Newly-acquired Sessions could point Lakers in the right direction
LOS ANGELES -- A little more than one hour before Friday's game, in a hallway on the first floor of Staples Center, Lakers coach Mike Brown summoned Ramon Sessions and gave the new point guard his to-do-list for the next three months: Attack the basket, run the pick-and-roll, create for others and remember defense. Sessions nodded dutifully. But in the middle of what sounded like a routine job description, Brown and Sessions stared hard at each other, a coach who was once fired by the Cavaliers and a point guard who was just traded by them. "You've got the green light to score," Brown said. Even Sessions raised his eyebrows. Here is a 25-year-old career backup, who backed-up lottery picks in Milwaukee, Minnesota and Cleveland, suddenly handed the reins to a contender that includes Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. In 24 hours, he had gone from the bench of an NBA afterthought to the forefront of a signature franchise.
"It's a dream come true," Sessions said, over and over. "It's an honor. It's a privilege."
The Jeremy Lin phenomenon was caused by many factors, but one of them was the preponderance of transcendent point guards in today's NBA, many of whom were high draft choices with guaranteed contracts. For an undrafted free agent like Lin, who went to a small college and was banished to the Development League, opportunity was hard to find. Comparing Sessions and Lin is unfair to both -- Sessions has played four full NBA seasons and no one is asking him to spark an international craze -- but he was the 56th pick in the 2007 draft out of Nevada, was assigned to the D-League and sat behind more pedigreed prospects. The Knicks turned to Lin because they were the rare team that still needed a point guard. The Lakers were just as desperate.
Sessions did not start Friday night, but did play, after he threatened to wear his jersey over his suit. Brown said he will start Steve Blake at point guard for now, but the Lakers are all in with Sessions, the reason why they jettisoned long-time point guard Derek Fisher. They did not want Sessions looking over his shoulder. Acquiring Sessions and exiling Fisher were not major moves on the NBA landscape, but they are transformative ones in Los Angeles. The Lakers, who also dumped Luke Walton and Jason Kapono at the deadline, became two years younger, $9 million cheaper, and a lot less predictable. The Lakers may miss Fisher's steadfast presence in the locker room, where he played good cop to Bryant's bad, and sentimental fans will miss the high-arcing jumper that reminded them of daggers past. But nostalgia was replaced by hope the first time Sessions blew by a defender, a sight practically unseen from a Lakers point guard since the days of Nick Van Exel. Sessions scored his first basket 13 seconds into his Lakers career -- a nifty floater in the lane -- and finished with seven points and five assists in 19 minutes, as the Lakers beat Minnesota 97-92 for their fifth straight win and 19th in 21 games at home.
"He's extremely fast," said Bryant, who spent timeouts tutoring Sessions about the Lakers playbook. "He's going to be a feature for our team that opponents are going to have to prepare for and try to slow down." Understandably, Bryant had mixed feelings on the events leading up to the deadline. He came to the Lakers the same year as Fisher, won five championships with him, convinced him to stay in L.A. when Miami called two years ago, and is as close to him as any player in the league. "It's very difficult," Bryant said. Fisher thrived in the triangle offense, which de-emphasized point-guard penetration, but Brown calls constant pick-and-rolls and he needs a dervish like Sessions to execute them. Bryant declined to lash out at the front office, perhaps because his best friends remain his championship rings, and Sessions gives him an outside shot to snag another. Since Sessions prefers to pound the ball, he will also alleviate some of Bryant's play-making duties, and spare him from initiating all the offense. On Friday, Sessions twice set up Bryant for open 3-pointers, and twice did the same for Matt Barnes.
Heading into the deadline, the Lakers had the option of plundering their front line for an elite point guard or keeping it together and landing one on the fringes. They chose the latter, and now Gasol replaces Fisher as a co-captain, after spending the past three months on the trading block. Not only did the Lakers hold onto Gasol, they essentially promoted him in the club hierarchy. "It was good to know all the talk was over and behind me," Gasol said. "It was a big relief. It's been pretty exhausting to have to deal with on a daily basis. Now it's time to play." With the front-court intact, the Lakers do not necessarily need a premier point guard, nor can they be expected to acquire one given financial constraints. If Sessions is simply average, he represents a significant upgrade. At this stage, though, he is still unknown. In Milwaukee, he deferred to Brandon Jennings, a shoot-first point. In Minnesota, he sat behind Jonny Flynn, a lottery pick who had to play. In Cleveland, it was Kyrie Irving, the probable Rookie of the Year. Sessions has excelled in spurts, scoring 44 points in one game and dishing out 24 assists in another, but this represents his first turn on a grand stage.
When Brown finished his brief back-and-forth with Sessions in the hallway, he wondered if he harped enough on defense. Just then, he spotted Metta World Peace, heading out to the court for warm-ups. Brown shouted to World Peace: "Remind Ramon he has to play defense first." World Peace was on the same wavelength. "I told him that in the bathroom," he said. Brown looked both disgusted and re-assured.
Sessions was just satisfied to be in the building. The Lakers fortunes are in his hands, and compared to where they've been, it might not be a bad spot.