The offseason is a time of hope for fans of most NBA teams. Even those without expectations of contending or even reaching the playoffs have a glimmer of hope for their future.
For the Lakers, that ambition is signified by their young core. After a largely disastrous season in 2015-16, fans are excited to see a group of young, talented players flourish under a new coaching staff and system.
The player who has the most expectations thus far is D’Angelo Russell. Despite a tumultuous rookie year, the former second overall pick showed enough to give fans the hope that he can carry the franchise in the post-Kobe era. That is a large load to place on the young point guard’s shoulders right now, but his coaching staff does not seem to think it’s an unfair one.
Assistant coach Jesse Mermuys spoke to Joey Ramirez of Lakers.com recently and had praise for the Ohio State alum:
“He has some maturity, obviously, that he’s going to have to grow and come up in this league,” Mermuys said. “But he’s so intelligent and he’s smart and he’s charismatic and he’s a good dude who really wants it.
“You can tell when you talk to him and are around him how hungry he is. That drive — with his size and talent — that is the key to success. If you’re willing to put in the work and you have that burning desire to be great, the sky’s the limit in this league. I’m just super excited to even be a part of that process.”
Mermuys does not mention anything about Russell’s play but praises his high intangibles which at this point are just as important. Russell has carried a stigma of immaturity which in some instances seem fair and in others seem like regurgitated arguments.
What Mermuys mentions about the point guard, however, trumps all of those allegations. We know that Russell is a talented player and has the potential to become great in this league. But that talent is not worth much if it is not paired with the determination to perfect it. According to Mermuys, Russell has that.
Additionally, Mermuys seems to indicate that Russell has great leadership qualities. That the 20-year-old is called intelligent and charismatic and that his drive to be great shows in everyday speech could be a sign of that ability to lead a team. The Lakers are without a “face of the franchise” for the first time in 20 seasons, but Russell appears poised to take over that role.
Of course, hearing all this in September does not really matter. Russell will have to prove it all again when he steps on the court in October and do so over the course of a long season. There will be missteps along the way which should be expected. Fortunately, the coaching staff has done nothing but encourage development, setting wins aside as a secondary goal.
“When you’re around Luke, you’re happy,” Mermuys said. “You’re in a good mood. You just can’t help feeding off of his energy and his vibe. He has an unbelievable knack for just making you feel good. He keeps things fun all the time.
“And I think he wanted to establish a culture where we’re working at such a high rate and we’re trying to outwork every other team, but we’re doing it and enjoying it and it’s fun to do it and we want to do it.”
“From day one, it was mandated to make sure development was first,” Mermuys said. “Obviously everyone wants to win and it’s a competitive, first-class organization. But we were really trying to establish a culture and program.”
The theme of culture and development has been prevalent in the coaching staff’s interviews. It seems like a no-brainer that a team with a handful of talented, young players should focus on their development rather than raising expectations of an arbitrary number of wins.
But that concept has not been the case for LA. Over the past two seasons, development should have been the primary goal of the team. Julius Randle’s rookie year was cut short but Jordan Clarkson hardly saw the court until the second half of his. D’Angelo Russell was benched in favor of Lou Williams for a large chunk of the season.
Before both of the previous seasons, the two worst in Lakers’ history, management has proclaimed that the team would be better than pundits expected and that they would fight for the playoffs. Turns out they were wrong.
Mermuys’ comments are obvious in some regards but they are much more crucial than many may think. His words, along with those of Luke Walton before him, signify a change of mentality in the Lakers’ front office.
For the first time since their rebuild began, the Lakers are exclusively focusing on development. That means extra coaching for the young players. That means empowering those players to play free while learning the ins and outs of the game and the system. That means giving the players the ability to make mistakes without worrying about being benched or losing their starting job.
It’s a run-of-the-mill answer from Mermuys but a much-needed and reassuring one as the Lakers officially rebuild.