LOS ANGELES—The Lakers traded for Steve Nash because of what he was. They gave Kobe Bryant $48 million because of what he was. They hired Byron Scott, at least in part, because of what he was. Early Thursday night, they stepped into the future, and drafted a backcourt dynamo based on what his game is. For more than a month, the Lakers were expected to pick JahlilOkafor, and dip into their past once again. Okafor is a polished low-post presence who surely recalled some of the legendary big men this franchise was founded on. In 1995, or even 2005, he would have been the choice. But it is 2015, when back-to-the-basket scorers are a luxury, not a necessity. “Who won the championship?” D’Angelo Russell said, a question that sounded more like an exclamation.
The Lakers, having been sidetracked by nostalgia in recent years, resisted it this time. They saw how the Clippers seized the city with Chris Paul. They saw how the Warriors dusted the field with Stephen Curry. They saw how the Rockets were resuscitated by James Harden. They can’t know whether Russell will join that list of play-making, sweet-shooting guards, but they collected enough evidence to indicate that he could. In grabbing Russell, the Ohio State product, second overall, the Lakers finally and officially joined the small-ball revolution and the modern NBA. Now, they too employ a jitterbug who can bound around a high screen, sink a pull-up three or feather a telepathic pass, the bedrock of so much contemporary offense.
Nineteen years ago, Jerry West famously watched Kobe Bryant eviscerate Michael Cooper in a pre-draft workout at Inglewood High School and told his lieutenants, “Okay, I’ve seen enough.” Because these are the Lakers, and there always has to be some nostalgia, L.A.'s assistant director of scouting Ryan West was asked if he experienced an epiphany like his father’s. West immediately flashed back to Russell’s second workout at the Lakers' practice facility on June 20, when he whipped fastballs that UCLA’s Kevon Looney and Washington’s Robert Upshaw were scarcely prepared to catch.
Okafor was the safe pick, despite his inconsistent defense and ragged free-throw shooting. The Lakers believe he can win Rookie of the Year. They believe he can be an All-Star. But they believe Russell can be a megastar. Though he is listed as a point guard, the Lakers were reminded most of Harden, a shooting guard who lacks elite athleticism but is crafty enough to create space, exploit angles, and reach his spots. Like Harden, Russell is a southpaw who prefers to drive left, yet few defenses can deter him. But what distinguishes Russell—same as fellow Louisville prep product Rajon Rondo—is his vision. “He’s one of the best passers I’ve ever seen,” said Don MacLean, who conducted Russell’s pre-draft training sessions.
The Lakers, who have been connected with Rondo for months, will instead look to build around a backcourt of Russell and Jordan Clarkson. They will likely dangle a max contract offer at power forwards LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love, as well as centers DeAndre Jordan and Marc Gasol. There is a glut of bigs on the market, and a dearth of guards, but Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak insisted that disparity had no bearing on the team’s pick. Neither, he added, did recent trends.
Kupchak stared at the wall in the Lakers facility, wallpapered with retired jerseys of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal. “You still need quality big men in this league,” he declared, “and if any of those players on the wall were available, we would have selected them.” Then he turned his gaze to the jerseys of Jerry West, Magic Johnson and Gail Goodrich, further evidence that legends come in different sizes.
Scott played with Magic and coached Jason Kidd, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving. Under his guidance, Paul and Irving earned Rookie of the Year, setting the standard for Russell. “I think he could be one of the better ones I’ve had,” Scott said. Like Paul, Russell is represented by CAA, and they have worked out together this spring. Comparing anybody to Paul is unfair, but four years after commissioner David Stern made his notorious veto, the Lakers may finally be filling their void at the point. Expectations in Los Angeles will be astronomical, yet no higher than Russell’s own. The Lakers were struck by his staggering confidence, which verged on cockiness, but came up short. He yearned to play for them, to learn from Bryant, to shoulder the big-city burden. When the cameras approached Thursday night, he looked at his father, and noticed tears in his eyes. “That made my emotions rattle a little bit,” Russell said. The cameras won’t be leaving anytime soon. D’Angelo Russell is stepping into the modern NBA, and so are the Lakers.