At the end of practice on Saturday, Luke Walton tasked his 19-player roster to make 15 free throws to avoid doing sprints.
While his Laker teammates shot, second-year guard D’Angelo Russell stood on the sideline and relentlessly barked at Walton.
Put me on the line, Coach. I have a make for you right here. Let’s go, Coach.
“I’m saving him,” Walton said, smirking, to assistant Brian Shaw. “I want there to be some pressure on it.”
Russell, the Lakers’ 20-year-old starting point guard, knows pressure. He is at the center of the post-Kobe Bryant era, and the quarterback of the free-flowing offense Walton is implementing in his first year as the Lakers head coach. And while Russell has done everything Walton has asked of him during the preseason — facilitating the offense, looking for high-percentage scoring opportunities, involving his teammates — Walton wants Russell to better recognize when defenses are offering him shots.
Then he wants Russell to let it fly, thinking his point guard can be a high-level scorer with the right approach. Russell, who yielded shots to Bryant for much of last season, averaged 13.2 points and 3.3 assists per game as a rookie.
“I don’t think he goes out and hunts [points] from the point guard position. He has a lot more responsibilities than just getting his average,” Walton said after practice Saturday. “But I think he has the ability and the skill to be a guy who averages around 20 points a game.”
Russell took that advice into Sunday, scoring a game-high 33 points in an exhibition win over the Nuggets. He made 13 of his 19 attempts from the field, and went four for seven from beyond the arc. He scored in and around the paint, spotted up in transition and hit a step-back three while coming off a Larry Nance Jr. screen.
“You got to find your spots,” Russell said, after Sunday’s exhibition, of how he decides between scoring himself or feeding his teammates. “… When Lou [Williams] was going, I was looking for him, when Nick [Young] was going, I was looking for him. When [Jose Calderon] was going, I was looking for him.
“As far as myself, I got the ball in my hands and I’m going and I feel like they’re cheering for me.”
It is all part of the balance Russell will need to find this year. The Lakers want him to score, even need him to, but he’s also tasked with involving all parts of an evolving offense. The Lakers don’t have an All-Star player — Russell said so himself on Sunday — but have a handful of scoring options in Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Luol Deng, rookie Brandon Ingram, and so on.
Walton’s baseline directions are for Russell to get the ball out of his hands, run off screens and turn into a weak-side shooter. But he also wants the point guard to recognize sagging defenses, utilize his jumper in pick-and-roll sets and shoot every “good shot” he comes across.
“As the point guard, I definitely want to be a main factor as far as getting guys involved,” Russell said after Saturday’s practice. “Dominating the game if the ball is in my hands, or if it isn’t in my hands, just be able to dominate the game in different aspects.”
Finally, Walton gave in to Russell’s endless chatter and put him on the foul line.
Russell walked toward it with a bounce in his step. He cocked the ball in his left hand and bent his knees. Then he casually took a free throw that hit the front rim and bounced out.
“It’s always the one who’s talking who misses,” Shaw said as Russell walked by.
“Coach told me to miss so we could have some pressure,” Russell shot back, a sneaky grin on his face.
So far Russell has been great at listening to his coaches. Walton wants him to remember his instincts, too.