Lakers Drawing Closer to Drafting D'Angelo Russell to Lead Team into Next Era

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJune 25, 2015

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — If the Los Angeles Lakers draft Ohio State guard D'Angelo Russell on Thursday night, as is the increasing likelihood, it will be for one simple reason.

They believe he is a star.

Although the Lakers respect Jahlil Okafor's size and skill (his defensive potential, not so much), momentum and consensus have been growing in the front office that Russell, not Okafor, is the special one.

It's not really so much the shift of the modern game toward the perimeter. This massive decision was always going to be about specific individuals, not the positions they play, and the vibe from Russell has been that he fits the mold of a leader, a winner and a Laker.

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It didn't help that, according to team sources, Okafor's second predraft workout with the Lakers was a distinct drop-off from the first—whereas Russell was channeling Stephen Curry's velvety stroke in his follow-up workout with the team.

As trite as it might sound given Curry's unquestioned popularity as MVP and champion right now, the Lakers believe the comparison is legit.

And they love that Russell freely puts it forth. "I see a great resemblance," he said of himself and Curry after his first Lakers workout.

Russell's magical pass-or-shoot feel for the five-on-five dance and the two-inch height advantage he has on Curry make it easy to envision Russell fitting right in with all the NBA guards of this generation who dictate play.

But the idea that he will be better than the rest is why the Lakers have come around more toward him than Okafor.

Possessing a slight build, like Curry, Russell comes from the land of the underrated and overlooked. His own family never even projected he'd be good enough to turn pro after one college season.

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 13:  D'Angelo Russell #0 of the Ohio State Buckeyes drives the ball past Corban Collins #3 of the Morehead State Eagles during the second half at Value City Arena on December 13, 2014 in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated Morhead
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Russell has been under the radar, having struggled to find the proper point guard platform to showcase all he can do until his one brilliant season at Ohio State. Despite not being as heralded as many prep prospects, Russell somehow has managed to build the ideal sort of confidence, one that he is perfectly willing and able to articulate. It's a trait that draws people to him.   

And while Russell sees a comparison to Curry in his work ethic, it is that sense of charisma where the comparison is clearest. And it's that kind of charisma that has helped memories of Russell's 4-of-17 shooting debacle against Mitch Kupchak's alma mater, North Carolina, fade.

Ultimately, it will be the Lakers general manager's call with the No. 2 overall pick. As Kupchak said, "It doesn't have to be a consensus. Really, it's going to be my decision, with the support of ownership."

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As of Thursday morning, the possibility also existed that the Lakers can put a deal in place with the Sacramento Kings, to be executed next month, to acquire disgruntled center DeMarcus Cousins using this No. 2 overall pick. But the Lakers' unwillingness to trade last year's seventh overall pick, Julius Randle, who has been an absolute beast already in summer workouts, makes it tough to see how a trade can happen.

Even if Randle and Okafor might not be the most sensible or defensively competent frontcourt tandem, Russell would be a bold choice...particularly after Kupchak invoked the name of Michael Jordan as the example of when you might want to decline hard-to-find size in the draft and take a guard.

Jordan went No. 3. Chris Paul went No. 4. Dwyane Wade went No. 5.

Russell would be going No. 2.

And with all due respect to second-round find Jordan Clarkson—and no matter how much Randle has always revered Kobe Bryant—Russell would be the one expected to follow in a legend's footsteps, those of a guard with unrelenting drive.

Russell even made plain in an interview with Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski that he would relish the chance to come from Kobe's shadow and carry the Lakers' legacy.

Longtime Shaquille O'Neal fan Okafor wants that, too. But it's up to the Lakers to determine in whom they truly believe.

Passing on Okafor could lead to him dropping past the paint-loaded Philadelphia 76ers at No. 3 and into the lap of Phil Jackson with the New York Knicks' No. 4 pick. That could be an even better situation for Okafor, his sublime post game being installed in Jackson's triangle offense the way O'Neal's once was.

But Russell wouldn't need to take any theoretical torch from Bryant.

Byron Scott's last season as an NBA player was spent tutoring a rookie Kobe. If Russell is the choice Thursday night, Bryant's farewell season would be spent in a similar fashion, sharing the backcourt with the symbol of the next Lakers era.

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter,@KevinDing.