<
>

D'Angelo Russell embraces buzz in rematch with Kristaps Porzingis

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- When the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks met at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 8, the NBA world was buzzing about Kristaps Porzingis.

D’Angelo Russell, on the other hand, was enduring adversity as his role and playing time were inconsistent, and it was clear from the jump that head coach Byron Scott preferred Lou Williams’ experience and instant production over Russell’s potential.

Fast-forward to the middle of March, with the Lakers set to host the Knicks on Sunday, and the roles have somewhat reversed.

People are talking about Russell more, and Porzingis less. Russell has garnered attention for his impressive play since around the All-Star break, while the hype surrounding Porzingis -- though still omnipresent -- has cooled down amid somewhat of a rough patch.

Since being inserted back into the starting lineup 10 games ago, Russell is averaging 21 points (on 47.4 percent shooting overall and 47 percent on 3-pointers), 3.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists in 32.8 minutes per game. Over that same stretch, Porzingis’ scoring has gone up to 14.9 points, but his field goal percentage (39 percent), rebounds (4.9), blocks (1.4) and minutes (26.0) have dipped.

The Lakers didn’t see the season unfolding this way, with Russell making up ground in the public eye so quickly, according to Scott. But they’re obviously pleased with the progress he’s made in an up-and-down rookie season.

“Could I have predicted this? No, not really,” Scott said at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo. “Everybody’s learning curve is different. With D’Angelo, he’s starting to get it on both ends of the floor. He still has times where he loses that focus every now and then, but you expect that from a 20-year-old.

"I’m sure they’re extremely happy with Porzingis over in New York, just like we’re extremely happy with D’Angelo right now.”

As the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft, there has been an enormous amount of pressure on Russell this season. Scott’s incessant criticism hasn’t necessarily helped matters.

There were moments, Scott admits, where he was afraid for Russell. Given the nature of the media cycle, many rushed to claim Porzingis or Philadelphia 76ers rookie center Jahlil Okafor, who’ve both put up monster stat lines at times, would have been better fits for the Lakers.

In an attempt to prevent Russell from being discouraged, Scott gave him some advice he used as a rookie back in 1983.

“I did worry about him reading and looking at what everybody was saying about those guys, and also reading and looking at what everybody said about him,” Scott said. “I gave him a little piece of advice as a guy who was a rookie a long, long time ago: I stopped reading papers.

“I told him, ‘Don’t worry about all that stuff. We took you for a reason, and we know you’re going to be a helluva basketball player. It’s just going to take some time. But we want you to continue to work.’”

What Scott didn’t know, though, was that Russell wasn’t fazed by the criticism or comparisons. That’s arguably the rookie’s best trait 64 games into his career: He has unwavering self-confidence.

As he saw it, everyone was gushing over the big men of his class, and not the guards. His first-year perimeter contemporaries were struggling, too. Russell was doing just fine.

“You’ve got some top-tier bigs really going at it. I didn’t see any guards mentioned at the top,” Russell said. “It was a lot of bigs dominating, and guards were struggling, because it’s hard to be a guard in this league.”

Russell isn’t one to shy from attention, but he’s not trying to paint Sunday’s tilt as a battle between him and Porzingis. The game marks the final meeting between Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, and Russell believes that’s how it should be billed.

“It’s Kobe and Melo’s show, honestly,” Russell said. “Everybody can talk about me and Porzingis, but it’s Kobe’s last matchup with Melo, so that’s going to be the real show.”

While that’s certainly true, the future of the Lakers and Knicks, respectively, lies in the hands of their star rookies. It’s impossible not to compare the two, even with their differences in position and style of play. Members of the same draft class are often intertwined for life.

Russell’s rapid development has been the main factor in him regaining his starting role and increasing his production, but as most NBA players will openly admit, production comes with opportunity.

As long as Russell continues to play starter’s minutes and receive freedom from Scott, he’s going to be mentioned in the same breath as Porzingis or Okafor or even Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 overall pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“It’s all about the opportunity,” Russell said. “Everybody has a different route to reaching their potential. Some people bloom early, some people bloom late. If I’m a late bloomer and I’m around this league for a long time, I would prefer that any day.”