scott to be removed for keeping LA’s lone playmaker from seeing the court for so long. And they should be asking for him to be removed. No, he wasn’t given a talented roster, and he was stuck with overpaid players like Roy Hibbert, Nick Young, and dare I even say Kobe Bryant, but he kept the best player LA has off the court, and Russell’s past 6 games appear to be the nail in Scott’s coffin.
So what can we take away from Russell’s 39 point game on Tuesday? We can see that it wasn’t the only time he played well and that it still doesn’t help the Lakers win, which is actually a good thing. And if they lose enough LA will be sporting the best young tandem in basketball with Russell and Ben Simmons, and that is going to be a great pair of talented players for whoever is coaching the Lakers next year, because with Russell’s failure to see the court early Byron Scott is all but packing his things. Of course these are all just back stories to Kobe’s farewell tour, but by the end of the offseason, which for the Lakers began before the actual season started, you will see that LA will no longer be building around #24 or #8, but instead around a player who is making a name for himself, and will be leading the Laker franchise back to prominence.