This year’s draft was supposed to be the rebirth of the Los Angeles Lakers brand. After Minnesota took Karl-Anthony Towns the Lakers were poised to land arguably the best center in the draft in Duke center Jahlil Okafor. It was a marriage made in basketball heaven, right? The Lakers and a dominant center. You couldn’t have scripted it any better.
But somewhere along the evaluation and interview process the Lakers’ top brass, which included team president Jim Buss, general manager Mitch Kupchak and head coach Byron Scott, felt Okafor didn’t fit the plan.
So, instead of taking the 6-11, 270-pound big man who some were calling “the next Tim Duncan,” the Lakers decided to use their No. 2 overall pick on Ohio State guard D’Angelo Russell.
It was the draft day tremor that shook up the NBA. It seemed like everyone thought the Lakers were going to take Okafor. Well, everyone except the Lakers.
Kupchak has hinted for weeks that the Lakers were looking for a player who fits the new point-guard-driven style, and someone who can play multiple positions. Obviously Kupchak and the Lakers were glued to their TV screens during the playoffs, watching Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors driving, dishing and shooting their way to an NBA title.
The Warriors’ small ball style made such an impression on the Lakers that it made them re-evaluate a time-tested formula that you build your team inside-out and draft a center. L.A. ignored its championship history with big men — from Mikan to Wilt to Kareem to Shaq — and chose a guard with average foot speed and an inconsistent jumper.
Russell is a good player with some physical gifts. He’s a big point guard who can play off the ball and makes some nice passes. But he is also an average athlete who struggles against elite defenders. The one game that stuck out was his matchup against Arizona in the NCAA tournament. Russell was bottled up by T.J. McConnell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and went 3-for-19 from the field.
Despite some glaring weaknesses the Lakers are convinced Russell is the man to lead the franchise into the post-Kobe Bryant era. In fact, Scott believes “D’Angelo has a chance to be a superstar.”
“Talent-wise, he might be the best player in the draft,” Scott said of the 6-5 guard who turned 19 in February.
Scott said he was impressed by Russell’s second workout, where he displayed qualities such as leadership, shooting and passing.
“The decision that was made was to basically take the best player available,” Scott said. “We really felt this kid was special.”
It would have been different if Jerry West was the one evaluating the draft for the Lakers. But were are taking about Kupchak and Buss, and you can include Scott in the mix. None of them have West’s uncanny ability to scout talent.
Since West left the organization in 2002, the Lakers haven’t exactly hit the lottery with their draft picks. Remember Toney Douglas, Devin Ebanks and Javaris Crittendon? Those are names that’ll make any Lakers fan cringe.
Time will tell if the Lakers bungled the 2015 draft. Russell could turn out to be a solid NBA pro and enjoy a long career. But one thing he’ll never be is dominant. Great centers come around once every 10 years. You can find a really good point guard just about every year in the draft.
Go big or go home, right? That’s the NBA slogan. Apparently the Lakers missed that message.