Lakers hope legacy continues with D'Angelo Russell

ByJ.A. Adande ESPN logo
Tuesday, June 30, 2015

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Monday afternoon, four days after D'Angelo Russell was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, minutes after he held up his gold No. 1 jersey in front of the Lakers-logoed backdrop to provide all the tangible evidence he needed, Russell still said he was "shocked" that the whole thing happened at all.

We were shocked too, shocked that the Lakers would stray from history and pass up a big man like Jahlil Okafor to take a point guard. Except it shouldn't be shocking. Not at all. The Lakers' history of winning with big men, from Mikan to Wilt to Kareem to Shaq to Pau, is the very reason they needed to grab a great point guard.

Supreme centers have been easy to come by for this franchise. Point guards have been more elusive. Here's the list of everyone who has spent time as the Lakers' primary point guard for at least one season since Earvin "Magic" Johnson retired on Nov. 7, 1991:

Sedale Threatt Nick Van Exel Derek Harper Derek Fisher Ron Harper Lindsey Hunter Gary Payton Chucky Atkins Smush Parker Steve Nash Kendall Marshall Jordan Clarkson

That averages out to a new point guard every couple of years. Yes, Payton is in the Hall of Fame and Nash is on his way, but their time in Lakerland was much like Smokey Robinson and Patti LaBelle on the mike at Sunday's BET Awards show: more of an acknowledgment for what they'd done in the past than a recognition of current contributions. Fisher had the longest and most productive time of those on the list, contributing to five championship teams. His success also came in the triangle offensive scheme that did not emphasize point guards.

No point guard has represented the Lakers in an All-Star Game since Van Exel in 1998. Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol and even Andrew Bynum have gone since then. So yeah, the Lakers have had an abundance of centers. They're overdue for a point guard.

"It's not to say one is easier to get than the other," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "We just felt that D'Angelo, at the top of the draft, was the best player for us going forward."

Besides, if Okafor was the next Shaq or Kareem, there's no way he would have been available to the Lakers at the No. 2 pick.

"It wasn't an easy decision," Kupchak said. "We made it easy at the end."

Russell's second workout clinched it. There's an attribute that matters to coaches, especially guys who used to play in the NBA like Byron Scott and Kevin McHale, and the Lakers saw that quality in Russell.

"He just wants it," Scott said. "You can see it when he works out, see it when he plays three-on-three, he just wants it. To me that's pretty important."

"There's a certain air about him ... and confidence," Kupchak said. "Not cockiness."

There's a fine distinction between the two. Confidence is self-belief. Cockiness is thinking you know everything.

Yes, Russell felt comfortable reiterating to the media that "I consider myself the top basketball player in this draft." He also balanced that with repeated references to how much he has to learn. He wants to absorb everything about Kobe Bryant's approach to the NBA, both on and off the court. He can't wait to go against great point guards like Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry for the first time so that, "The second round I'll have a better feel for it."

He wants to discover his niche.

"You can't feel like you're quicker than someone you're not quicker than," Russell said. "You can't feel like you're stronger than someone that's stronger than you. It's all about gaining an edge. What do I do that's better?"

Russell isn't as cocky as Scott was himself when he was drafted by the San Diego Clippers in 1983. Scott immediately popped off about how he was better than Magic Johnson. Then the Clippers traded him to the Lakers. Gulp.

It was similar to Larry NanceJr.'s reaction on draft night when he realized he was about to be teammates with Kobe, whom he'd labeled with the hashtag #rapist in a tweet three years ago. (Bryant was charged with sexual assault in Colorado in 2003, but the charge was dropped before trial.) Nance felt a knot in his stomach until he sent an apologetic text to Bryant, who told him not to worry about his youthful mistake.

Magic didn't let Scott off that easily in his first training camp. He didn't speak to Scott, and wouldn't let him run with the rest of the guards when it was their turn to do conditioning sprints. Scott had to go by himself. Finally, Michael Cooper prevailed on Magic to ease up on the kid, and eventually Magic and Scott formed a bond that continues to this day.

Scott sees a lot more of Magic than himself in D'Angelo Russell.

"There is no other Magic Johnson -- let's get that straight right now," Scott said. "I'm not comparing him to Earvin. I'm comparing the way he thinks about the game to Earvin."

It's the mindset of: "Make the people around you better, think about the team first, think about being a true point guard," Scott said. "And then if you have to -- we know [Magic] was very capable of -- 'If you ask me to score, I can do that for you too.' That's what I think this kid can do."

If Russell can do what Scott and Kupchak think he can do then he'll be joining the Hall of Famers whose retired jerseys hung on the wall to the Lakers rookies' right-hand side during their introductory news conference. When Russell was asked about joining them he went into point guard mode and deferred to Nance's response, which was that adding to the franchise's banner count comes first.

A little studying of the retired jerseys reveals a thread of Lakers history, one that Russell could possibly continue. There's a distinction between the backstory of Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal compared to, say, Johnson, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. And if you think about it, the selection of Russell last week makes even more sense.

The Lakers acquire great big men. They draft great guards.

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