ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Los Angeles Lakers began Wednesday’s fourth quarter the same way they did three other fourth quarters this very young season -- with D’Angelo Russell, their prized rookie point guard and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, sitting on the bench.
The familiar move again stoked white-hot outrage in the corners of social media that Lakers fans passionately occupy.
Are the Lakers trying to develop Russell?
Are they even giving him a chance?
What about his confidence?
Such questions are certainly fair game -- and they’ve been asked plenty by basketball observers around the country -- considering the Lakers are in the depths of a rebuilding campaign with nothing to truly play for aside from developing their promising young players and hoping for some lottery luck at the end of the season.
But with seven minutes to go in what was ultimately a 101-99 loss to the Orlando Magic, Russell checked into the game. Really, he did. And that such an act felt newsworthy underscores just how odd it has been to see the 19-year-old spend so much time on the bench lately.
This time, Russell stayed in the game down the stretch and had the ball in his hands during the final minute, when the score was tied and the Lakers had a chance to take the lead. Russell passed to veteran guard Lou Williams, who air-balled a last-second jumper, but the fact that Russell was even on the court at that point represented measured progress.
“I’m built for this,” said Russell, who finished with 14 points on 6-of-15 shooting, including 2-of-5 from 3-point range, in a team-high 31 minutes.
Russell added six rebounds, three assists, three turnovers, a block and a steal in a bounce-back performance after sitting on the bench for the entire fourth quarter of Tuesday’s loss to the Heat in Miami.
“He did some good things,” said Lakers coach Byron Scott. “Again, he’ll keep progressing.”
Scott still wasn’t happy with Russell’s defense, an area where Russell, like most young players, needs plenty of work.
“Especially the last three, four minutes of the game, [that’s] an area where he has to get better,” Scott said.
While other rookies drafted alongside him have thrived, Russell has spent a considerable amount of time on the sideline, which has left him often citing “opportunity” when comparing his situation to others.
Lakers star Kobe Bryant himself came off the bench as a rookie.
“I tell him, he’s playing more than I played my rookie year,” Bryant said. "When I wasn’t playing, I was always observing, always studying and trying to learn as much as I can. It doesn’t mean you can’t get frustrated or upset or down about it. But you get in the gym early, you work as hard as you possibly can so when your moment comes, you’re ready."
Key point: The situations that Bryant and Russell faced as rookies couldn’t be more different. In Bryant’s rookie season, the 1996-97 Lakers had title aspirations, finished with a 56-26 record and reached the second round of the playoffs. This season’s Lakers are not, ahem, chasing title No. 17.
Russell has kept his head held high, all things considered.
“I’m always comfortable,” he said. “It’s just learning the system. It’s all about opportunity, so once you get the opportunity, you’ve got to capitalize on it.”
Said Bryant, “It’s just staying with the process and watching and observing when you’re in there and trying. You play as well as you can, and when you’re not, you observe and you learn.”
Before the game, Scott talked plenty about why Russell has been on the bench so often.
“I’m not going to throw him to the wolves, per se, just because he’s the No. 2 pick,” Scott said then. “When he’s in there and he’s playing in the last quarter of the game, it’s going to be because he’s totally prepared."
And of his confidence? Scott said he’s not concerned.
"I’ve just got to continue to put my arms around him and tell him, 'Hey, I still believe in you. I know it’s been tough. But it’s only seven games into the season. We’ve got a long way to go and you’ve gotten better in certain areas that we need you to get better in, and we’re going to keep pushing you to keep getting better in every phase of the game.'"
Russell responded nicely on Wednesday, racking up seven points on 3-of-5 shooting to go along with three rebounds and two assists in the first seven minutes.
His reward appeared to be some crunch-time minutes, the kind that he and Lakers fans alike hope he continues to play the rest of this season and throughout his career in purple and gold.