LOS ANGELES — Earlier this month, in a wide-ranging interview with USA Today's Sam Amick, Los Angeles Lakers part-owner Jim Buss spun the team's recent struggles with unmitigated positivity. For a franchise that has lost 116 games over the past two seasons and whiffed on superstar free-agent talent again this past offseason, the remarks seemed awfully far-fetched.
So why the rosy outlook, Mr. Buss?
The answer is obvious yet fraught with risk: D'Angelo Russell, a rookie who's played zero minutes of meaningful NBA ball. Here's Buss:
If you watched (Russell) work out, if you heard what our scouts said about him and what they said about Okafor and other players, it got to the point where we could not pass on him. He's that special in a lot of people's books…And I think we might have made the right move with D'Angelo Russell. I think he might be something special. And if he is, then that's what I'm talking about. Somebody special is going to want to play with someone special, and then the dominoes fall. So yeah, I'm extremely confident.
In a phone interview with Bleacher Report last week, Russell referred to Buss' comments as "strong words" and completely understands how important it'll be to eventually meet the skyscraper expectations from an owner who likes to periodically touch base.
In so many ways, Russell is the key to everything, a potential bridge from one triumphant era to the next. The somewhat surprising second overall pick in a draft that featured two can't-miss big men, Russell will either thrust this team into the NBA's modern age—where perimeter-oriented playmaking is essential—or set them back 10 years. A 6'5" point guard with exceptional vision and a left hand made of velvet, there's no doubting Russell's highlight-reel potential.
Watch him zip a bounce pass from one free-throw line to the other for an easy layup, or effortlessly manipulate backpedaling defenders with his shifty eyes. No, seriously, watch:
Russell's perspective and confidence are incredible, but are they enough to overcome the immediate stress he'll face from day one, with a skill set stuck miles below his projected ceiling?
Every rookie faces an unreasonable amount of pressure, bookended by irrational expectations that underlie a serious lack of patience. But Russell, who's still 19, knows his situation is different. He's prepared to suit up in front of a fanbase that can't fathom repeating the past two years over the next two decades. The natives are restless.
Before draft night, Russell could've ended up with the Minnesota Timberwolves or Philadelphia 76ers. Instead he landed in Los Angeles, in an environment that's arguably more tense than the other two combined.
"Nothing against those franchises, but this franchise expects a winning season every year," Russell said. "They're trying to get the best players possible every year to make it happen."
Russell will go up against one of those teams on opening night when the Lakers square off against Minnesota, a rising firecracker with arguably the league's most impressive young nucleus. The Timberwolves' latest addition is Karl-Anthony Towns, the only player selected ahead of Russell in last June's draft.
Many expect both to have an immediate, seismic impact on their respective teams, and on Wednesday night, NBA fans will finally catch a glimpse of their very first head-to-head battle. Towns' individual stats are more impressive than Russell's up until now, but the Timberwolves were outscored by 17.9 points per 100 possessions in the preseason with him on the floor, per NBA.com.
The game isn't "Towns vs. Russell," but their immediate collision is an unavoidable storyline—one of many the Lakers rookie will find himself in over the next few years.
In his first taste of NBA action, Russell didn't exactly light the preseason on fire. In seven games, he wasn't efficient (38.6 percent from the floor, 29.4 percent on threes) and struggled on defense. It's a bit silly to place too much stock in a small statistical sample size gleaned from 119 minutes of action, but if, at this very moment, any part of his offensive showing can be described as worrisome, it's his languid shot selection.
Russell rarely attacked the basket off a live dribble, even when paths presented themselves and doing so would create potential opportunities for his teammates. Here's one example from a recent game against the Portland Trail Blazers:
Russell went away from Robert Sacre's screen, fooling Phil Pressey and earning a bit of space for himself at the elbow. Instead of driving past Chris Kaman and either finishing at the rim, drawing a foul or forcing a weak-side rotation, then kicking it out to Metta World Peace for an open corner three, Russell pulled up for an off-balance jumper.
"You gotta take what the game gives," Russell said when asked about this specific play. "You can't force your spots. [Against Portland] the mid-range was my spot, so I just kept going to it."
After the game, Lakers head coach Byron Scott wasn't too concerned. "[Russell] had pretty good command of what we needed him to do," Scott said. "He needs to be in at that time with the game on the line like that. Just give him more confidence, that's all."
Fair enough. Not much can be gained from criticizing a few shots in a preseason game (particularly those which went in). But while most focus on his assist totals and three-point percentage, one eye should always stay on Russell's willingness to penetrate.
So far, almost all his baskets in the restricted area came on well-timed cuts. That's wonderful, but the need to expand his repertoire will arrive sooner than later.
For now, despite all the stress and pressure bubbling up around him, Russell is necessarily serene. He isn't too worried about mistakes or squaring off against the league's top point guards, like Chris Paul and Stephen Curry. And he listens to the advice his older teammates are more than happy to offer.
"[They say] slow the game down and take what the game gives you," Russell said. "If you mess up, you were supposed to mess up. Get over it. Have a short memory."
It's trite but honest. Nobody knows how good Russell will grow to be. And, truth be told, the expectations heaped on his shoulders are no different than those felt by any other top-three pick, regardless of his team. Everybody wants to win.
But the Lakers aren't used to having a sizable chunk of their future hinge on the maturation of a teenager. For that reason alone, Russell's margin for error might be smaller than the next prospect.
For the time being, L.A. has to sweat out the unknown. Just like everybody else.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. D'Angelo Russell spoke to Bleacher Report on behalf of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, which will be available on Friday, Nov. 6, on PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.