LOS ANGELES — "Who will be the next Magic Johnson?"
For a moment, the Hall of Famer was speechless.
"Wow, wow, wow," repeated Earvin "Magic" Johnson on Monday during the Los Angeles Lakers' 13th annual All-Access event for sponsors and fans at Staples Center.
Johnson, now the Lakers' president of basketball operations, had invited a sixth-grade girl up on stage for the final question of his panel with coach Luke Walton, moderated by broadcaster Bill Macdonald.
Rarely at a loss for words, Johnson replied with two answers, the first reflecting the past and the second the future.
"They've got to take their team to nine finals in 12 years," Johnson said, noting his own track record before getting serious.
"I don't think it's about getting another Magic or another Kobe [Bryant]. Whoever that person is will be their own person. We just want to fall in love with him," Johnson continued. "We have a bunch of young players that we're falling in love with right now. We're seeing them grow up right in front of our eyes."
Johnson has been charged by owner/executive Jeanie Buss to help the Lakers find their next superstar, to get back on top after what will be the franchise's fourth straight season without a playoff berth.
That's no easy task. Fans may struggle to fall in love with the players who have led the Lakers to a 19-42 record on the season. The team is hopeful, however, that its young cast of players like D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac will develop into high-impact contributors.
Both Johnson and Walton singled out Russell as a player they would like to see assert himself as L.A.'s leader.
"D'Angelo is playing the toughest position in the NBA, and that's the point guard position," Johnson said. "We just want him to lead a little bit more, take more responsibility ... because sometimes when everybody is young, nobody wants to hold guys accountable."
It was easier for Johnson, who hit the NBA as the full package, winning a title in his first season. Russell has shown flashes midway through his second year but has yet to truly break out, averaging 14.8 points and 4.8 assists a game while shooting 40 percent from the field.
"I think sometimes when guys are young, veterans think you're just going to be passive. I wasn't a passive guy. ... I understood how to lead, even as a rookie," Johnson said. "What I want D'Angelo to do is take this team in his hands ... and those guys will appreciate that."
If veterans were holding Russell back, that's no longer an issue.
Walton has benched both Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Johnson traded the team's leading scorer, Lou Williams, to the Houston Rockets, though Williams was so potent a scorer at 18.6 points a game that Walton had built some of the team's offensive attack around the guard's unique skills.
"We put in two guards at the top with a high pick coming because Lou was so good going left. We never ran any of that at Golden State," Walton said. "We tried to build it around the personnel that we had."
"We knew Lou was clutch every chance he got, but I feel like we've got a lot of players that are the same but were kind of overshined by Lou," said Russell after the Lakers' close loss Tuesday to the Charlotte Hornets, 109-104.
Russell played one of his best games of the season, scoring 23 points with nine assists in 36 minutes, many of them matched up against All-Star Kemba Walker.
Perhaps the dots are starting to connect.
"We want him pushing it up faster. We want him coming off all those pick-and-rolls and then deciding what to do, depending on what the defense is doing to adjust to him," Walton said Monday. "We're constantly nitpicking every little thing that he [and his teammates] do, which probably for the time being takes away from their games because in their head they're trying to do what Coach wants.
"They're trying to do the right thing," he continued. "But if you're actually playing, you can't be thinking. It's got to be instinct and quick decisions."
Walton is asking Russell to be more aggressive while inundating him with notes that keep him from playing freely. The Lakers coach said he believes it will pay off in the long run once the lessons become habits.
"He's coming along nicely," Walton said. "He sees and understands passing angles. With D'Angelo, we want him to play a more aggressive style."
Speaking generally, Johnson said he wants to fill the roster with players that have strong work ethics who understand what it means to be a Laker.
In addition to hoping Russell blossoms over time, both Johnson and Walton stressed the team needs to improve defensively.
"You've got to be able to, in the last two or three minutes, shut a team down," Johnson said. "There's going to be a point in the game where your defense must take over."
Walton said he welcomes Johnson's input, both on the roster and on coaching.
"You have to remember, I played with Kobe for eight-and-a-half years. Working with Magic has been great," Walton said with a laugh. "I haven't been cussed at. I haven't been yelled at."
Johnson said he may give some input here and there, but it's up to Walton what he wants to do with it.
"This man is the coach of the Lakers. I'm not the coach; he's the coach," Johnson said. "I would never interfere with him, the players and his coaching."
Lakers Insider Notebook
Randle Teases His Potential
After a disappointing six-point effort Sunday during a blowout 119-98 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Randle gave one of the best performances of his career Tuesday in the loss to Charlotte. He hit 10 of his 14 shot attempts to score 23 points with 18 rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks.
"Julius was great tonight. I told him before the game I wanted him to be more aggressive as far as looking to score," Walton said. "I think he has been overthinking things and constantly looking to play-make, but the playmaking becomes available when you put pressure at the rim."
Walton noted this was the longest stretch of games Randle has played with that much energy.
"Normally when he plays that hard, at the six-minute mark he is kind of looking at me like, 'All right, I need [a breather],'" Walton continued. "We have been challenging him in practice to do everything at that tempo so he can start pushing through his wall."
Randle is in his third season but has only played in 135 games after breaking his leg during his rookie debut in 2014. When he's focused, Randle has often looked like the Lakers' best player, but consistency remains an issue.
"It's all mental for him," Russell said, noting that he can have a similar issue. "When he comes in, he's alert, he's on his toes, he's talking, he's not separate and kind of distant from people, it's fun to watch."
"Some games he has lapses, but when he's playing with that kind of energy, he's probably one of the best players around the league," Jordan Clarkson said.
Randle is hoping to find that consistency through the remainder of the season.
"When I play aggressively and I don't overthink the game, I'm better," he said. "When I am still aggressive but think too much, I run into some trouble."
Nwaba Gets the Call-Up
Undrafted guard David Nwaba expected to start the season in Reno with the Bighorns, the NBA Development League affiliate of the Sacramento Kings.
"I was actually going to their training camp, and I got a late call from the L.A. D-Fenders that they traded for me," Nwaba said at Staples Center on Tuesday before his NBA debut.
Earlier in the day, Nwaba signed a 10-day, $31,969 contract with the Lakers. Before the night was over, he was defending an All-Star in crunch time.
"We put him on Kemba Walker in the fourth quarter in a game he had never played in, in a league he had never played in, and he did not seem to be timid out there," Walton said.
"I wasn't really expecting to get in," Nwaba said. "My name was called, and I tried to make use of the time."
The 6'5" former Cal Poly guard finished the night with a single rebound in five minutes but gave a glimpse of what got him to the NBA: defensive intensity.
"I thought he was really good. The only time they scored on him was actually our big man messed up the rotation," Walton said. "He did a great job of putting ball pressure and switching onto the low side. Our big man was late on the switch."
"That makes me feel a little better because I took responsibility for that shot," Nwaba said. "I think overall I did OK besides the one shot that I took."
Nwaba overshot his lone attempt. Credit it to adrenaline.
"I wish I could take it back. I'll always remember that one," he said sheepishly.
The Lakers will have Nwaba under contract through March 9, after which they can sign him to a second 10-day contract or for the remainder of the season.
Three-Team Lottery Race
With just 10 wins in 59 tries, the Brooklyn Nets appear to have the league's worst record on lock. Unfortunately for them, they are obligated to swap their first-rounder in June's NBA draft with the Boston Celtics (39-22). The Celtics' pick, currently slotted at 26th, will go to the Nets as part of the 2013 Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are "competing" with the Phoenix Suns (18-42) for the second and third spots in May's draft lottery. Both teams are sitting veterans (like Timofey Mozgov and Tyson Chandler, respectively) while consistently losing games—each dropping eight of their last 10.
The advantage for the Suns is they will keep their pick if they fail to win a top-three selection. The Lakers' selection will go to the Philadelphia 76ers as part of the 2012 Steve Nash trade if it's fourth or below.
That's why the Lakers would be best served to fall behind the Suns in the standings to 29th overall. Their odds at a top-three pick would improve from 46.9 percent to 55.8 percent. A tie after 82 games would yield just over 51 percent odds for both teams.
Some of the top expected players in the draft include guards Lonzo Ball (UCLA), Markelle Fultz (Washington) and Dennis Smith (N.C. State), along with forwards Josh Jackson (Kansas) and Jayson Tatum (Duke).
Should the Lakers lose their pick to Philadelphia in June, they'll also send their 2019 first-rounder to the Orlando Magic (for Dwight Howard). Thus, it's vital that the Lakers win any of the top three selections in the lottery, delaying the pick to Philadelphia until 2018 (unprotected) while shifting the Orlando obligation to a pair of second-rounders (in 2017 and 2018) instead of a first.
The most important game left on the schedule will be March 9 when the Lakers visit Phoenix.