Lakers

D’Angelo Russell Has Come Full Circle

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To truly understand what makes this season so satisfying for D’Angelo Russell and his supporters, one must first understand the road he took to get to this point.

Russell was a high-school prodigy before attending Ohio State University where he became the most dynamic guard in the country. His NBA journey had its fair share of ups and downs, but Russell has stayed authentically D’Lo through it all.

THE PRODIGAL SON

June 25th, 2015. The Lakers are on the clock. Do they take their big man of the future in Jahlil Okafor? Or do they give the keys to a young 19-year-old with a rare blend of size and vision? Los Angeles opted for the ladder with hopes the Buckeye would become the face of the franchise after Kobe retires.

Fast forward two years later and the Lakers are shipping off Russell to Brooklyn. What all went wrong in Russell’s first tenure with LA and how is it different this time?

LIGHTS TOO BRIGHT (Los Angeles 2015-2017)

D’Angelo Russell’s first go-around in Los Angeles was full of ups and downs. Coming in as the highest-drafted Laker since James Worthy in 1982, expectations were sky-high. In the 2015 Summer League, D’Lo flashed his elite court vision and advanced shooting mechanics. His play during the Summer League peaked with an ICY game-winner previewing his clutch gene.

In Russell’s first two seasons in Tinseltown, he averaged 14.3 points, 4.0 assists and 3.5 rebounds on 41/35/76 splits in 143 games. It was a respectable stat line for a young player trying to learn the point-guard position. For a fanbase that had not made the playoffs since the 2013 season, however, Lakers fans were impatient with the combined 43-121 (26.2% WP) record.

LIFE AS A ROOKIE

Russell’s rookie season high water mark was a March 1st game against the Nets. In only 35 minutes, D’Lo torched Brooklyn for 39 points on 14-0f-21 shooting with 8-0f-12 from three-point range. That marked the most points scored by any rookie in his draft class. It was also the most by a Lakers rookie since Elgin Baylor in March 1959. He also became the youngest player to make 8+ three-pointers in a game (since surpassed by Jalen Green and Anthony Edwards). Russell would be awarded All-Rookie Second Team honors for his inaugural season in the NBA.

SOPHOMORE SLUMP

Russell had an injury-plagued sophomore season. In his rookie season, he missed only two games. In the proceeding season, he missed 19 games. The Lakers struggled mightily without Kobe and a clear leader and it was obvious the team lacked a sense of identity. He was in and out of the lineup in the first half of the season before improving his play post-All-Star Break.

On March 19th, 2017, Russell exploded for his first 40-point game against the Cavs. He ended the season on a high note by hitting a game-winner on April 9th against the Timberwolves. It turned out the second-year point guard was playing with a heavy heart. He dedicated his game-winner to his grandmother who died earlier that day.

Overall his first tenue in Los Angeles did not live up to the hype. There were plenty of flashes of his star potential, but a lack of maturity and a supporting cast limited Russell’s productivity in his first two seasons in the NBA.

OH, THIS KID’S SPECIAL (Brooklyn 2017-2019)

D’Angelo Russell’s importance to the Lakers became increasingly diminished during his second season because of two major developments.

The first was the emergence of a UCLA freshman point guard who was captivating the nation. Lonzo Ball became the focus of the national media because of his unique blend of size, court vision, basketball IQ and defensive prowess. His attention increased tenfold when his outspoken father, LaVar Ball, created his own fashion and shoe line, Big Baller Brand.

Lonzo and his representatives made it no secret that they wanted to be in Los Angeles and the director of basketball operations, Magic Johnson had his eye on the hometown kid. The 2016-17 Lakers finished with the third-worst record in the league (26-56) and drafted Ball with the second pick in the 2017 draft.

The second was Russell’s incident with teammate Nick Young involving rapper Iggy Azalea during Russell’s rookie season. Young, who was being unfaithful to his then-fiancé Azalea, admitted to cheating on her in a video recorded by Russell. Russell publicizing Young’s unfaithfulness left him isolated by teammates, never regaining their trust. This incident alienated Johnson’s view of the guard and contributed greatly to his abrupt departure from the city of angels.

These revelations led the Lakers to trade D’Angelo along with Timofey Mozgov‘s albatross contract to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Brook Lopez and the draft rights to Kyle Kuzma. The Lakers acquired cap flexibility that would later help them to sign LeBron James in the 2018 off-season along with Kyle Kuzma who became an integral piece to the 2020 Championship team. The Nets, who traded most of their draft picks during that era in the worst trade in NBA history, received a young star who could spearhead their rebuild.

SIGNS OF IMPROVEMENT

D’Angelo Russell quickly became Brooklyn’s franchise player, dropping 30 points in his Nets debut.

His first season in the Big Apple would be plagued by injury, however. He would average 15.5 points and 5.2 assists playing a career-low 25.7 minutes per game. The defining moment of his first season with the Nets came on March 23rd, 2018 when D’Lo recorded his first career-triple double vs the Raptors. All of the positive momentum he was building would be in losing efforts, though, as the Nets went 28-54 (34.1% WP) having one of the dullest futures in the process.

To acquire draft capital, the Nets would take on horrible contracts dumped by other teams leaving them with little cap space and mobility to improve the roster. To make matters worse, The Lakers would improve by nine wins over the previous season under Ball before signing LeBron in the 2018 off-season.

ALL-STAR D’ANGELO

D’Angelo Russell went into the 2018-19 season with the most pressure he’s had as a pro up to that point. Not only was DLo trying to get a second contract, but he needed to prove he could be an integral piece to a winning organization. D’Angelo got off to a hot start, scoring 31 against the Timberwolves in mid-November and dropping 38/8/8 vs. the Sixers in late November.

His coming-out party came on December 18th, 2018 against the Lakers, when he dropped 22 points and 13 assists. His clutch shooting and cerebral decision-making down the stretch had made obvious improvements since last season.

In mid-January, Russell would win his first Player of the Week award. On February 1st, 2019, Russell was selected to his first career All-Star game as an injury replacement. Games like his 36-point performance (14 in triple-overtime) vs. the Cavs, his 40-point performance on his birthday vs. the Hornets, and his 44-point (27 in the fourth) comeback win vs. the Kings exemplified the strides as a player and leader D’Lo made.

Russell’s success coincided with the team’s success. The Nets were projected to win just 32 games in the preseason odds but would shatter those expectations. Brooklyn would win 42 games and earn the sixth seed in the 2019 NBA playoffs. In Russell’s playoff debut, he dropped 26 points in an upset win in Philadelphia. The Nets would lose in five to the Sixers but the future in Brooklyn went from bleak to exceedingly bright. For his efforts, D’Lo would finish as the runner-up to Pascal Siakam in the 2019 Most Improved Player Award.

LOST SEASON (Golden State 2019-2020)

D’Angelo Russell’s success in Brooklyn would be a double-edged sword.

On one side, Russell had solidified himself as one of the premier young guards in the association. On the other, Russell needed a new contract and became a desirable trade piece. During the 2018-19 season, the Golden State Warriors dynasty started to show cracks in the foundation. Their new superstar Kevin Durant became increasingly distant and frustrated with the Big 3, namely Draymond Green. He felt unwanted and wanted a change of scenery after tearing his Achilles in the 2019 Finals.

Simultaneously, Kyrie Irving wanted to get out of Boston. The Nets — who before Russell were in basketball purgatory — seized the opportunity to add two superstars to their roster. On July 7th, 2018, the Nets traded Russell to the Warriors for Kevin Durant in a sign-and-trade.

D’Lo would sign a four-year, $117 million max contract with Golden State. Instead of joining a dynasty in the middle of championship contention, however, Russell joined Golden State during a rebuilding season. Klay Thompson had a season-ending ACL tear during the 2019 Finals, and just four games into the season, Steph Curry broke his wrist. The Warriors would have the worst record in the NBA and saw Russell as a rental at best.

Seven months after acquiring D’Lo, the Warriors traded him to the Timberwolves for Andrew Wiggins and a first-round pick (Jonathan Kuminga). Russell averaged 23.6 points (career-high) and 6.2 assists in Golden State, but this trade marked the third team that had given up on him.

MINNESOTA MAGIC

Russell’s arrival in Minnesota was his last chance to prove he was a starting-level point guard in the association. Russell’s magic in 2019 maximized his potential by having the franchise build an offense around him. In every other season, however, D’Lo played for a bottom feeder.

Russell joined his close friend and fellow 2015 top draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns. They previously had aspirations to play together. In his debut, he dropped 22 points with five assists. The Timberwolves would end the 2020 season with the second-worst record in the NBA (only Warriors were worst) at 19-45.

In 2021 Minnesota drafted Anthony Edwards and finished 23-49. D’Lo averaged 19 points and 6 assists.

TURNING THE SHIP AROUND

In the 2021-22 season, D’Lo averaged 18.1 points and a career-high 7.1 assists. His best game of the season came against the Grizzlies when he poured in 37 points and nine assists. More importantly, the Timberwolves were winning, finishing the regular season 46-36. In the Play-In, D’Angelo Russell took over with KAT fouled out to seal a clutch victory.

Russell’s redemption arch with the Timberwolves was a rounding success. He proved he could be the starting point guard on a winning franchise on multiple occasions. The Timberwolves also had a young core of Edwards, Towns, Vanderbilt, Beasley, McDaniels and Russell to build around. Surely this group would contend for years to come, right?

On July 6th, 2022 Minnesota traded most of their young core for Gobert. That trade sped up the contention window and when the Timberwolves struggled throughout the 2022-23 season Russell was expendable.

THE PROPHECY IS FULFILLED

The Lakers became LeBron James’s team, during Russell’s time away from Los Angeles. After a disappointing first season, LeBron recruited Anthony Davis to help him win a title. Davis was traded to the Lakers in exchange for most of their young core in the 2019 off-season. In their first season as a duo, they won the franchise’s 17th Championship.

In February 2023, the Lakers and LeBron were looking to make another run at the title after injuries and a disastrous Russell Westbrook trade hindered their chances in previous seasons. LeBron recently became the All-Time leading scorer and the clock was ticking for Lakers GM Rob Pelinka to make a deal.

On February 9th, 2023, D’Angelo Russell was traded for the fourth time sending him back to the place he once called home. This go around was different. The Lakers had serious contender ambitions and D’Lo was no longer seen as the franchise player, but a complimentary player.

PLAYOFF PUSH

In his first game two days later, he would put up an efficient 15 points in a crucial win against the Warriors. Russell, James, Davis and the Lakers would ride the positive momentum into the Play-In where they would defeat Russell’s Timberwolves.

Against the Grizzlies, D’Lo averaged 17 points and six assists per game. He dropped a playoff-career-high 31 points in the series-clinching Game 6.

In the next round against his old team, D’Lo helped the Lakers beat the Warriors. He had ups and downs, but stepped up in critical Games 1, 3 and 6.

The Nuggets swept the Lakers in the Conference Finals bringing a disappointing end to the 2023 Playoffs. Russell would play particularly bad, averaging 6.3 points on 32% shooting from the field and 13% from deep.

PRESENT DAY

D’Angelo Russell and the Lakers negotiated a two-year, $19 million extension in the 2023 offseason.

That brings us to the current season where Russell has had a career year. Fans knew this season would be special for D’Lo when he dropped a smooth 35 points against the Pistons in late November. Two weeks later, the Lakers would win the first NBA In-Season Tournament. The tournament showed the core’s championship potential.

As of March 9, 2024, Russell is averaging 17.7 points, 2.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game. While the volume is right at Russell’s career averages, his efficiency is another story (47/41/80 splits). His 41% 3-point percentage would be a career-high on 6.6 attempts per game. Russell also averaged 56.4% true effective field-goal percentage, only surpassed by his half-season stint with LA last year.

The former All-Star dropping 26 points vs. the Thunder earlier this week exemplified Russell’s shooting groove this season. Russell has also become a locker-room leader, developing a close friendship with backcourt partner Austin Reaves. Yesterday, D’Angelo Russell exploded for a Laker career-high 44 points and nine three-pointers in a crucial win against the Bucks. He hit a clutch game-winner and scored the last eight points to secure LA a much-needed win in an ultra-competitive Western Conference.

Even after the In-Season Tournament championship, Lakers fans were still unreasonably skeptical about Russell’s play. Amid trade rumors and fan disgruntlement, Russell has been a constant pro and everything the Lakers could have asked for nine years ago.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED

D’Lo was given every chance to fail. When drafted by the Lakers, fans had unrealistic expectations that he would be the savior and lead a tumultuous franchise to the playoffs immediately. After performing in a massive media market, D’Lo at 21 was sent to the NBA’s most depleted franchise to waste away his prime. He instead elevated his teammates and turned a losing organization into a free-agency destination in two years.

In Golden State, he didn’t have a chance to maximize his potential next to three Hall of Famers. During Minnesota, he restored a losing team to relevance but was sent away because Mike Conley was a better fit.

Today, in his second stint with Los Angeles, D’Angelo Russell has done nothing short of balled out. He has embraced the culture and become a fan favorite. When fans called for him to be traded earlier this year, he put his head down and went to work.

In 2024, D’Angelo Russell is a podcaster and Elmo by day is the point guard for the most famous franchise by night.

WHAT’S NEXT?

D’Angelo Russell’s future is filled with uncertainty. He has a player option this summer, which he will most likely decline in pursuing a long-term contract. He has provided a lot to the Lakers and his patented ice in my veins celebration has become an identity of the team since his arrival. Hopefully, Pelinka and Russell can agree on a long-term deal that keeps the franchise point guard in Los Angeles after LeBron James retires.

His charisma, work ethic and play style are quintessentially Showtime Lakers. It is no wonder the Lakers gave a 19-year-old D’Lo the keys to the franchise nearly a decade ago. While his unorthodox path took him on a journey where few succeed, D’Angelo Russell did reach his potential as an integral role on a Lakers team contending for the title.

No matter what the future of D’Lo is with the Lakers it is time we give him his flowers while he still reps the purple and gold.

About Max Levy

Lakers social media manager and insider

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