LAS VEGAS (AP) - Welcome to life in the spotlight, D’Angelo Russell.
So here’s the scene: A group of reporters were gathered in a semicircle along one side of a cramped hallway after the Los Angeles Lakers played the Minnesota Timberwolves in the summer league opener for both teams on Friday night. Russell left the locker room and weaved his way through the maze of bodies and took his spot along the wall. He then made a rookie mistake and looked directly into a superbright light attached to one of the television cameras.
“Can’t see,” he said, wincing.
Lesson learned, and that’s what summer league is about for the No. 2 pick in this year’s NBA draft.
The Lakers’ point guard of the present and the future made his pro debut Friday night, and did a little of everything. He had eight points, seven fouls (you can go all the way to 10 in Las Vegas before fouling out), six assists, five rebounds, five turnovers and three steals.
The final score that will be forgotten quickly if not already: Minnesota 81, Lakers 68.
Of course, that doesn’t really matter. The night was about the debut of the No. 1 pick in the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, the return of Lakers forward Julius Randle and the start of Russell’s pro career.
“It might be a little too early to tell,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said, when asked if he already sees something special about Russell, much in the same way the team did with Kobe Bryant nearly two decades ago. “His vision on the court is special. Every practice he’s done something that’s better. He has some things he can do on the court that can make you smile. I’m really excited about that. He’s still 19 years old, but we’re really excited to see this young man play.”
Everyone at UNLV, it seemed, was excited.
The biggest crowd in Las Vegas summer league history was there, including Houston’s James Harden sitting on one of the sidelines and taking in the show. Extra seats in the upper deck had to be opened to accommodate the crowd, most of whom wore Lakers purple-and-gold. Fans screamed loudly when Russell was introduced, oohed and aahed when he drew a foul on his first possession, and even saluted him with an “M-V-P” chant.
That chant, by the way, came 34 seconds into the game, and all he’d done to that point was make a free throw.
Didn’t matter. He’s already won Laker fans over.
“To see some new faces, that was great,” Russell said.
Plenty of people thought the Lakers would use the No. 2 pick in the draft on Jahlil Okafor, the Duke center who seemed more than a little interested in taking a shot at becoming the next dominant big man to play in Los Angeles.
But the Lakers went with Russell instead, and it won’t surprise anyone if the one-and-done collegian from Ohio State is starting beside Bryant on opening night this season. One player will be going into his 20th year with the Lakers, the other will still be in his 20th year on Earth.
“I have a lot to learn,” Russell said.
He’s a quick study. Just from one summer league game, he learned the NBA backcourt rule, and that ballwatching on defense basically ensures that you’ll get beat every time. “Guys go back door,” he lamented.
He also learned that trying to do too much keeps you from doing what your team wants.
“There’s little things that you can do in college that you can’t do in the pros,” Russell said.
The more time he spends in those NBA bright lights now, the better off he’ll be when the season starts for real this fall.
“Everybody was trying to do more than what their job was,” Russell said. “I know I got caught up in trying to do somebody else’s job a few times. It’s something I’ll learn from.”
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