LAS VEGAS -- From afar, Luke Walton admired D'Angelo Russell’s dazzling freshman season at Ohio State. And when the Los Angeles Lakers held the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, Walton -- who remained a Lakers fan even after his career with them ended -- loved that they used it to select Russell, because, as Walton said, “I thought, in the West, you need a point guard.”
Now, as fate would have it, Russell is Walton’s point guard -- and Walton is especially pleased that’s the case as he enters into his first NBA head-coaching job, tasked with leading the team he played for and loved thereafter.
“He has special abilities,” Walton told ESPN on Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center. “So, yeah, I’m thrilled to be working with [Russell].”
Walton saw those abilities first-hand after watching Russell bury a 27-foot, game-winning 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left to lead the Lakers to a 70-69 win over the Philadelphia 76ers, pushing the Lakers to 2-0 in NBA summer league play.
“I love how he competes,” Walton added of Russell, who finished with 22 points on 8-of-20 shooting. “I just love the competitive nature that he had out there.”
Russell didn’t play well from start to finish, as his poor shooting line testifies. His six turnovers -- a team high -- pushed the Lakers into a 16-point hole. Entering the fourth quarter, Russell had two more turnovers than made field goals, and it looked as if the Lakers were headed for defeat.
But Russell was sensational in the final frame, making four of six shots, including his game winner from beyond the arc. He then sprinted down the court, pointing to his arm and screaming “Ice in my veins!” -- the same thing he did after sinking a game winner last season and also dating to prep school.
“Usually when those shots look so good like that, they usually bounce off the rim or they bounce short and you can’t sleep that night,” Russell said of his buzzer-beater. “But God blessed me with that one.”
Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. knew the shot was good, even before Russell drained it.
“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind it was going in,” said Nance, who finished with 13 points, 8 rebounds, 7 steals, 5 turnovers, 4 assists and 4 blocks. “I think he hit four or five shots in a row and you can tell when somebody is in that groove, and he just had it. He’s got ice in his veins.”
When the shot fell through, the crowd, packed with Lakers fans, went wild, capping off what had been a rather ugly game for two-and-a-half quarters before a flurry of highlights -- including multiple high-flying dunks from Nance -- and some key plays from Russell helped lead the Lakers back.
“Yeah, I tried to keep the leadership and the positive energy going,” Russell said. “Guys were struggling, including myself. Turnovers, my turnovers started the bad run for us. They capitalized every time and they executed down the line getting stops on my turnovers and scoring in transition. I just kept the positive vibe.”
Russell said he told his teammates, “Keep fighting, be positive.
“And throughout the game, we started slowly creeping back, playing Laker basketball, playing the way we know we can play. At the end of the game, before the shot, before all of that, I was just preaching, we were going to win this game.”
While Russell wasn’t lights-out from 3-point range, hitting just three of nine attempts, his final try was nothing but net. Russell then celebrated with his father, who had a courtside view.
“I mean, that’s my OG,” Russell said of his father. “Like I said, when I do good, he’s there. When I do bad, he’s there. What father wouldn’t want to see his son do something like that with that type of atmosphere and that crowd? I’m just blessed to have him there, sitting front row and seeing it.”
But Russell’s strong play late only reaffirmed what the Lakers believe he can become for them -- a star.
“That’s why the expectations are there,” said Lakers assistant Jesse Mermuys, who is coaching their summer league squad. “He has a chance to be special. As an organization, as a coaching staff, we’ve got to push him. We’ve got to push him and pull him and prod him and try to help him along that path to be great. And that path is hard. It’s a really tough, long grind.
"He’s willing. He’s coachable. Already he’s given a tough effort with the new coaching staff. It’s a process, but these are the type of learning lessons that summer league is about. He needs to feel what that’s like and feel that situation, feel an ugly game and then come out with a win and hit a big shot. That’s part of his development.”