His teammates’ and coaches’ sneakers squeaked on the court in front of Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell as he reflected on how much fun he’s having this off-season.
“Last off-season was Looney Tunes,” Russell said Tuesday. “Wasn’t real. I didn’t get nothing out of it.”
This off-season has been different for the second overall pick of the 2015 draft.
“Fun,” Russell said. “Real fun. The team, I feel like, is growing.”
The 2016-17 season feels like a second rookie year for Russell. It’s one in which he expects to be able to better harness his potential. The Lakers will open training camp next week at UC Santa Barbara. As it approaches, Russell is optimistic first-year Coach Luke Walton and his staff will aid his development.
“I feel like if I came into the league this year, in this environment, it wouldn’t have been as tough,” Russell said. “Even if Kobe was here, it still wouldn’t have been as tough. …
“The coaching staff, the whole atmosphere that this coaching staff brings is different. I’m not saying better, I’m not downgrading the last coaching staff. I’m just saying the atmosphere they bring every day is a winning mentality.”
Last season’s Lakers had the worst record in franchise history (17-65). In November, Kobe Bryant announced he planned to retire at the end of the season, ending a historic 20-year career with the Lakers. To Russell it became clear quickly that Bryant’s departure took precedence over the growth of the team’s young players.
“He deserved it; it was his time,” Russell said. “They expected so much from so many people, and then Kobe had his farewell tour, and it was just like, we put everything we had, expectations for everybody else, on hold. We gotta get through Kobe’s farewell tour and then we can continue with our process. So we kind of accepted that.”
He decided to “sit back and enjoy the show” that came with Bryant’s goodbye, and did. The losing, though, took a toll. And at 19, Russell felt he was navigating the new world of the NBA alone.
“Everything I went through was new, and there was no guidance from the people that were supposed to give me the guidance,” Russell said.
Although Russell never mentioned former Lakers coach Byron Scott by name, their relationship was a focal point last season. Scott often limited Russell’s playing time, even taking away his status as a starter for part of the season. Some wondered whether Scott was too hard on the rookie.
“D-Russell and I, at least in my mind, I felt we had a pretty good relationship,” Scott told The Times in May. "… I don’t think I was too hard on D-Russ. I wanted him to be accountable and to make him better. So if that’s old school … . I call it coaching. So I do not think I was too hard on him.”
Russell averaged 13.2 points and 3.3 assists in 28.2 minutes per game.
“It could have been better,” he said. “It was my first year. I did the best I could do with what I could control. I’m not ashamed of it.”
When the season ended on April 13, Russell instantly felt ready to move on from it. He set to work soon after, trying to improve his game beginning back home in Louisville, Ky. He worked on ball-handling, on his jump shot and his conditioning.
He learned how to better manage his time and how to eat better. He spent the off-season armed with an understanding of what it takes to play an 82-game season, more than twice the length of a college season.
On June 21, coming off a workout, Russell met his new coach as the Lakers introduced Walton in a news conference.
“I was excited to see him,” Russell said. “I heard so many great things about him.”
Actually working with Walton has confirmed that reputation to Russell. Walton’s having coached on and played for championship teams (the Golden State Warriors and the Lakers) gave him instant credibility. His recent playing history — Walton retired in 2013 — made Russell feel that Walton understood him. He’s never had a head coach who scrimmaged with his players before.
Russell said Walton has stressed to him the importance of being a leader.
“I can’t give any specific information, just kind of coaching me through it,” Russell said. “Just giving me the guidance on how to do right. And when I do right, he lets you know, ‘I saw, I noticed.’ ”
Some fruits of Russell’s off-season work appeared during this year’s summer league games in Las Vegas. Russell averaged 21.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and four assists per game. He made 47.7% of his shots.
“It’s almost like you kind of knew you were capable, it’s just getting the opportunity,” Russell said. “It’s all opportunity and being in the right system, the right program.”
Summer league indicated growth, and the Lakers will need more of it from the player in whom they invested that second overall pick. His development is critical for the Lakers’ future. This year he believes he has the tools to maximize it.
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