D’Angelo Russell’s rookie season will forever be linked to Byron Scott. Despite ultimately compiling positive counting stats, Russell’s year was marred by perceived feuds with his head coach as well as off-court drama.
The generation gap issues with Scott were likely the main reason for the head coach’s dismissal following the conclusion of the season. It became evident early on that he would not be able to relate to or develop the young players on the roster, especially Russell who was seen as the future face of the franchise.
The Lakers’ next coaching move effectively proved that reasoning. By hiring Luke Walton as the next head coach of the Purple and Gold, the front office ensured that they would have a leader whom the young players could trust and with whom they could grow.
Russell appeared on the Vertical podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski on Wednesday and discussed the differences between the relationship with Scott and the new one with Walton:
“I feel like Byron, he did that to a certain extent, as far as that guidance and keeping you on a leash at the same time, but with Luke it’s more of, he gives you free range from the start. It’s all new to him so he’s realizing what guys can do and what they can’t; what their strengths are. He’s done a great job of putting guys in a position to [use] their strengths, and as far as being the point guard it’s the hardest thing to figure out. From day one, he’s always told me ‘shoot the ball, if someone goes under the screen, shoot the ball. If you’re open, shoot the ball. You have to be aggressive. I know you like to pass this and that, but you have to be aggressive.’
“Just from that conversation alone I’ve always had that aggressive mentality and the game has been so much easier for me just because last year my mentality was ‘pass first, shoot second,’ because I was trying to be a point guard, and thinking that being a point guard you have to get the most assists. You have to get guys going, and in a certain sense you do but being aggressive is what’s going to open that up. A lot of guys in this league are successful that don’t really shoot the ball but they’re still aggressive, and they’re getting to where they want to go and then making that play. Luke has really helped guide me to that point.”
Luke’s long leash has extended beyond just letting Russell shoot when he’s open. The first-year head coach has cemented the idea that his sophomore point guard will be the team’s on-court leader moving forward. While it may not have been an explicitly stated decision, Russell says that Walton has thrown enough signs to express it:
“He hasn’t really said that to the team, it’s more just little things. When we bring it in to the huddle, he’ll say “what do we got point guard?’ And he’s talking to me, and I’m like ‘oh, we got team on three.’ So it’s just like a sense of urgency of just little things like that, it’s never been a sit everybody down [and say] ‘hey, D’Angelo’s our guy.’ It’s never been like that and I wouldn’t want him to do that. It’s more at the end of the day you have to earn it, and if you have that credibility to earn it guys will respect your voice more.
“So when I speak now, people kind of listen and kind of look to me for guidance if they don’t know a play. That’s the best feeling for me, because I know last year if I didn’t know a play or somebody didn’t know a play they couldn’t come to me and ask me. I was the point guard but I just didn’t know, this is my first year, my first go-round, and I’m worried about so many other things, not where you’re supposed to be. Being a point guard in your first year is so hard, and then this year I’ve developed that chemistry with guys to where if they don’t know they know they can come to me because I know, and I’m just so focused this year as far as just leading the best way I can and performing the best way I can so this team can be the best it can be.”
Russell is one-hundred percent correct in his assessment. Coming into the league as a 19-year-old point guard is difficult enough. Having the feeling that any one mistake could lead to being benched constrains any freedom on the court even further.
Of course, Russell is not the unquestioned leader just yet. He is still young and inexperienced. But as he stated later in the podcast, he has veteran teammates helping him reach that level of leadership.
So far, the Luke Walton era has gone swimmingly in LA. At least from the perspective of developing his point guard, Walton has done a phenomenal job in the span of a few months. He has given Russell full reign over the offense and supported him in becoming a leader for the team.
That matters to a young player like Russell, no matter how much he exudes confidence. His success in the future may very well hinge on the decisions that Walton is making now and it appears that the coach is opening the door for D’Angelo Russell to become the next face of the Lakers’ franchise.