Lost in Kobe's Shadow, Russell, Randle Offer Lakers Vision of Bright Future

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Lost in Kobe's Shadow, Russell, Randle Offer Lakers Vision of Bright Future
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LOS ANGELES — Someday, someone might recall the visual of D'Angelo Russell, relaxing outside the team hotel during his first year, reclining on a bellman's luggage cart of all places.

And the caption to the mental picture might be something about how unbelievably cool and unique Russell has always been—how even as a rookie he was perched like a rare bird on that cart, his creative flow unstoppable at any body angle and his confidence caged only when he so chooses.

Someone might bring up how Julius Randle spent so much of this same season—his second, but really his first, in the NBA—with his powerful frame folded into the Los Angeles Lakers bench with his arm curled up for his hand to hold his chin, a regular pose not unlike that of Rodin's "The Thinker."

Except Randle's face openly and consistently showed what he was thinking: frustration. And so the story might go that we could see back then how Randle was always uncommonly hungry to succeed. That even from the start he cared so deeply he was barely able to contain a rare vitality that was destined to be unleashed on NBA courts despite the heartbreak of suffering a broken leg in his debut game the previous year.

The first impressions have really set in.

The proud franchise that wished stardom upon these two teens has gained a lot of insight for who Russell and Randle are three months into their playing careers.

And the good news for the Lakers is that the best characteristics they scouted in these two have rung true:

Russell is the alpha male who believes in his star quality as a maestro basketball conductor. He will warily keep some distance until you earn his trust. Yet he wears his self-confidence prominently whether he likes you or not, whether his shot falls or fails.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Randle has his own chip on his shoulder, but he brings with it a lunch pail and an authentic grin. He is a welcoming, well-meaning soul who easily bonds a team off the court no matter how hard-driving he defaults to being in pursuit of greatness on the court.

Their talent is raw but real. There is no clear evidence at this time that Russell and Randle cannot succeed.

That's a positive reality for the Lakers, even though neither of their prized prospects has been as efficient as Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota or stirred the pure emotion that Kristaps Porzingis has in New York.

As first impressions go, the best tag to put on Russell and Randle would be "still promising."

"Hard workers," said teammate Jordan Clarkson, who is biased in their favor but has unequivocally earned the respect of Lakers management with his work ethic and breakout performance last season as a rookie. "Young guys who put their hat on every day and try to learn from all their mistakes. Tough kids. At the end of the day, they're just trying to get better."

Obviously, they must.  

They've both been terrible ball-watchers on defense much of the time, but that's not unexpected. Russell can look too cool for school out there, gliding through moments and front-rimming shots instead of digging deeper and using the power in his legs.

Randle, so used to having the game come easily to him, will have to rebuild his jump shot in the offseason—it currently looks like he's throwing a curveball with his shoulder turned and elbow out—and better understand help defense if he is to be as unguardable as he thinks he is.

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

They've taken turns being handed "bust" labels to see if they stick—Russell early in the season as the game came too fast for him, Randle lately as, per NBA.com, he shoots 50 percent from less than five feet but 26 percent on everything else.

They've spent a lot of time together, even as Lakers coach Byron Scott's old-school, tough-love approach limits their total minutes. No one has played more with Randle than Russell has, and though it's not saying much with this Lakers team, the D'Angeruss and Ju pairing has been the best of the Lakers' four most-used tandems this season (minus-4.5 points per game).

The dream scenario for the Lakers is Russell becomes more like Stephen Curry with that velvety one-motion release from deep while being a far more natural passer, and Randle turns into an aggressive, versatile, unifying tornado like Draymond Green.

It will remain but a dream for some time; however, the young Lakers are bold enough to believe that comparison as fair, and there are definite glimmers, to be honest.

When Green came into the league, he could barely shoot (32.7 percent from the field in 1,061 rookie minutes). Like Randle, Green used the offseason before his second season to improve his diet and physique. Curry's glaring hole for many years was defense, which Scott has harped on as Russell's main problem.

As harsh as Scott has been at times, he sees Russell increasing his aggressiveness the past month and is downright excited. With Randle, Scott points out that he is actually playing well; he's just not shooting well.

Few realize that the 6'5" Russell has two inches on Curry, and the 6'9" Randle has two inches on Green. That's significant. And while the two Lakers were each 19 upon reaching the NBA, Curry was 21 and Green was 22.

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Yet when the Western Conference-worst Lakers play the defending champion Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, it'll be a reminder of how Russell and Randle are barely in Curry and Green's league now.

And it's possible they never come close.

Someone might shake their head ruefully and remember Russell reclining his rookie year on that luggage cart—lazy, disrespectful, too cocky for his own good. Randle's pouting on the bench might wind up symbolic of impatience and entitlement over which he never did gain full control.

There's still so much more road for these guys to travel that we don't know how it'll turn out.

But with the game increasingly slowing down for him, Russell's passing is already so pretty and timely that it's a downright pleasure to watch—brightening a few days the way that Curry's sweet shooting lights up most. Green has already taken Randle under his wing with useful advice, because he recognizes the love for game action that Randle brings to the boards and his ball-handling.

How Russell and Randle close the gaps between what they could be and what they are is up to them.

As hopeful as the Lakers are about them both, plenty of folks around the organization remember what Kobe Bryant was like as an 18-year-old rookie.

And they'll say, yes, D'Angelo has that self-assurance, but Kobe challenged authority so he could learn right or wrong as fast as possible. They'll acknowledge Julius really wants to be on the floor, but Kobe worked harder to get there.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Unfair as it is, Russell and Randle don't run from Bryant's legend either. If anything, they revere and respect Bryant so much that they gobble up every morsel of advice he shares...while their eyes occasionally glaze over when being instructed by the coaching staff.

But Bryant isn't all the way there this season. He doesn't really practice; he's often not even around because Scott accords him the freedom to get his body ready on his own terms.

And Bryant won't be around at all next season, when the Lakers' rare rebuilding process gets serious.

But Bryant's farewell has afforded the Lakers the luxury of shielding their young building blocks. No one in the organization wants to put that pressure on Russell and Randle any sooner than necessary.

Still, what Russell and Randle have accomplished is a pivotal thing, even if small in the context of the full season:

The hope of their greatness endures.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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