The talk was everywhere a few months ago: Did the Lakers draft the wrong player?
It was too early to throw around the “bust” label but it didn’t look great when D’Angelo Russell lost his starting job 20 games into the season.
It also didn’t help that the two players drafted directly below him were routinely putting up nice stat lines: Philadelphia center Jahlil Okafor and New York power forward Kristaps Porzingis.
The Lakers were swooning and Russell was struggling. Not a good combo.
“Everybody else out there seemed to be worried and wondering if we did the right thing. Now everybody’s looking at it going, ‘Man, this kid can play a little bit,’ ” Coach Byron Scott said Saturday.
Russell has been rolling since returning to the starting lineup 10 games ago, routinely scoring in the 20s and bursting out for 39 points against Brooklyn.
He had 21 points, five assists and four steals in the Lakers’ upset of Golden State and was shooting 46% from three-point range since reclaiming his starter’s spot. It’s a small sample size for Russell, but for perspective, the Clippers’ J.J. Redick leads the league with 48% accuracy from long distance, followed by San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard (47.3%).
Maybe the second selection in the draft wasn’t such a bad one after all.
“I guess I’ve been making some noise to get some attention,” said Russell who added that Sunday’s game against the Knicks was an important one, not just for Kobe Bryant-versus-Carmelo Anthony reasons.
“A lot of rookies are playing well at this time. It’s a statement game to try to separate yourself,” Russell said.
Porzingis has faded since a fast start electrified Knicks fans, although he scored 23 points in the team’s 101-94 loss to the Clippers on Friday.
Okafor was the leading scorer and rebounder for the 76ers but was expected to be sidelined the rest of the season because of torn knee cartilage, the team said Friday.
Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns, a double-double machine selected first overall, remained the clear-cut favorite for rookie of the year.
Who’s playing Sunday?
Bryant was expected to play against New York, Scott said.
“I would suspect against Carmelo and the Knicks, there’s probably a pretty good chance he’ll probably go,” Scott said.
The Lakers’ third-leading scorer, Lou Williams, will probably return Sunday from a five-game absence because of a strained hamstring. It could decrease playing time for Marcelo Huertas, who averaged 9.4 points and six assists, and shot 52.8% the last five games.
LAKERS NEXT UP
VS. NEW YORK
When: 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Staples Center.
On the air: TV: TWC SportsNet, TWC Deportes; Radio: 710, 1330.
Records: Lakers 14-52; Knicks 27-40.
Record vs. Knicks: 0-1.
Update: After a relatively promising start buoyed by fans’ excitement over rookie Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks have faded from the Eastern Conference playoff race. Kobe Bryant made only six of 19 shots in the Lakers’ 99-95 loss to New York in November. The Lakers led by three points with three minutes left but missed nine consecutive shots.
Follow Mike Bresnahan on Twitter: @Mike_Bresnahan