Column: D’Angelo Russell or Byron Scott, whose side are you on?
He was Hollywood’s newest child star, D’Angelo Russell strutting across Southern California television screens on NBA draft night in late June wearing the cutest red sport coat with gray lapels and red bow tie and oversized gold Lakers cap.
His new coach, Byron Scott, was so impressed with the No. 2 overall pick, he immediately compared the kid to Magic Johnson.
“The last guy I saw that, I played with, was Earvin, with knowing how to get guys in certain spots,” Scott said.
A month later, after Russell had spent the Las Vegas Summer League imitating a broke Midwestern tourist hanging out at a blackjack table at dawn, Scott offered a different sort of poignant evaluation.
“Let me make this very clear,” Scott said. “Russell is not Magic Johnson.”
Uh-oh. You saw this happening. You knew this was coming. Take a 19-year-old point guard who was drafted too high and put him in a sideline huddle with a 54-year-old coach whose patience has run too thin and it’s an equation that has quickly become a question.
Who you got, the kid or the coach?
Seven games into a Lakers season that is already circling the drain, are you backing D’Angelo Russell’s need for playing time or Byron Scott’s insistence on pine time?
Do you think the Lakers blew it by picking Russell so high, or did they blow it by believing Scott could groom him so quickly?
Or, seriously, do you think the Buss family made a mistake with them both?
Whatever you think, it’s a mess. Barely a month after Jim Buss told USA Today that he thinks his organization is in “dynamite position,” his creation is once the verge of blowing up.
The Lakers have won one of eight games, Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour has taken a painful seat on the bench, and a nightly battle between the Lakers’ future and their present threatens to consume them all.
The future, in this scenario, is Russell, the celebrated point guard who has struggled with everything from his practice work ethic to his game adjustments.
The present is Scott, who is trying to win, an effort that he has felt requires benching Russell for long stretches, including the entire fourth quarter for three of the Lakers’ eight games.
There are folks who think Russell has to play big and important minutes now because the Lakers are awful anyway and why not find out what they have? Also, many believe the Lakers need to facilitate the bonding of the young trio of Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson before next summer, when several big-name free agents become available and are looking for a competitive spot to land.
I’m not going to put him out there to put him out there. If I do that and he’s not prepared and he’s not learning, then I’m preparing him to fail.
— Lakers Coach Byron Scott, regarding playing time for rookie D’Angelo Russell
But then there are others, basketball insiders among them, who hear the whispers that Russell went too Hollywood, too fast — goodness, there’s even a report that he was entertaining a friendship with the Kardashian clan’s Kendall Jenner. There is talk that he simply doesn’t work as hard as Randle or Clarkson and that he doesn’t yet understand the responsibilities of his big-boy NBA job. There are some who think Scott is just using the necessary tough love to make him understand.
Russell supporters will note that other top draft picks from June are playing big minutes and getting a chance to learn. Scott supporters will say, yeah, well, Russell actually played the last seven minutes against Orlando Wednesday night and responded by making one of three shots with a couple of rebounds and no assists while struggling defensively in the 101-99 loss.
Russell supporters will say that his game is all about timing and court awareness, something that can blossom only with minutes. Scott supporters will say that even averaging 25 minutes a game, Russell is shooting only 40%, has gotten to the free throw line only five times, and ranks third on the team with 2.6 assists per game.
Confused yet? Judging from recent comments from Russell and Scott, you’re not the only one.
Said Scott: “I think when you make a mistake over and over again, sometimes that wood has a good way of talking to your butt a little bit, too.”
Yet apparently that wood is not really branching out to Russell, who, when asked recently why he wasn’t playing, said, “I have no idea.”
Said Scott: “I’m not going to put him out there to put him out there. If I do that and he’s not prepared and he’s not learning, then I’m preparing him to fail.”
D’Angelo Russell, left, and Jordan Clarkson, shown in September, have been selected by the NBA to participate in the Feb. 12 Rising Stars Challenge.(Robert Casillas / Associated Press)
Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell pulls on his warmup shirt as he sits on the bench with teammate Anthony Brown during an Oct. 22 exhibition game against the Golden State Warriors at Honda Center in Anaheim.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers Coach Byron Scott talks to guard D’Angelo Russell during the first half of a preseason game on Oct. 11.(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell fouls Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio on a drive to the basket in the first half of a game Oct. 28.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns grabs a rebound in front of Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell during an Oct. 28 game at Staples Center.(Harry How / Getty Images)
Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell, right, tries to pass after falling as Sacramento Kings guard Rajon Rondo tries to block the pass.(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell drives past Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay during the second quarter of a game at Staples Center on Nov. 3.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant (24) and D’Angelo Russell (1) talk during the game against the Brooklyn Nets on Friday.(Mike Stobe / Getty Images)
Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell and center Roy Hibbert (17) celebrate during a game against the Brooklyn Nets on on Nov. 6.(Mike Stobe / Getty Images)
Heat point guard Goran Dragic drives on Lakers rookie guard D’Angelo Russell during a game at American Airlines Arena on Nov. 10.(Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)
Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell drives past Nets guard Jarrett Jack in the first half of a game Nov. 6 in Brooklyn.(Kathy Kmonicek / Associated Press)
Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell (1) pulls a rebound away from Magic center Dewayne Dedmon in the first half of a game Nov. 11 in Orlando.(Stephen M. Dowell / Orlando Sentinel)
Yet apparently Russell is not sure how to prepare, because he said, “I’ve got to figure out what I’m doing wrong so I can correct it.”
Yeah, you saw this happening, right? It is daily chaos, and nightly calamity, and none of it good for an organization that is still wandering aimlessly just eight months from the beginning of the post-Kobe era.
Dig through the muck and one can unearth two truths.
Russell, as it was written here in June, clearly should not have been the Lakers’ first pick. The organization passed on 6-foot-11 Jahlil Okafor — who is averaging 21 points and seven rebounds for Philadelphia — because it swaggeringly thought it could sign big man LaMarcus Aldridge or Greg Monroe. But the rest of the league doesn’t view the Jim Buss Lakers as it once viewed the Jerry Buss Lakers, and they were spurned yet again.
The second is that now that the Lakers have Russell, for better or worse, they have to play him big and late minutes. What, is he going to keep them from making the playoffs? They can’t get any worse, and he can only get better. There is no more opportune learning experience for an NBA rookie than crunch time, so let the kid crunch.
In keeping with his Lakers championship roots, Scott desperately wants to win, but if that desire involves stifling the Lakers’ future, he could lose his job in the attempt. Play the kid. Cover your eyes. Ban the Kardashians.
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