Like Him or Loathe Him, D'Angelo Russell Will Be a Star, and He'll Tell You Why

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterMarch 15, 2016

D'Angelo Russell before the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht)
Karen Pulfer Focht/Associated Press

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — For those who insist we must accord our fellow man respect or treat everyone and their opinions equally, D'Angelo Russell isn't your guy. Never will be.

You might even think he's kind of a jerk.

He wouldn't care if you did.

That's because for someone who just turned 20, he has an astounding level of comfort in his own skin.

Russell is going to be a superstar, and a big reason why has little to do with basketball. He has confidence rooted in belief and ambition, and he is unafraid of sharing that.

If you believe true admiration can only be earned, if you don't have time to suffer fools, if you demand more of yourself and all those close to you, then you will love the life philosophy Russell developed for himself last year.

He got to Ohio State at age 18 and let his wide eyes grow wider at the recently renovated, white-walled practice facility the basketball program opened up to him. Didn't even need to bring a key. Just punch the code into the pad, step forward and get better at any hour.

"I started realizing a lot of people didn't work," Russell said in an interview with Bleacher Report. "A lot of God-given talent, a lot of athleticism separated 'em, but it wasn't really work ethic there."

For a kid who always prided himself on being different, it was an eye-opener: He wanted it more.

"I'm like, 'We're not in here every night?' I would come and be the only guy there," Russell said. "Or it'd be me and another player who didn't really play a lot but was a gym rat. Kam Williams. I always used to want him to play with me because he made shots. [H]e loved the game...and he's killin' it this year.

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 19:  D'Angelo Russell #0 of the Ohio State Buckeyes dribbles past Treveon Graham #21 of the Virginia Commonwealth Rams in the first half during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Moda Center on March 19,
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

"[But] I noticed a lot of the top guys on the team, they weren't in the gym working as hard as I was. ... That's when I started losing respect for people's opinions who didn't work."

It affected Russell so profoundly that he said it shaped his world view "in general," not just for basketball.

If that takeaway rubs some of Russell's former teammates the wrong way, so be it. Maybe they would be where he is if they had more of his mindset.

Russell was not initially expected by college recruiters, pro scouts or even his own parents to be good enough to leave Ohio State for the NBA after just one year. But after a season that saw him average 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists as a freshman, he skyrocketed toward the top of the lottery, where he was selected second overall by the Lakers, for whom he is now injecting hope for a return to glory.

The Lakers fell for him because of his game but also because of that alpha-male personality.

Russell's sharp edge, that chip on his shoulder—and yes, that ice in his veins—was undeniably reminiscent of their outgoing legend, Kobe Bryant.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

.@Dloading is cold blooded ❄️❄️❄️ https://t.co/QNOokcGSTy

But Russell isn't Kobe, and he doesn't want to be. As much as he respects Bryant and his work ethic, and even enjoys the comfort of his signature shoes, Russell doesn't want to follow in anyone's footsteps.

On his own ground, he knows he'll walk taller.

"I don't want people to just think, 'He's got some Kobe-like [characteristics]," Russell said. "I don't want to go there. I want to be me—and people know it's me.

"I don't want: 'He's trying to act like Kobe' or 'His answers are like something Kobe would've said.' Nah. If it's me, I'm going to say it."

An underlying storyline this season in Los Angeles has been the disconnect between coach Byron Scott and his rookie point guard, whose minutes and role have fluctuated greatly. It is Scott's belief that Russell's improvement has resulted from a tremendous increase in confidence over the course of the season.

That's not it at all.

"I always had the confidence," Russell said. "The platform, guys getting injured and giving me multiple opportunities, that has allowed me to showcase it."

Russell acknowledges he could've gotten better sooner in his rookie season.

"Just came in, thought it was going to be easy, everything was going to be sweet," he said. "Had to handle some adversity and tried to handle it the right way."

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 11: Head coach, Byron Scott of the Los Angeles Lakers speaks with D'Angelo Russell #1  during the preseason game against the Maccabi Haifa on October 11, 2015 at STAPLES CENTER in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expre
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

He did the same in high school when he got to Montverde Academy in central Florida and didn't play because the coaches didn't see enough aggressiveness. He didn't like it, but he accepted it—and he changed those opinions soon enough when given the chance.

It prepared Russell for what it's like to start slow—and showed him how rewarding it is both to learn and shut critics up.

In the first 10 games since Scott put him back in the starting lineup last month, Russell averaged 21.0 points, 4.8 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.1 steals while shooting 47.4 percent from the field and 46.3 percent from three-point range. The Lakers even won three of those games, shocking the Golden State Warriors along the way.

"It's all opportunity," he said.

He's proud of not losing his cool even though he was quite unhappy with how some things were—or weren't—developing.

"I didn't really get caught up in the media standpoint," Russell said of how Scott has deployed him this season. "I don't really have too much to say on that. I just kept playing and kept trying to better myself and get better on my own. If that was holding me back, I didn't get caught up in it.

"I know my work ethic and know what I've put in to get where I'm at," Russell said. "So if the outcome is good or bad, I know deep down that I've put in the work. Confidence is always going to be there."

Russell's 27.8 minutes per game are distinctly fewer than fellow rookies Emmanuel Mudiay (30.4) and Karl-Anthony Towns (31.1). Tough-love talk aside, Scott's plan was not to hinder Russell's progress but to protect a sometimes tentative Russell from more initial failure than Scott thought would have been healthy for him.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 20: D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts during the NBA game against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center on January 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. The Kings defeated the Lakers 112-93. NOTE TO USER: User
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

That theory, however, rests on the questionable premise that giving Russell more opportunity to succeed would've given the Lakers less opportunity to succeed.

Russell's complex basketball style—akin to playing music in between notes while incorporating others' instruments—required more repetitions to reach the comfort level he has displayed in recent weeks.

Remember, it was Russell's command in orchestrating a group to be its best self that the Lakers brass saw before the draft as his most special gift.

"It's tough coming in here and losing a lot," Russell said. "It's hard to keep a positive attitude coming to work every day, feeling like you're getting better when the same result is losing....

"Now, we're not winning—but we're playing better. ... We're giving ourselves the opportunity to win. ... Before, we were turning the ball over; everybody was trying to score every night, stuff like that. So we weren't giving ourselves the opportunity."

There's that word again: opportunity.

Someone with Russell's mindset just doesn't take those chances, and his chance to run the team, for granted.

It's not like he's humbled now. He was hungry before, during and after his role was reduced.

"I knew that I was capable of it," he said. "I've watched people dominate at this level. It's all mental, you know what I'm sayin'? I feel like I had that. Experience will help it pan out a little better. But it's all mental."

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 21:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers gives direction to his teammate D'Angelo Russell #1 against the Chicago Bulls on February 21, 2016 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The nameplate for Shaquille O'Neal's Lakers locker back in the day didn't say, "O'NEAL."

It said: "IDGAF."

I Don't Give A F--k.

(For the protection of children, O'Neal would in times of need opt to define the acronym as: "I Dominate Games Always Forever.")

Bryant drove the Lakers' past two championships, O'Neal the three before that. It only makes sense that the franchise would be drawn to a newcomer whose unswerving confidence in himself overrides all else, someone who straddles that line between confident and cocky.

On TNT Thursday, O'Neal mentioned Bryant and offered Russell that ultimate compliment: "He's wired like us."

Because of that mindset, O'Neal said, Russell isn't altogether satisfied taking a backseat to Bryant now but knows his time is coming.

Bryant has been a valuable resource for Russell this season—specifically a Sunday morning private video session Bryant suggested for a struggling Russell less than a week into the season and recently sharing detailed guidelines for the 6'5" point guard to develop a post-up game.

Bryant was insatiably curious to explore all he could become without O'Neal 12 years ago. Though Russell has not offered even a hint of frustration with Bryant this season, that doesn't mean the rookie isn't looking forward to pushing his limits without him the same way Bryant once insisted on.

"I feel like you could be playing your best basketball...and then you start doing stuff you've never done before," Russell said. "And you only get better.

Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

"I don't think I would ever have the opportunity to play well if I came in thinking that I would never be able to dominate."

For now, Russell pushes the envelope and his opportunities as far as the Kobe farewell tour allows, particularly when Bryant's chronically sore right shoulder encourages it.

The resolution of Russell's I'm-a-star image is becoming clear despite all that early ineffectiveness. Before the All-Star break, Russell shot 41.5 percent and 33.2 percent from the three-point line. After the break: an uptick to 45.8 percent shooting and a near-identical 45.7 mark from three. The optics have changed to where we can see how the divine one-motion jump shot, inventive ball-handling and astute movement without the ball are at least comparable to Stephen Curry.

Such versatility makes it easier for players to fit around Russell, just what he envisions the Lakers will do.

"I'd rather be a player that a franchise is being built around, and it's a successful build," he said. "Winning playoff games, knowing that we're one of the teams that's going to win, knowing that when you play against the Lakers you've got to worry about losing. Not like right now."

With the league's second-worst record, the Lakers are in position to add another young talent if they keep their 2016 first-round pick (top-three protected from going to Philadelphia). They might well get Ben Simmons, Russell's former Montverde teammate; the Philadelphia 76ers could prefer Brandon Ingram's shooting anyway.

SPRINGFIELD, MA - JANUARY19: The Monteverde Academy varsity basketball players #22 Ben Simmons, #3 D'Angelo Russell and #15 Chris Egi pose for a portrait during the 2014 Spaulding Hoop Hall Classic on December 19, 2014 at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Sp
Kelly Kline/Getty Images

"We're real close friends," Russell said of Simmons. "[When we talk] it's obvious: 'Oh, man, I hope you come here.' It's obvious. But we talk about a lot of other things."

Simmons is 6'10" and a fascinating blend of preternatural basketball instincts. What he is not is the alpha male Russell is.

An uncompromising, cold-blooded attitude doesn't dictate who will be the better player, but the Lakers have learned over the years to believe in the higher standards that come with such strong will. That spirit of self is evident throughout an Instagram account to which Russell regularly posts blank whiteness because he likes the innovative design it creates on his personal page, no matter how annoying or pointless others view it to be.

Russell delivers his confident quotes in calm tones with no spectacle. He is utterly relaxed as he evaluates what has gone right and wrong...and what is going to go right again. He is matter-of-fact as he shares his disdain for others' opinions, too.

When asked how much he cares what people outside the game think of him, Russell just shakes his head and says: "Nah."

Whether someone such as Russell comes across as overly cocky or dynamically inspirational often depends on how secure the person is doing the observing.

Even more often, it's about how hard that self-assured person works to become all that he expects to be. If you earn it, it's only natural to have a healthy ego.

Russell gets it.

And it's going to be fascinating to watch someone already so strong grow even stronger.

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


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.