After the Lakers made their NBA lottery leap into what turned out to be the second overall pick, Coach Byron Scott was caught on camera making that quick, one-eyed blink. At the time, the gesture seemed like a taunt to anyone who doubted the Lakers’ ability to somehow land a franchise-altering superstar – either by draft, trade, free agency, hook or crook. But Scott has since revealed that the wink was intended for Sacramento Kings vice president and former Lakers teammate Vlade Divac, who had a conversation about how great it would be if those ping-pong balls yielded some combinations that would result in those franchises finishing first and second.
“I gave him a wink, like, ‘Hey, at least I’m still in it,’ ” Scott said, since the Kings stayed at sixth.
For a few days leading up to the NBA draft, the Lakers reportedly attempted to use their selection as a part of a trade proposal to steal all-star center DeMarcus Cousins away from Sacramento. Those conversations eventually stalled and the Lakers chose Ohio State freshman point guard D’Angelo Russell to help guide the franchise into a future that will inevitably not involve Kobe Bryant.
“The first time we had him out, at 19, I thought he had the poise of a 23, 24-year-old,” Scott said of Russell. “I just saw a guy that has a chance to be a star in this league.”
The Lakers planned to ease the burden for Russell and Julius Randle — the team’s 2014 lottery pick who is essentially entering his rookie season after breaking his leg in his first NBA season — by finding an established star in free agency. LaMarcus Aldridge gave the Lakers two attempts to sway him to come but was so unimpressed by the recruiting pitches he chose small-market San Antonio. DeAndre Jordan declined joining the Los Angeles Clippers’ in-town rival and took Dallas on a wild ride before electing to stay. Kevin Love, a UCLA alum, didn’t even flirt with the Lakers after a pool-side conversation with LeBron James — in Los Angeles, of all places — convinced him to make a long-term commitment to Cleveland.
Having to deal with rejection for the second-straight summer was an ice-cold bucket dumping reality check for the league’s most glamorous franchise. With the money being almost equal, players are choosing the chance to win and being part of talented rosters over the glitz and championship tradition. And, that is forcing to the Lakers to take a more measured approach toward getting back to respectability.
With the Lakers trading for former all-star center Roy Hibbert and signing solid free agents Lou Williams and Brandon Bass, Bryant’s presumed final season will likely end with the team needing some more lottery luck to avoid sending its draft pick to Philadelphia (via Phoenix) as part of that dreadful Steve Nash trade. The Lakers will only keep the pick if it is among the top three.
“I think we’ve got a good, solid foundation. I don’t know how much longer it’s going to take us, but we knew it wasn’t going to be a quick fix,” said Scott. “We knew it was going to take a few years. I think we’re doing the right things right now in getting some young guys that we know can play, come in and help us this year. In addition to some of the veterans we’ve got and if you’ve got a healthy Kobe Bryant coming back, there is no telling what could happen.”
Russell and Randle won’t have to recreate the now-infamous Sports Illustrated cover featuring Nash and Dwight Howard to make it known that next season will be about their development as much as an opportunity to appreciate Bryant one last time. The duo represents half of the franchise’s four lottery selections in the past 30 years. Though neither is legally able to drink, Russell and Randle are fully aware that the standard is doubled for a high lottery pick playing for the Lakers.
“When you’re a Laker and you’re anywhere in the world, it’s going to be attention,” said Randle, an undersized but tenacious power forward who went seventh overall last season.
The Lakers have easily been the largest draw at Las Vegas summer league, attracting crowds in excess of 10,000 people at Thomas and Mack Center. Fans of the franchise might be a little concerned that the Lakers have played poorly, despite fielding three-fifths of the expected starting lineup in Russell, Randle and Jordan Clarkson, a first-team all-rookie performer last season. But they should find some encouragement in how deeply each loss stings for the team’s youngest stars.
“I mean, the Lakers, we’re not used to losing,” Russell said. “When we lose, it’s not like we let ourselves or our team down. We let the whole Laker nation down and that’s a worldwide nation. I wouldn’t say it’s a whole lot of pressure, it’s just more like, I got to get it done.”
Sauntering through the gym with a backward black cap with the letters, “DLo,” Russell certainly carries himself with a definite swagger. Russell’s play in the summer league, however, has produced mixed reviews with his high turnover rate in the first three games and poor shooting percentages.
“Every game matters to me, and me being competitive, I forget that it’s summer league. I want to get better so fast, and I’ve got to let it come to me,” Russell said. “It’s an adjustment, trying to relax and be poised and patient at the same time. … At this level, you have to slow down and be patient.”
Derrick Rose and Michael Carter-Williams both had forgettable July performances before eventually winning rookie of the year honors, so no one in the Lakers organization is overreacting to a bad game or two. Russell has served up small doses of his immense potential, court vision and playmaking ability. In the Lakers’ 88-86 loss on Tuesday against Dallas, Russell went on a dizzying dribbling display that left the Mavericks mesmerized and frozen, then found teammate Tony Mitchell cutting to the hoop for an uncontested layup.
“The one thing about D’Angelo. He works hard. He wants to be great,” said assistant Mark Madsen, who has been coaching the team in summer league. “And he will be great.”
Randle has been held to a 20-minute, playing time restriction as the team works to ease him back from his foot injury and have him ready for the season opener. Less time on the floor doesn’t equate to lower expectations for Randle, who has been hard on himself and admitted to pressing.
“It starts with me. I’ve got to be better. End of story,” Randle said after a loss to the New York Knicks this week. “I told our guys in there, ‘We’ve got to keep everything in perspective. The mistakes we made in these games, we learn from that, learn from it and carry it on into the season and get better.’ ”
Scott doesn’t want Russell and Randle to stress themselves trying to play up to some nebulous expectation that might not be realistic so early in their careers. “I don’t know how much pressure they feel. It shouldn’t be none. They should just come out here and have fun and enjoy the process. No expectations on points, rebounds, assists, steals and all that stuff, just go out there and play hard every night,” Scott said. “We all believe we’re going to be a much better team than we were last year, but you know, we’ve got to stay healthy. That’s the first thing. Again, not putting a number on wins and losses and things like that, but I think if everything works out the way we plan, and everybody stays healthy, we have real good chance of being a pretty good team.”