D'Angelo Russell wasn't himself for much of his rookie season. The Los Angeles Lakers guard, drafted No. 2 overall in 2015, could not always play with the same freedom that he had in college. Two men got in the way of that: then-Lakers coach Byron Scott and legend Kobe Bryant. Scott did not design their offense around Russell's best skill: playmaking out of the pick-and-roll. Bryant, in his final season, dominated the ball and took tons of shots on isolation plays.
Bryant's retirement and Los Angeles' coaching change means everybody is excited about Russell's second season, and it showed in Wednesday's opener, 120-114 win over Houston, led by Jordan Clarkson's 25 points, 20 from Russell and 18 from Julius Randle. Russell seems to love new coach Luke Walton, and in addition to the flashes of brilliance he showed last year, he was productive and confident in summer league and the preseason. In an interview (and a paintball session) with ESPN's Sam Alipour, Russell acknowledged that, with the Kobe circus over, the Lakers can get on with the business of being a team:
"We're all about playing together now," he says. "It's not about one guy anymore. It's about sacrificing for the team." Adds Russell, "Kobe deserved every bit of attention he got in his last year, but there's freedom in Kobe not being around." There's also a leadership vacuum that they plan to fill as a unit. "There's no one leader, no face of the Lakers," Russell says, citing the Spurs as the template. "When we traveled to San Antonio last season, I noticed that it's about everybody-they had all those household names, but the 15th guy got the same amount of attention as Tim Duncan, who's a legend. I feel like we're all buying into that concept. We're a team now. And that's exciting."
That's a great quote, but really he's just pointing out the obvious. In 2015-16, Russell averaged 18.7 points and 4.7 assists per 36 minutes without Bryant on the court, compared to 14.6 points and 3.6 assists with Bryant, as pointed out by The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor last month. Russell had more opportunities without Bryant, and the team had better ball movement. With Walton in charge, he will have as much responsibility as he can handle, and he won't have to defer to anybody.
When Russell was drafted, he was supposed to be the Lakers' next star. Despite the tension with Scott and the Nick Young fiasco that marred his rookie season, he should still be seen that way. It will likely take awhile for Los Angeles to return to relevance, but it's significant that the franchise is counting on him being a big part of leading it there. Playing next to Brandon Ingram, Clarkson and Randle, Russell's Lakers are no longer stuck between eras. There is indeed freedom in building something completely new.