LA Lakers Insider: D'Angelo Russell on Verge of Breakout Season

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterOctober 11, 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 04:  D'Angelo Russell #1 and Larry Nance Jr. #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrate a play during a preseason game against the Sacramento Kings at Honda Center on October 4, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — The impressive preseason glimpses of Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell are just a sign of what's to come: Russell is primed for a breakout sophomore season.

As a rookie, he flashed his potential, scoring a career-high 39 points against the Brooklyn Nets. He reached the 20-point mark on 13 occasions, but over the course of the year, Russell struggled with consistency. Often overshadowed by the retiring Kobe Bryant and shuffled in and out of the starting lineup by former head coach Byron Scott, Russell scored in single digits 27 times, finishing the season with an average of 13.2 points per night while shooting 41 percent from the field. 

While he justified the Lakers' decision to select him second overall in the 2015 NBA draft, he averaged just 3.3 assists per game, nearly matched by 2.5 turnovers.

"My mentality is just way different this year. I have more of a business-like approach to everything I do," Russell said. "Getting that one year of experience under my belt, I know what I'm capable of."

The Lakers replaced Scott with new head coach Luke Walton, who spent the last two years in Golden State with the Warriors as an assistant to Steve Kerr. Comparing the 20-year-old Russell to two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry is premature, but Walton brings an offensive system with him that is favorable to a lead guard with a deft shooting touch.

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After a quiet preseason debut against the Sacramento Kings, Russell scored 54 points in 56 minutes while hitting eight of 15 three-point attempts in consecutive games against the Denver Nuggets. His 33 points during Sunday's 124-115 victory came on 13-of-19 shooting.

Russell is still searching for balance between his playmaking duties and scoring, but Walton has given his young guard the green light to look for his own shot.

"At this level, there's a fine line of doing what the coaches want and playing off feel. The guy's got a phenomenal feel for the game," Walton said. "What we're trying to tell him, 'Any time you're open, shoot it. We want you to play-make. We want you to get guys involved from the point guard position, but when you're coming off screens and you're open, the best way to make the defense pay is to shoot it.'"

"He's one of the best shooters we have," he continued.

The Lakers especially need Russell to step into the role as the team's leader. The franchise has a number of quality role players such as Jose Calderon, Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov and Lou Williams, but it's the youth movement that will put the Lakers back on the map...eventually.

Russell said he's still learning his place in the league and on his own team.

"You say leader and you say the point guard, all this is new to me. I don't know what it takes to win games and I don't know what it takes to make it to the payoffs," said Russell, noting the franchise won just 17 games last season. "We've got veteran guys who know what it takes, so they're leaders at the same time. It's about coming together as one and being a complete group."

ISLA VISTA, CA - SEPTEMBER 30:  D'Angelo Russell #1 and Jose Calderon #5 of the Los Angeles Lakers talk during team practice at Robertson Gymnasium on the campus of University of California Santa Barbra on September 30, 2016 in El Segundo, California. NOT
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Walton, the NBA's youngest coach at 36 years old, is sympathetic to Russell's growing pains.

"It's got to be challenging. He's [20] and he's the starting point guard for the L.A. Lakers. I think he's naturally a scoring point guard. I think that's who he naturally is as a player. But he wants to win, so he's willing to play the right way and play the way the coaches are asking him to play," Walton said. "I think it gets tough at times when you're that young and you're still learning how to do it all."

While Russell bumped heads with Scott last year, he and his new coach have a strong early bond.

"I feel like he makes everybody feel comfortable from the first guy to the 20th guy. Everybody feels a part of something. Right now it's a rebuilding process and everybody feels a part of it," Russell said.

Russell will still stumble this coming season, though not nearly as often as he did as a rookie. Rather, look for him to be in contention for the NBA's Most Improved Player award in April.


Winning Culture a Must for Larry Nance Jr.

The Lakers still owe a first-round pick for the ill-fated Steve Nash trade. Just like in 2016, if their 2017 selection is not within the top three, it will go to the Philadelphia 76ers. Lottery luck landed Brandon Ingram with the No. 2 selection. Would the team be wise to sacrifice wins this coming season to protect their 2017 first-rounder?

"We don't want that," said Larry Nance Jr. "No, no, ideally we never want to be in the lottery. Never, ever, ever, never do we want to be in the lottery."

Ontario, CA - OCTOBER 9:  Larry Nance Jr. #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers plays defense against the Denver Nuggets during a preseason game on October 9, 2016 at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges an
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Nance acknowledged the team is thrilled to have Ingram, but he's not concerned about who the Lakers might miss out on next year.

"Granted, we earned the lottery last year, and we got a terrific player because of that. The goal is to not see the lottery for the foreseeable future," he said.

Instead, Nance feels the coaching staff and players are focused on developing a winning culture.

"We started a little bit in summer league, to build a culture of, 'We're here to do one thing, and that's to win, no matter how it gets done.' Whoever scores is secondary, just get the W. We're all embracing that right now."


Ingram's Familiar Locker

Bryant occupied the same locker at Staples Center since the 2000-01 season, but the future Hall of Famer retired in April. With a not-so-subtle gesture, the Lakers have assigned Ingram to Bryant's vacated locker.

No pressure then, on the team's 19-year-old rookie...

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 04:  Brandon Ingram #14 and Yi Jianlian #11 of the Los Angeles Lakers laugh on the bench during a preseason game against the Sacramento Kings at Honda Center on October 4, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly ac
Harry How/Getty Images

"I had nothing to do with that," said Walton on Friday. "I walked in today for the first time and saw him sitting there and asked him if he knew whose locker that was."

As a player with the Lakers, Walton's locker (now used by second-year forward Anthony Brown) was close to where Bryant sat.

"I knew it was some big shoes to fill," said Ingram. "Luke came here and told me where his locker was, he told me where Kobe's locker was. We joked around about it—how [Bryant] had a locker right here for his coats."

Indeed, Bryant had an empty locker, adjacent to his own, just for his suits, jackets and any other items he chose to stow. Now, that locker is occupied by Ingram's fellow rookie, center Ivica Zubac.

Will Ingram eventually get to the level where he warrants double-locker status?

"We'll talk about that in a few years," joked Ingram.


Rookie Struggles

The Lakers selected Ingram with the hope that the young forward will grow into a star player.

Through three exhibition games, it's been a slow start.

"I think I have the jitters a little bit trying to get the shot up, not taking my time to shoot the ball," said Ingram, who has missed 12 of his first 15 attempts.

Ontario, CA - OCTOBER 9:  Brandon Ingram #14 and Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers high-five against the Denver Nuggets during a preseason game on October 9, 2016 at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California. NOTE TO USER: User expres
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

Ingram noted he can be a slow starter in a new situation, acknowledging he experienced that at Duke as well.

"That's something I'm trying to get out of, but I think it's natural," he said. "I have to find my way again."

Walton isn't worried.

"He's young. He still looks like he's rushing his shot a little bit, which I'm not concerned with at all," he said. "The kid shoots lights-out in practice pretty much every day."

"Once the game slows down a little bit for him, he'll be fine," Walton continued. "Defensively, when he's engaged and locked in, he's really good at defense. He gets deflections, he's reading passing lanes."

Walton also noted that Ingram has been a natural at understanding the team's offense.

"Offensively, he always does the right thing. He's just not making shots right now," the coach said.


Tarik Black Earning Minutes

Last season, 6'9" center Tarik Black played sparingly for Scott, averaging 12.7 minutes per night through just 39 appearances. Despite his limited role, the Lakers chose to reinvest in Black as a restricted free agent, signing him to a two-year, $12.8 million contract, according to Basketball Insiders.

Black said the process of returning to the Lakers was an easy one.

"It wasn't nerve-wracking at all. I knew that I had to put together a good body of work to come back. I knew teams have interest, including this team right here with the Lakers," Black said. "Basically, the day we talked to the Lakers, we ended up hashing out the deal."

Ontario, CA - OCTOBER 9:  Tarik Black #28 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on against the Denver Nuggets during a preseason game on October 9, 2016 at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

Black scored 15 points in 16 minutes during the Lakers' first preseason game, hitting all five of his shot attempts. It would seem Black has quickly earned Walton's trust as the primary backup center behind starter Timofey Mozgov, ahead of Yi Jianlian and the rookie Zubac.

Over the summer, Black also finished his master's degree at the University of Kansas in African-American studies. He gave his support to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has chosen to take a knee instead of stand for the national anthem while protesting racial injustice in the Unites States.

"I respect him 100 percent. There is an issue. To avoid it would be wrong," Black said.

In solidarity with Kaepernick's protest, the Lakers have chosen to link arms during the anthem.


Early Numbers

The Lakers have played three preseason games, and while that's not enough to be statistically significant, the early returns may suggest developing trends.

Russell is getting the most time on the floor at 26.7 minutes per game while leading the team with 19.3 points, 3.7 assists, 3.7 turnovers and 2.3 steals.

Of the team's non-guaranteed players, Thomas Robinson has gotten the most court time, playing 25 total minutes over three games. He's leading the team with a 75 percent field-goal percentage on just four attempts, though officials waved off his last shot, a three-point make on Friday.

Ontario, CA - OCTOBER 9:  Thomas Robinson #15 and Nick Young #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers box out Juancho Hernangomez #41 of the Denver Nuggets during a preseason game on October 9, 2016 at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California. NOTE TO USER
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Yi is the next-closest non-guaranteed player to Robinson in total minutes, playing 13 over two brief stints. Thus far, he is shooting just 1-of-7 (14.3 percent) from the field.

Black has been remarkably efficient, converting 64.3 percent of his 14 shot attempts, nearly all of which have come close to the basket. Conversely, Calderon has shown much deeper range, hitting 62.5 percent overall, primarily from three-point territory. He may have earned a slight edge over fellow reserve point guard Marcelo Huertas.

As noted, Ingram has struggled at just 20 percent shooting, but he is the high man on the team with two blocks per night. Those hitting shots include Julius Randle (54.2 percent), Nick Young (58.3), Anthony Brown (55.6) and Russell (53.7).

Rebounding has been an early issue for the team, getting out-boarded 152-128 by the opposition. The Lakers' best rebounder per game is Randle at 5.7, followed by Mozgov at 5.3. Neither has played major minutes at 22.9 and 18.6 per night, respectively.

Rookie forward Zach Auguste is the lone Lakers player who has yet to play this preseason.


All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of the Lakers. Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.


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