D'Angelo Russell's success helps Lakers forge outlines of promising future

ONTARIO, Calif. -- Thanks to their starters, the Los Angeles Lakers constructed a cozy double-digit lead Sunday -- a foreign circumstance in recent years --but then watched the lead crumble when their reserves took the reins.

It wasn't doomsday, though. After all, Sunday only marked a preseason tilt against the Denver Nuggets, a no-penalty opportunity to experiment with lineups and adjust to a new system under rookie head coach Luke Walton. But rather than swallow a meaningless loss, Walton re-inserted several starters in the second half, and they helped secure a 124-115 win.

The victory might seem small -- and in the grand history of the NBA, this game won't register as so much as a blip -- but that meager notch in the ledger still counts as a step toward the winning culture that Walton hopes will take shape in the coming seasons.

And for the young players who form the cornerstone of the franchise's future, even the smallest wins are potential steps toward sunlight after spending the past three seasons stuck in the depths of the the league's cellar.

"It means a lot," said Lakers point guard D'Angelo Russell said after scoring a game-high 33 points on 13-of-19 shooting in about 32 minutes. "We don't want to go through losing seasons. We don't want to go through rebuilding as an excuse of losing. We're rebuilding, but we still find a way to win games, and we're capable. We have the pieces. We don't have an All-Star guy or anything like that. Hopefully some potential [All-Star] guys, but we're taking everything serious."

These wins also matter because they help these extremely youthful and still malleable Lakers not only learn how to win -- which they very much need to do after recording a franchise-low 17 wins last season -- but it helps them learn who they are and who they might one day become.

"Yeah, the thing with us right now is, we don't have an identity," Russell said. "Other teams, they have star players. They've got glue guys. They know what they're capable of. [The] same teams are showing up in the playoffs at the end of the year no matter how the season goes.

"We don't have an identity right now, so it's all about taking everything serious -- taking every preseason [game], every practice, everything we do is serious when we're trying to identify ourselves."

As a team, Russell said the Lakers players don't openly discuss the identity they want to forge.

"No, but we don't [have one]," he said. "When you say other teams, you know they're scrappy or teams execute or you're not going to turn them over. When you say the Lakers right now, you don't really know. So we're just trying to find it."

These Lakers might not have a star, but the player who comes closest right now is also their floor general, who could well be on the path to stardom, perhaps soon. So it was put to Russell -- what kind of identity could these Lakers have? And what kind of identity does he want them to have?

"We're definitely young, so being able to get out and run, get stops and have fun," he said. "This franchise is used to Showtime, and we've got some exciting players, so really just trying to put it together within Luke's system and have fun at the same time and win."

Mentioning the 1980s Showtime era will certainly earn Russell some points from Lakers historians, as most fans who bleed purple and gold consider themselves to be. But Russell's answer also pointed to the joy-filled culture of the Golden State Warriors, where Walton spent the past two seasons as an assistant. Walton has said before that he hopes to construct a similar culture in LA, and, at the very least, he has some promising talent to work with, especially Russell.

Sunday marked another strong outing for the second-year point guard and No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, a player whom the Lakers said last summer possesses "superstar" potential and a court vision that carried a hint of Magic Johnson. It was a bold remark to make then, and it still is, but with every impressive performance from Russell -- and he has had a string of them from summer league through the preseason -- the Lakers' claims seems less and less over the top.

An entire regular season awaits Russell, one that promises many tests against the merciless Western Conference heavyweights, but it has been clear since the end of last season that he's trying to make a statement, trying to turn the page from an awful rookie campaign marred with off-the-court controversy, and on-the-court squabbles with former Lakers coach Byron Scott. So often, Russell has been called "immature," and, right or wrong, he'd like to change that notion, hence all the talk about taking everything seriously.

"It's preseason, but I told myself going into this year, everything is going to have a business-like approach to it," he said. "Every weight I lift, every practice, every shot I shoot, it's going to have a business-like approach instead of a 19-year-old-kid approach to it. I know what I want to be in this league and I just want to keep working to be there."

It helps that Russell has a new head coach, one that is modern and young (and thus more relatable) but also open-minded. It helps that Russell can now lead rather than be an afterthought during Kobe Bryant's extravagant farewell tour that melted into a Viking funeral.

"I would say, last year, I wasn't upset with last year, but I knew what i was capable of and I didn't get to showcase it," Russell said.

So in summer league and then the preseason, he wanted to show what he was capable of, what he'd spent his offseason working on.

"And that's what I'm going to prove," Russell said.

Sunday marked another impressive step for Russell, as he and the Lakers continue to find their way and develop into whatever they might one day become.