The basketball was passed ahead to D’Angelo Russell in stride while Anthony Davis trailed on the fast break. Russell then passed the ball to Davis, who sucked in the defense before he threw it back to Russell.
Russell calmly tossed up a three-pointer that gave the Lakers a 22-point lead in the third quarter. And then in the fourth quarter, Russell struck again. He grabbed a defensive rebound, rushed up court and drilled a three-pointer that pushed the Lakers’ lead to 23 points.
And it had become clear that Russell is a much more engaged player when he starts, which he has done the last three games after being demoted to the bench 12 games ago.
In a 127-110 win over the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday night, Russell led the Lakers in scoring with 29 points, to go with four rebounds and three assists. He was 11-for-20 from the field and five-for-seven from three-point range.
“Engaged? I’m engaged,” Russell said. “I think it’s just a shift in mentality, not really a focus or lack of focus thing. Each position is going to present an opportunity. You’re either going to be ready for it or you’re not. So, I try to attack that mentality.”
Before Wednesday night’s start, Russell had started 30 games, and his stats told a story of how his game has flourished as a starter.
He was averaging 16.1 points, 6.3 assists and shooting 46.8% from the field and 38.7% from three-point range, all in 30.8 minutes per game.
Russell was sent to the bench on Dec. 23, at Oklahoma City. The Lakers had lost four straight games prior to that game, and Coach Darvin Ham felt a shake-up was needed.
It wasn’t a situation Russell was happy with, but he pushed onward, his conversations with Ham helping the guard understand.
“To share his feelings, even though they sometimes may not be in agreement with mine, I totally respect that,” Ham said. “I’m all about communicating with the players and collaborating, but to start with the communication, it creates clarity. You don’t have to go around guessing once you have that dialogue. And the dialogue we’ve had in film sessions, he and I have had one one-on-one during the game, during shootaround, just trying to be as much as possible on the same page.”
In his last three games as a starter, Russell has been at his best.
He’s averaging 27.3 points per game, 5.6 assists and shooting 53.4% from the field and 52% from three-point range.
“He started out great, went through a little tough stretch, as we all do,” Ham said. “We’re not gonna be hitting on all cylinders throughout the course of an entire season. Everyone has a bad night, bad week, bad month, what have you. But he’s fought through it, playing in a really great rhythm, and we need him to do that. And his aggressiveness from the three-point line, his ability to make plays in between at the rim, the passing. He’s a dynamic player and we’re happy that he’s playing at that level and that he’s with us.”
For Russell, it has been “huge” to have those conversations with Ham.
“I’ve had a lot of coaches in my time and I’ve told coaches I’m traumatized from coaches, because obviously I’ve had a bunch and some went well and some didn’t go so well,” Russell said. “So, for me to come here and learn with him and having an open mind, be coachable and things like that… he’s attacked it in the most respectful way for me, so a lot of respect there.”
The elephant in the room that Ham was willing to at least address some was Russell’s name being in trade rumors regarding the Lakers.
The Lakers have been looking to improve their team and Russell’s name has come up as a potential piece, according to reports.
“We believe in him,” Ham said. “Again, everyone keeps talking about, you know, it’s that time of the year, I guess, but with the trade talks… everyone understands in this business that if there’s opportunities to get better, you’re going to do that. But the reality of it is we have what we had down the stretch last year, as well as more firepower and guys who are a year closer and experienced in playing with one another.
“So, yeah, we can stop looking around and just look at ourselves, look within ourselves, it’s a ton of excellent basketball that we can play and a ton of games that we can win with this group as it is constructed. So, he’s right at the forefront of that and, you know. We just want him to feel comfortable and be able to go out and play the game at the high level like he’s been doing here recently.”