EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Lakers aren’t here often, drafting so close to the top. Such is their success. Their last top-two pick came in 1982, when they selected James Worthy first overall. Their last top-five pick before that came in 1979, when they drafted a point guard known as Magic. That No. 1 pick happened 36 years ago Thursday.
So on the anniversary of a historic arrival that would light up the league and all of Los Angeles, the Lakers acquired their most elite point guard since Magic Johnson and a player who offers what Magic carried perhaps most of all -- what has always been the most powerful currency in this city and its marquee NBA team:
ESPN’s Statistical Plus/Minus (SPM) numbers project Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell, whom the Lakers selected second overall, to have a better chance than anyone in the draft of turning into what Lakers coach Byron Scott said Russell has a chance to become: “a superstar.”
Of course, the move shocked the basketball landscape. Many expected the Lakers to take Jahlil Okafor on tradition alone, another addition to a proud lineage of big men that includes Mikan, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak even mentioned some of those whose retired numbers hang in their practice facility.
“You still need quality big men in this league,” Kupchak said, “and if any of those players in the wall were available, we would’ve selected them.”
But there weren’t. There wasn’t anyone close, either. Just as Scott said Russell could become a superstar, he said he thought Okafor would be a “good center” in the NBA. Good isn’t good enough for the Lakers. It never has been.
Here, they took the player with the most promise, one that Kupchak said offers “an unlimited upside.” And never has there been a timelier move, because the Lakers’ own star, Kobe Bryant, is flickering. A replacement must be found, and Russell is exactly that. He has that elusive “it” quality talent evaluators desire but can't find often enough.
“He’s got gifts that you can work really hard and long on and still not acquire those gifts,” Kupchak said. “Some of them you’re just born with or somebody sprinkles a little gold dust on you at some point. It’s just there.”
It’s Russell's feel for the game that stands out, Kupchak said. His ability to see the floor, make the right plays and keep his teammates happy, knowing when to dish and when to score.
He’s an excellent athlete, but not among the best in the NBA. He has great size for a floor general (6-foot-5), though not the size Johnson offered (6-foot-9). He’s not a point guard or a shooting guard, but a blend of both, just like All-Rookie First Team selection Jordan Clarkson, whom the Lakers believe can co-exist in the backcourt with Russell.
Yet it’s the entire package, all of the aforementioned and more, including leadership, which is why, during Russell's second workout, Scott saw shades of his former teammate -- yes, the one drafted 36 years ago -- in the 19-year-old. “And he did that in 3-on-3 with guys that he didn’t know,” Scott said. “So obviously we’re anxious to see what he can do in 5-on-5 with guys that he’s going to play with on a regular basis.”
Following the two worst seasons in franchise history, the Lakers had needs up and down their roster. The plan, Scott said, was just to take the best player available. In watching the film, a key word kept standing out about Russell.
“We really felt the kid was special,” Scott said.
But Russell is more than that. Much more.
He not only represents a diversion from the Lakers’ rich collection of centers. He is a nod to the future for a franchise so often accused of being arrogantly stuck in the past, an acknowledgement that the way championships are won today is far different than how the Lakers won them for years.
There’s spacing, small ball and wave after wave of 3-pointers, daggers from deep that bury teams in hefty deficits. There are still those who argue against the modern style, one constructed by Mike D’Antoni, but Russell is not one of them.
“Who won the championship?” Russell asked, defiantly. “They did.”
As the Golden State Warriors sliced up the league and especially the Western Conference, they also shredded old notions. The Lakers know they can no longer stay behind. Though Kupchak acknowledged the team’s giants of yore, he also nodded to jerseys of Jerry West, Magic and Gail Goodrich, all guards.
So the Lakers joined the revolution by selecting what almost every NBA team seems to have at least one of these days: a dynamic point guard. The Lakers needed help, as their starting point guards last season ranked nearly last in the league in minutes (29.9 per game, 27th in the league), points (12.2, 23rd in the league), assists (4.7, tied for 25th in the league) and made 3-pointers (1.0, tied for 22nd in the league).
But Russell is more than that. Much more.
His selection marks a strong sign of confidence that the Lakers didn’t need to draft a top-flight big man because they believe they can acquire one through free agency, perhaps Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge. Or perhaps they find a way to pry DeMarcus Cousins loose from Sacramento via a trade.
“We’re always optimistic,” Kupchak said.
One free agent they almost certainly won’t be chasing now is Rajon Rondo, another point guard known for his court vision who, like Russell, hails from Louisville. The Lakers have their man, and they hope he’ll be the next Lakers point guard to reach the All-Star Game for the first time since Nick Van Excel in 1998.
There was risk, sure. So the Lakers' front office debated, cautioning themselves against always making the safe pick while also being wary of making a pick that’s simply too risky.
“We went back and forth on that for several weeks,” Kupchak said.
But when they brought Russell in for a second workout, it was clear to all that he was the best choice, a package of everything they needed most.
The Lakers aren’t here often, drafting so close to the top. They cannot afford to miss. But they’re already ahead, nodding to the future while acknowledging their past and the one trait that courses through the veins of the franchise. In Russell, the Lakers acquired so much. On the anniversary of Magic, they acquired just that.