If LA Lakers Draft Lonzo Ball, Is D'Angelo Russell Out?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJune 12, 2017

Mar 3, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell (1) gets the ball past Boston Celtics forward Amir Johnson (90) as he drives to the basket in the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — The Lakers have until June 22 to decide if Lonzo Ball has the goods to validate the never-ending hype. But perhaps the bigger question the Lakers must address before draft night is what do they really have in 2015 No. 2 pick D'Angelo Russell?

After his workout Wednesday, Ball made it clear what Russell wasn't.

"They just need a leader, a point guard, and I think I bring that to the team," said the prospective No. 2 pick, assuming the Boston Celtics don't take him with the top selection.

So if Russell isn't a point guard and isn't a leader, what is he? To understand, let's rewind for a moment.

The Lakers drafted Russell with hopes he would fill the team's void at point. At the time, former coach Byron Scott even gushed that he saw shades of Earvin "Magic" Johnson in the Ohio State freshman.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 07:  Lonzo Ball sits on the side after his work out for the Los Angeles Lakers at Toyota Sports Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograp
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

Scott backtracked after a month, saying Russell is "not Magic Johnson" at the start of what proved to be a tumultuous player/coach relationship as Russell worked to find his footing in the league.

Two years later, Johnson is now president of basketball operations for the Lakers, echoing some of the same concerns of his former Showtime teammate.

"I just want [Russell] to make better decisions and also be a better leader," Johnson said on ESPN Radio.

Johnson elaborated at an event for sponsors and fans at Staples Center in March.

"D'Angelo is playing the toughest position in the NBA, and that's the point guard position. 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.

"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. What I want D'Angelo to do is take this team in his hands ... and those guys will appreciate that."

Russell should take Johnson's comments as constructive criticism, but when they're coming from Ball, a player who has exactly zero minutes of NBA experience on his resume?

If he and Ball become teammates, they'll have some work to do to get on the same page.

That's assuming Ball isn't Russell's replacement.

Johnson recently declared in a more recent ESPN Radio appearance that second-year forward Brandon Ingram is the one player the team "would probably not move" in a trade.

Despite averaging 15.6 points and 4.8 assists in just 28.7 minutes a game, Russell still needs to convince Johnson that he's a franchise cornerstone.

The 21-year-old never considered himself a point guard first and foremost, even at Ohio State where he averaged 19.3 points and five assists a night.

Late in the season, Lakers coach Luke Walton inserted Jordan Clarkson at the 1, shifting Russell over to the 2. At 6'5", Russell has the size to play either backcourt role.

Ball is actually an inch taller than Russell. Given the chance, the two could prove to be a potent backcourt combination.

Per video analyst Pete Zayas of LakerFilmRoom.com, Walton's offense might be a great fit for the pair.

"If Luke Walton wants to go further down the path of the Golden State Warriors, who run more off-ball screens and fewer on-ball screens than nearly every other team in the league, a D'Angelo Russell/Lonzo Ball backcourt would go a long way toward achieving that.

"Russell's immersive education in pick-and-roll play and offensive organization over the last [six] months minimizes Ball's weaknesses and inexperience, Ball impacts the game in transition in a way that Russell never will, and both can spot up and work as a cutter while the other runs the show."

Zayas went on to call Ball a basketball "genius" but also warned that neither guard has shown a propensity to attack the basket off the dribble, their "biggest collective weakness."

Defensively, where the Lakers have struggled significantly in recent years, Russell and Ball might have issues staying with many of the quicker point guards in the league.

"That backcourt would be a significant problem defensively," Sam Vecenie of the Sporting News said on the Hollywood Hoops podcast. "Neither of those guys can defend at the point of attack."

"I think that it would work offensively because they can both really shoot [and pass] the ball, and because Lonzo is not one of those ball pounders," he continued. "Guys who stand on the perimeter and just pound the ball into oblivion like a Rajon Rondo; even Russell Westbrook does it, John Wall does it. [Ball] is someone who likes to move the ball."

If the Lakers did go with that backcourt tandem, they would be well-served to bring in a quick, defensive-minded point guard off the bench—one who can rotate in alongside either Russell or Ball.

Outside of Ball, June's draft has several high-potential point guards in their range, including Washington's Markelle Fultz (likely No. 1 pick) and Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox.

Johnson, along with general manager Rob Pelinka, has a short track record on the job, which makes it a challenge to try to predict the way the Lakers will go.

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 30: Los Angeles Sparks Owner Magic Johnson interviews D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during a game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the San Antonio Stars at STAPLES Center on August 30, 2015 in Los Angeles, Califo
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

If Ball is the pick, perhaps they'll give Russell at least a year to develop alongside him—or maybe Russell becomes the team's primary trade bait to land an established star such as Indiana Pacers forward Paul George.

The Lakers could also go in an entirely different direction in the draft, taking a forward such as Kansas' Josh Jackson or Duke's Jayson Tatum.

It's worth noting that Russell, who has two years of NBA experience, is only a year older than Jackson.

Russell has shown flashes of being a special player. He finished a solid sophomore campaign with an emotional game-winner over the Minnesota Timberwolves at the buzzer.

He'll continue to grow and mature, but it's unclear if Russell will ever be the leader that Johnson envisions at point guard.

Johnson has a serious decision to help make on draft night. Whatever he helps decide will impact Russell's future, be it as a long-term fixture in the Lakers backcourt or as an option on another team's roster.

       

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

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