EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- With the Cleveland Cavaliers in town to face the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Thursday night, Lakers head coach Byron Scott was asked if he ever butted heads with All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving -- who Scott coached from 2011 to 2013 -- over his practice habits.
Scott, who has rarely seen eye to eye with Lakers rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell this season, said his relationship with Irving was without much conflict.
“Not really,” Scott said when asked if he had to push Irving to work harder. “He was like how a lot of young guys are today: It’s hard to get him in the gym, but then it’s hard to get him out. He was one of those guys that didn’t necessarily love being there early to work at 10:30 [a.m.] for practice, but when practice was over at 1 [p.m.], he was on the floor for another 45 minutes. He wasn’t an early riser, but once he got going, he really enjoyed the process of going out there and working on his craft.”
When asked if Russell has a similar work ethic to Irving, Scott surprisingly said yes, which is a stark departure from his analysis of Russell’s work ethic as recently as one month ago.
“They’re about the same,” Scott said. “[Russell] doesn’t necessarily enjoy being here 30 minutes earlier than everybody, but he does it. When practice is over, he stays on the floor. He stays out here and gets more shots up and works on his game. So you have to love that about him.”
Scott admitted that wasn’t always the case with Russell, as he has previously said on numerous occasions. But Russell has become more serious in practice recently, according to Scott, which helped him earn back his starting spot and emerge as arguably the Lakers’ best player over the second half of the season.
“He works harder in practice now,” Scott said. “The light for him has kind of come on. Before we start practice, he’s a little bit of a clown at times. He has his fun, which is great. But when we bring it in and we start practice, he gets serious.”
Scott has maintained that Russell isn’t as polished offensively as Irving was and isn’t as ready to lead as Chris Paul -- who Scott also coached during his rookie season -- was, but sees similarities in Russell and Irving’s biggest weakness: defense.
“In general, the main thing was defensively,” Scott said of Irving. “Just really starting to understand that part of the game. Every night there was going to be somebody that was equal or better or just a slight notch below him offensively. With him, I’ve never seen a 19-year-old that had really no weaknesses on the offensive end. But defensively, people were putting him in screen-and-rolls or iso-ing him, so that was the one thing we tried to really focus him getting better at.”
As a rookie, Irving averaged 18.5 points on 46.9 percent shooting to go along with 3.7 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 30.5 minutes per game, earning the 2011-12 NBA Rookie of the Year award. That's considerably ahead of Russell's season-long production, as the 20-year-old is averaging just 13.3 points on 42.7 percent shooting, as well as 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 27.9 minutes per game.
Since the All-Star break, though, Russell has bumped his averages up to 19.4 points on 47.9 percent shooting and 4.6 assists in 32.1 minutes per game. Those numbers are in line with Irving’s as a rookie, and would’ve put Russell in the Rookie of the Year conversation with Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis had he averaged them over the course of the season.
Russell’s recent play has quelled doubts over whether he’s a franchise cornerstone, and has given Lakers fans hope for the future -- with or without a marquee free agent this summer. He is now playing roughly as well as Irving and John Wall and Damian Lillard did as rookies (among others), which bodes well for his future development and eventual stardom.
The key for Russell moving forward, then, will be maintaining a healthy balance between his instinctive lightheartedness and his ever-developing work ethic.
“I like his playfulness,” Scott said. “He’s 20 years old. It shows that innocence that he still has. I don’t want that to go away just yet. But the other thing about him, though, is that when we start practice, he’s serious, he works. As long as he can separate the two, I’m good with it.”