Watching rookie guard D’Angelo Russell score career highs of 23 and 24 points in consecutive games was a not a surprise for Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak.
Despite a slow start from the team’s second overall pick in June’s NBA draft, Kupchak has a lot of confidence in Russell as a prospect.
“There’s never a doubt, when we scouted him last year and when we drafted him and worked him out, that he was going to be a very, very, very, very good player in this league,” Kupchak said in a live chat on Lakers.com. “That’s our feeling all along.”
“He did not have a very good summer league and I think that was a wakeup call for him,” Kupchak said.
Russell averaged 8.5 points a game over the first games in October, then 10.7 in November and 15.1 halfway through December. His assists have climbed from 2.0 to 3.1 to 3.6 over that same stretch, as have his steals (0.0, 1.0 to 1.5).
While his field goal percentage is hovering at 40.2%, Russell’s three-point shot has improved from 25% to 32.1% to 34%.
“His gift is being able to deliver the ball and see the floor. I think he will also score,” said Kupchak. “I think he’ll rebound at a high level for a guard. I think there’ll be a lot of games in his career where he’ll be a triple-double threat.”
Kupchak wants Russell to do more than just adapt to the speed of the NBA, but take control of how fast he and the Lakers play.
“It’s not only just figuring out the pace of the game. As a ball-handling guard, you can dictate the pace of the game and that’s something we think he can do,” Kupchak said.
Kupchak noted that the Lakers had Russell second on their draft board, ahead of Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor and New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis, taken third and fourth, respectively. All three went after Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 overall pick, drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“We felt [Russell] was the second-best player -- Towns, we felt was a heck of a prospect,” said Kupchak.
He also acknowledged that the Lakers (3-21) are still in a bit of an odd position, working to develop their young core while trying to honor Kobe Bryant in what will be his final season. He and his scouts are already preparing for the 2016 draft, although the team will only keep their first-round selection if it’s in the top three after May’s lottery -- otherwise, it will convey to the Philadelphia 76ers as part of the Steve Nash trade.
Kupchak said he has spoken to Coach Byron Scott about finding that proper balance, while managing Bryant’s minutes so he stays healthy for the duration of the season. He believes Scott has passed that on to the team’s veteran All-Star.
Additionally, Kupchak noted the team is not just evaluating the young core, but looking closely at pending free agents Roy Hibbert, Marcelo Huertas and Brandon Bass (who has a player option after the season). The Lakers need to decide who they should reinvest in, and if those on longer contracts, like Lou Williams, fit in with the young core.
“We haven’t earmarked a player and said we have to trade this player,” he said, although the team will make and take calls, as they do every year as the Feb. 18 trade deadline nears.
“During the offseason, Jordan worked as hard, if not harder than anyone,” said Kupchak.
He’s also pleased with the return of second-year forward Julius Randle, who missed most of last season after breaking his leg on opening night.
“That was a nasty, nasty injury last year. It’s really only been a year and a couple of months since the injury. So if you think about in a 14-month period where he was and where he is today, it’s impressive,” said Kupchak.
The Lakers are still trying to figure out how to best utilize Randle. He and Russell were recently moved to the second unit, with rookie Larry Nance Jr. and Williams starting in their places.
“We’ve got to figure out where [Randle is] going to be most effectively offensively. Defensively, he needs to work on guarding the guy in front of him, and of course, team defense,” said Kupchak. “He’s already a really good rebounder.”
“I think we have to wait until the season is over to look back on how he did,” said Kupchak. “I thought he was excellent last year under very adverse circumstances.”
The Lakers had more injuries last season than any other franchise. This year, the team has been mostly healthy, but has struggled nightly to get victories.
“Ultimately, our goal is to win. At some point myself and ownership and my staff will have to look at it and say, ‘OK, we didn’t win. How much of that is my fault? How much of that is players getting injured? And then of course how much of that, if any, is Byron’s fault?’” he said.
Kupchak noted that the players are continuing to have spirited practices, despite their record. He hasn’t asked Scott to change lineups or play certain players a specific number of minutes.
“I don’t tell Byron what to do. I don’t tell him who to play,” Kupchak said, adding that he still maintains a regular dialogue with the team’s coach.
“You have to be careful about gifting minutes to players. We know we have to develop young players, but they have to know that their performance will dictate how many minutes they get,” he said. “If you’re getting 15, 18, 20, 25, 30 minutes a game, you better be pretty happy that you’re getting those minutes and you’d better not take them for granted, because they’re difficult to come by.
“I can make a list of 60 to 70 guys in the NBA right now that can’t get into a game and they would die [for] 20 or 15 minutes a game.”
On the season, Clarkson is leading the Lakers in minutes at 31.5 a game, followed by Bryant’s 30.9, Russell’s 28.4 and Randle’s 27.7.
Okafor is averaging 32.6 a night for the 76ers, while Towns is at 27.8 for the Wolves and Porzingis is playing 27.3 for the Knicks.
The Lakers are finally home after completing an eight-game road trip. They’ll host the Milwaukee Bucks (10-15) on Tuesday night at Staples Center.