Rumble, young man, rumble.
Whether D'Angelo Russell succeeds or fails in reaching superstardom, it won't be for lack of confidence. He's turning around while the ball is still in the air – calling his own made shot – against the best team in basketball, just a game removed from a cold performance against the Atlanta Hawks where he missed 13 of 16 shots.
It's a display of self-belief that might be considered arrogance in due time. But this belief in his own ability is necessary for not just his rise in the NBA, but his utter survival. There will be opponents, bad games and circumstances that will test his mettle going forward.
Currently though, he's trying to overcome his own coach. Byron Scott has seemingly made it his mission to dismantle the point guard's spirit. From refusing to play Russell in numerous fourth quarters, benching him for "trying to take over games" to criticizing everything from the youngster's playfulness to a supposed laziness, Scott's been a constant killjoy. At one point, he took Russell out of the game just to teach him a lesson. As Scott puts it:
"It was more of, not only that he wasn’t playing great but more to let him know that you still haven’t earned this..."
It left the player utterly lost about his development:
D’Angelo Russell on his season: "I feel like I was improving. Now I feel like, I don’t know, not really as much."— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) February 1, 2016
Which seemed to be a humorous ordeal for the man in charge of his progress:
Byron: "I like messing with young guys. It's fun." Why? Byron: "Trying to find what they're made of."— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) March 2, 2016
But you can't keep a good man down forever. Especially not one that hits a dagger against the Brooklyn Nets en-route to a career-high – and the most points scored by a Lakers rookie since 1959 – 39 points, and then turns around to crowd to let them know that he has ice in his veins. He then retorted his coach's criticism about the celebration by saying: "It's a new day. It’s not the old day. I do what I do."
After finally returning to the starting lineup after the All-Star break, Russell has averaged almost 20 points and five assists in the eight games. Against the Warriors, he recorded 21 points, five assists, three rebounds and four steals. He only trails Stephen Curry in three-point percentage during that time. He's been the player the Lakers hoped when he was drafted before what many considered to be better choices.
The false equivalency for Scott and fans has then become that the coach's tough love methods have worked. He set out to challenge the player and the player has responded by showing his worth. But that type of reasoning is parasitic and creates a situation where the coach wins regardless of what happens to Russell. If the player fails, then Scott was right in insinuating that his mentality was weak. If the player succeeds, as Russell is now doing, then it was because he passed the tests set upon him.
It mirrors a life philosophy that is often misunderstood: the belief in the nobility of struggle. While it's commendable when one succeeds in overcoming adversity, there's nothing noble about actively seeking it out. It's far worse when burdening someone with it when you have the resources to relieve struggle instead. A privileged position is the ideal, not a pejorative. The whole point is to live life without struggle, after all.
In this case, the fact that Russell has managed to shine despite his coach's antics is not a testament to those antics, but a further affirmation of the youngster's ability and character. And it's very disingenuous to take credit for Russell's rise, when the player himself predicted this situation back in December:
"Once I get comfortable with my team, my coaches and all that, the same problems I was having months ago, people are going to be like, ‘Dang, he’s come a long way.’ Because everywhere I’ve been, I’ve struggled first, but then made (success happen)."
This bodes well for the ultimate hope for Russell going forward then, and that's the commendable aspect of struggle. That he is able to still shine with the constraints around him is remarkable. Whether it's having his rookie season coincide with Kobe Bryant's farewell tour (a situation the team admitted they cared about more than the development of youngsters), being part of an offense that for most of the season discouraged one of his best strengths in three-point shooting or having a coach who believes that leaving youngsters bemused is the best way to develop them.
The kid can play at an elite level. He's shown that in the limited time he's been given so far. He loves the big moments, as the Warriors learned. So too did the Minnesota Timberwolves in the early days of December. In a game Kobe voluntarily sat out the fourth quarter and Jordan Clarkson missed with a mildly sprained ankle, Russell scored a then-career high of 23 points, including the game-tying jumper to take the contest to overtime. He attempted the game-winning jumper at the end of overtime and missed.
That drive to be in the big moments isn't something to be criticized, especially not when the same quality is praised in the context of the retiring legend with whom Russell shares a locker room. The Lakers wanted a superstar when they drafted Russell, and they got a player with the promise and confidence of one. A kid with ice in his veins, a drive to improve and a belief in himself that won't shake for anyone, including his own coach.
He also has the edge that would make even Kobe proud:
"So I’d always rather be a late bloomer at anything I do. I don’t want to be great right away" he said, via Lakers.com. "I love the process. I love when people say, ‘You suck! You’re a bust!’ I love that. Because whether it’s months or years, whatever it takes, best believe they’ll be thinking about those words they said a while ago."
It wasn't Byron Scott's tough love that made D'Angelo Russell great. Russell prophesied that he would be a star from the beginning, and he's willing to work for that goal. His success right now -- and hopefully in the future -- is just proof of that superstar mentality.
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Lakers Nation Presents: What's led to Russell's increased confidence?