Russell and Walton Off to a Great Start

It’s been a productive offseason for D’Angelo Russell, who starred at the Las Vegas Summer League and has impressed his teammates and coaches at the practice facility throughout the summer.

Still just 20 years old, Russell may have picked up a chip on his shoulder after an uneven rookie season on a 17-win team lowered external expectations on the No. 2 overall pick in 2015.

Sure, lowered expectations aren’t fair based on comparisons to current All-Stars at his age, but the Louisville native has heard such chatter dismissing his future prospects. His 21.8 points on 47.7 percent shooting (40 percent from 3) with 6.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.5 steals in Vegas served as an initial counterpoint, but of course mean nothing once the real NBA season starts.

Perhaps that misses the point. There’s something far more important to Russell than his Summer League stats that he thinks will impact his performance: He loves his new head coach.

Indeed, Russell has mentioned Luke Walton to me on more than one occasion, both in Vegas and at the practice facility throughout the summer.

The major takeaway is how excited he is about being Walton’s point guard, and how much he believes in his new coach.

Russell loves the mix of competition and fun Walton brings to the practice floor, where he and each one of L.A.’s draft picks from the previous three drafts have been gathering daily.

At the gym every day with his players, Walton’s been steadily building his communication skills with Russell and his teammates throughout the summer.

“We communicate on and off the court as much as possible,” Russell said. “I feel like I can call him all the time. He’s not like a head coach that will sit back and watch as other coaches and colleagues train other players. He’s always involved. He’ll get out there and play with you if he wants. It’s just great having a young coach like him in the building.”

Being both liked and respected isn’t the easiest combination for NBA coaches – often you get one or the other – but Walton’s always had the quality about him.

Basketball wise, it’s pretty simple. With the ability to both shoot and pass from the point guard spot, Russell stands to take advantage of Walton’s system, which will derive in part from the ball movement-heavy Golden State style. Russell sees the court extremely well, but we didn’t see that so often in a iso-heavy Lakers offense featuring Kobe Bryant and Lou Williams in 2015-16. That should change.

As Walton lieutenant Jesse Mermuys detailed after coaching Russell in Vegas, expectations are high.

“He has a chance to be special,” Mermuys declared. “As an organization (and) as a coaching staff, we got to push him. We have to push him and pull him and prod him and try to help him along that path to be great.”

As Russell declared, he and Walton communicate constantly, and Russell’s the type of guy who responds well to that trust and expectation.

Of course, the player-coach relationship is in its honeymoon phase at the moment, and there will be tests particularly when losses mount, which they always do at the NBA level for a team as young as the Lakers.

That said, this player-coach relationship couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.

We’ll see what kind of dividends this pays when training camp opens in just a few weeks.