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D’Angelo Russell is free from rookie woes and setting the NBA preseason on fire

Freed from the shackles of last year’s Lakers, the second-year point guard is off to a flying start under Luke Walton.

D’Angelo Russell’s resilience appeared tangibly in the form of a single fourth-quarter assist to an open teammate for three in Sunday’s preseason victory over the Nuggets.

That teammate was Nick Young, the same player that essentially sentenced Russell to sit alone at the lunch table last season over a SnapchatGate fiasco. The assist represented changed times in Lakerland.

Russell is now distanced from the Kobe farewell tour and Byron Scott’s coaching, both of which made his first NBA season as awkward as a mid-pubescent teenager. With a new coach in Luke Walton and a roster marked by mutual youth and excitement, Russell’s preseason is looking more and more like the origin phase of a newfound star.

And the Lakers are noticing. To Walton, Russell is far more than just a floor general.

“This is the point guard! He’s the leader!” stated Walton to his team in offseason workouts. “When he speaks, guys, you gotta listen.”

Lou Williams, one of the veterans who reportedly gave D’Angelo the cold shoulder last season, is noticing Russell’s maturity.

“He’s more talkative and he understands the game more now,” said Williams. “Last year, he was more quiet because he was still trying to learn. Now that he’s had a season under his belt, he understands where he wants the basketball and how to run the offense.”

The praise goes beyond the players and coaching staff. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak said that Russell was “in the gym everyday” this offseason. Russell’s play backs up the claim. In his last two games, he scored 21 and 33 points, scorching the Nuggets from the perimeter. Ice really is in his veins instead of his jumper.

Russell looks like a 10-year veteran maneuvering in the pick-and-roll, whether he’s stopping on a dime for a top-of-the key three or knifing through defenders for a signature mid-range bucket.

Though the preseason is often meaningless, the inner Lakers fan in me already itches to proclaim Russell as an early Most Improved Player frontrunner. If he keeps up this poised play, Russell is ready to make NBA fans forget his early-career dog days. Maybe they’ll even rush to high-five him.