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D'Angelo Russell thriving again in starting role

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- D'Angelo Russell faced the same questions for months.

Don't you want to start again? Don't you think being on the bench stifles your growth, particularly late in games when the score is close?

The Lakers' rookie point guard and No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft was adamant that he didn't really care, despite the outside noise from Lakers fans clamoring for him to get more playing time.

Russell maintained that he was more focused on playing the right way and learning the NBA game, especially with Lakers coach Byron Scott harshly criticizing Russell almost every day.

But when Russell was moved back into the starting lineup -- where he spent the season's first 20 games -- before his team played the Bulls in Chicago on Sunday, he said he had one fairly simple goal in mind: prove that he deserves to remain there.

"I don't want anybody to take it the wrong way, but you feel like your best players are your starters," Russell said then. "And I feel like I'm going to keep the confidence and say that I'm one of the best players, so I feel like I just want to keep proving that I deserve to start, deserve to be out there and play crunch-time minutes.

"With these last few games, I want to show that I have to be out there, like build that trust with my coach that he has to put me on the floor."

Russell has certainly made his case over his last three games as a starter, averaging 15.3 points, 6.0 assists and 3.6 rebounds over 32 minutes per contest.

His best performance of the three games came Wednesday in the Lakers' 128-119 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, when Russell notched 22 points and a career-high eight assists.

But more than putting up solid numbers, Russell's improved confidence and growing comfort as a starter is obvious.

"It's just a timing thing for him, just a rhythm thing," Lakers star Kobe Bryant said Wednesday. "It's very hard coming off the bench to really establish the game, especially as a point guard, because you're always chasing the game, because momentum takes place and now you've got to come and adjust to what's going on. It's much easier for him when he does start to be able to control the game and make certain reads and things like that. It's just easier for him to play better."

Bryant articulated what many Lakers fans have preached all season, though Bryant's voice obviously carries more weight.

All told, Russell has come off the bench in 32 games and started in 25. His numbers in either circumstance are nearly identical, and, overall, he's averaging 12.3 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists this season.

Although Scott said that Russell will continue to start the rest of the season, Russell said after his strong performance in Memphis that he's only focused on proving that he belongs in that role.

"It's just opportunity, man," Russell said Wednesday. "When you get that opportunity, every guy in this league can really play. It's all about opportunity. Once you get it and take advantage of it, you don't look back. Me starting now, I feel like earlier in the year, I was given that starting spot and I didn't have to work for it. I don't really know about now -- if I worked for it or whatnot -- but I'm not going to try to give him a reason to bench me again. That's all that matters."

Scott said he had noticed improvement, though he wasn't overwhelming in his praise.

"I think his game has gotten much better," Scott said.

Scott added, "It's got to be something that he does on a consistent basis. We've got 23 [games] left. He's got plenty of time to really start settling in to where he's feeling more comfortable on both ends of the floor. When I can see that on a consistent basis, I'll be more comfortable saying that he turned the corner."