D’angelo Russell Returns But Can’t Beat Brook Lopez And Lakers

D’Angelo Russell’s walk to work was down the same concrete corridor that he used to follow to get to the Lakers locker room, where a gold jersey bearing his name and the No. 1 always hung, waiting for him to slip into his place in the gilded history of a championship franchise.

Back for the first time as a visitor on Friday, the former Lakers point guard did not even pause outside the home locker room. His jersey number belongs to someone else. The locker, too.

Russell strolled past Luke Walton’s pregame news conference, touched his fingers to his eyebrow in a quiet salute, and moved right along.

Nearly five months after the Lakers cleared the way for Lonzo Ball by trading Russell to Brooklyn, the former No. 2 pick finished with 17 points in a 124-112 Lakers win that was dominated by former Nets star Brook Lopez, who scored a game-high 34 points.

Ball, for his part, was quiet in his first matchup against his predecessor. He scored six points to go with seven assists and five rebounds, although he did not commit a turnover and the Lakers were plus-22 with him on the floor.

“I love that and I hope he does that next game, too,” Walton said. “Whether he makes or misses shots, right now I don’t care. He will figure that out. He’s that good of a player.”

Kyle Kuzma, who was drafted with the No. 27 pick the Nets included in the Russell trade, made his first career start in place of the injured Larry Nance Jr. and logged 21 points and 13 rebounds. Brandon Ingram also logged a double-double, finishing with 18 points and 10 rebounds.

Lopez’s performance included six 3-pointers and 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. He openly wore the emotion that came from playing his first game against the team that drafted him in 2008, swinging joyously from the rim after a fourth quarter dunk.

“When you have the talent level that Brook has,” Walton said, “and you’ve been in the league long enough, you can anticipate a player of that level having a big game against his old team. It’s just the way our league works.”

Russell certainly tried. He attempted 24 shots, making eight, but was just 1-of-8 on 3-point attempts. He added seven rebounds and seven assists, three steals and four turnovers.

It was a performance that evoked memories of his Lakers tenure, which was defined by inconsistency, turmoil and unfulfilled promise. It reached an abrupt end on June 20 when he was traded, along with Timofey Mozgov, for Lopez and the pick that became Kuzma.

“I went through a lot,” Russell said of his two seasons in L.A. “Kobe’s farewell, everything. I went through a lot. So, just to overcome that, I salute myself for that.”

Russell scored 14.3 points per game in his first two years in the league. Before Friday, he had averaged 21.7 points through seven games with Brooklyn.

When he was introduced as the final starter for the Nets, Russell was greeted mostly by cheers. Those cheers gave way to boos, however, when Russell checked into the game early in the second quarter.

“The L.A. fans should have love for D’Angelo,” Walton said. “The L.A. fans should have love for (Mozgov). Neither one of them asked to be traded. They played hard for this city.”

Moments earlier, Walton had greeted Russell at the scorers’ table. The two laughed and shook hands. Russell quickly scored on a finger roll and followed that with a 3-pointer off the glass. It was the kind of sequence, rich with swagger, which gave fans such hope during his 143 games with the Lakers.

“I think possibly it could have worked out for him (with the Lakers),” Walton said. “We went in another direction and I think in the long run it’s going to work out for us and it’s going to work out for him. So it’s hopefully a win-win.”

That might prove true, but Walton’s rosy version of the story ignores the frustration the Lakers encountered with Russell, who was a victim of relentless expectations. The Lakers needed him to be a leader beyond his years, a rare trait they believe they found in Ball.

Instead, Russell was every bit the 19-year-old they drafted; slow to embrace the rhythms and demands of the NBA. There was an understanding around the league that the Lakers were ready to cut their losses. Walton said that did not affect how he viewed the point guard.

“We were coaching D’Angelo as if he was going to be our point guard for the next 10 years, which was give him as much development as we can,” Walton said, “stay on him, try to turn him into the player that best can help us win games.”

The turning point for Russell might have come on Feb. 21, when Jeanie Buss fired General Manager Mitch Kupchak and her brother Jim, the former president of basketball operations who watched Friday’s game from a courtside seat near the Nets bench.

The pair was replaced by Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, who had no allegiance to Russell.

After the Lakers drafted Ball second overall, Johnson said the Lakers were in need of a leader at point guard – widely viewed as a broadside at Russell.

“I would say it ruffled a few feathers,” Russell said, “but you control what you can control. He’s in a position to say what he wants. So, I just try to do what I can do at the end of the day.”

Now, he just does it in the Eastern Conference, sporting the black and white threads of the latest lottery team to believe he can deliver from beneath the weight of great expectations.

His time with the Lakers prepared him for that kind of pressure.

“I feel like it molded me into who I am today,” he said. “It gave me that approach, the way I approach things today.

“And I wouldn’t want to change it for the world.”

One Comment

Leave a Reply