D'Angelo Russell has arrived. Yeah, the Los Angeles Lakers point guard has played just three games since the end of the 2015-16 season, but it’s already apparent the 20-year-old is the King of the Summer League. While that may sound like a backhanded compliment, it isn’t. Russell has finally shown he has the stuff to be a star in the NBA.
Many questioned Russell’s ability and mental acuity after a rocky rookie season. He showed flashes of what he could become, but also played like an over-hyped turnover machine at times. Then there was that whole cellphone video mess.
Those struggles clearly made Russell better. Free from the shackles of domineering ex-coach Byron Scott and empowered to lead by new coach Luke Walton, Russell has starred in Las Vegas the last few days. He opened Summer League on Friday by dropping 20 points (on 7-of-12 shooting), grabbing 11 rebounds, dishing out six assists and creating three steals in the Lakers’ 85-65 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
On Saturday night he led a furious comeback as the Lakers overcame a 16-point deficit to beat the Philadelphia 76ers and No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons 70-69. Russell won the game with a deep 3-pointer at the buzzer, overshadowing a much-hyped matchup between Simmons and No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram.
Though he rightly proclaimed in a postgame interview that he didn’t play well, Russell again came out the other end looking like a star. He scored 22 points, while adding four rebounds and five assists. But most importantly, he took over in crunch time, hitting two dazzling, clutch shots late to win the game. Very few players can step up and deliver in those situations consistently and confidently. Russell showed he can. Then he tossed in a little showboating for the crowd with his now-patented “ice in my veins” celebration.
While that was a lot of fun, Russell’s best performance came Monday night, when he dominated Golden State’s summer squad in a 78-65 win. The Ohio State product poured in 26 points in just three quarters, while hitting 9-of-13 shots from the field and 4-of-7 from 3-point range. He added five rebounds, one assist and looked confident and smooth doing so.
Now here come the caveats: Russell is playing against rookies and fringe NBA guys and is entering his second year after being the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He has also turned the ball over a lot this summer, as he has averaged 5.0 per game in Las Vegas. But if you’ve watched Russell play over the past week its easy to understand why people are excited. The confidence and freedom he has played with are game-changing from where he was at the end of last season.
Perhaps most importantly, Russell has shown the charisma to be a star. He has stepped up in big moments, hit big shots and looked confident doing it. He’s been a leader on the floor, his teammates are responding to him and Walton has repeatedly praised his work in the gym.
Yeah, it’s the Summer League and no, the games don’t matter. But for a guy many wrote off in the middle of his rookie season, this has to be a huge affirmation that he belongs and is on the right path.
A few weeks ago national media members were clamoring for the Lakers to trade Russell, now he looks like the franchise point guard who was promised last June.
There will be ups and downs over the next few months, but D’Angelo Russell has shown he’s here to stay.