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Byron Scott wants D'Angelo Russell to embrace leadership role

Lakers coach Byron Scott says the work ethic of rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell will help him take on a leadership role. Kathy Kmonicek/AP Photo

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Byron Scott remembers when a 20-year-old rookie point guard named Chris Paul told him that he was afraid to confront center P.J. Brown.

Paul, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft, established himself as the leader and go-to guy on the then-New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets during the 2005-06 season, but he wasn't yet comfortable yelling at an intimidating 12-year veteran like Brown.

What Paul didn't know, though, was that Brown had no issue with Paul calling him out because he felt Paul had earned that right. Paul led by example and did everything in his power to earn the respect of the Hornets' veterans. And he did, rather quickly, according to Scott.

The Los Angeles Lakers' own rookie point guard, D'Angelo Russell -- who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft and just turned 20 -- hasn't enjoyed the same trajectory as Paul. He has been in and out of the starting lineup, sat out countless fourth quarters and close games and generally butted heads with Scott. Things have been anything but smooth.

The biggest difference between Paul and Russell, in Scott's eyes, has been Russell's work ethic and reluctance to embrace a larger leadership position -- especially with there being a void with Kobe Bryant missing so many games. Scott admits Russell has improved in practice and as a leader as of late, but is still nowhere near where he needs to be at this point.

"[Russell's] work ethic has to be that guys see that he's willing to go out there and bust his butt every single day to get better," Scott said. "[Paul's] work ethic and the things he did on the court on a day-to-day basis earned him that respect where guys like P.J. looked at him as the leader."

That doesn't mean Scott doesn't think Russell is capable of leading. In fact, quite the opposite. Scott has seen Russell's potential as a leader at various times this season. He just also knows not everyone is cut out for such a demanding role, and that it's too early to tell if Russell is ready -- or ever will be.

"He could, yeah," Scott said of whether Russell has demonstrated leadership qualities. "Leadership, to me, is not appointed. It's anointed. Guys are going to follow guys that they believe in and guys that they know are all about the right stuff. I can't sit here and say he's going to be our leader. That's going to be worked out in the near future with the teammates that he has with him."

Step No. 1 is working harder in practice, which Russell has done. He never has been a slacker, but he's bringing a newfound effort and intensity lately -- pushing the ball more in transition, setting harder screens and doing most of the little things Scott had asked of him earlier in the season.

"His practice habits have gotten so much better. He practices harder," Scott said. "He still has a ways to go. Is he a Kobe Bryant-type worker? I don't think we have a guy that's a Kobe Bryant-type worker. But he's a guy that works, and you've got to love that about it."

That work allowed Russell to win back his starting position after nearly 40 games. Now that he knows he has more freedom, he's playing with a level of confidence that was bereft earlier in the season.

He even admitted as much following the Lakers' 112-95 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday, telling reporters, "I feel like if I mess up on something, I have a longer leash. Earlier in the year, it was like, no leash."

Russell no longer looks over his shoulder when he makes a mistake, allowing him to play carefree and more efficiently. He has played his best ball of the season over the past week, averaging 17 points on 50 percent shooting to go along with 3.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists in 31.4 minutes in the four games since becoming a starter.

Scott disagrees with the notion that he has "lengthened the leash" on Russell, claiming the leash was never short to begin with. Instead, Scott says Russell has simply played better recently, which has led to increased confidence and allowed Scott to start him and play him more.

"I don't think I really loosened it up," Scott said. "I just think he's getting more comfortable in his role. I don't feel I've really loosened it that much. I don't think it's been that tight in the first place.

"He is getting more comfortable and his confidence is growing with some of the things that we're doing. Each month he seems to get better and better. A lot of that is because of repetition and gaining some experience. Then obviously a lot is his confidence in himself. When all of a sudden you start playing a little better, you start feeling better about yourself. I like where he is right now."

The final step in Russell's development -- beyond playing more, putting up better numbers and practicing harder -- is becoming the leader he'll eventually need to be if he's going to live up to his draft selection and become a legitimate franchise point guard.

Russell has to shoulder a larger leadership role and confront the veteran, the P.J. Brown, he's afraid of challenging -- even if it's Bryant -- to earn his teammate's respect, trust and loyalty. He needs to stop worrying if he has the "credibility or experience" to lead, as he also mentioned Friday, and just do it. It's unlikely to happen before Bryant retires, but once he does, the Lakers could be Russell's for the taking.

"He's being a little reluctant," Scott said. "The guys respect him, but they're still sitting there like, 'All right, you've got to still show me that this is something that you want to do.' And the only way to do it is by example."