EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The Los Angeles Lakers are betting D’Angelo Russell is ready for Showtime.
The Lakers chose Russell with the second pick in the NBA draft on Thursday, bypassing big man Jahlil Okafor to grab the Ohio State guard with the potential for greatness.
Russell averaged 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists in his only season with the Buckeyes. Los Angeles confidently chose the dynamic ball-handler over Okafor, the Duke big man considered the draft’s other elite prospect alongside Russell and top pick Karl-Anthony Towns.
“We think his upside is unlimited, and we didn’t feel that for all the players we were considering,” general manager Mitch Kupchak said at the Lakers’ training complex. “It was clear to everybody that he was far and above, at his position, the best choice for us.”
The Lakers chose Wyoming forward Larry Nance Jr. with the 27th overall pick and grabbed Stanford shooter Anthony Brown, a Southern California native, with the 34th pick to cap the most eventful draft in many years for the 16-time NBA champion franchise.
After going 21-61 in the worst season in franchise history, the Lakers had their highest draft choice since 1982, and they hope they’ve found their next superstar. The Lakers had made just five previous top-two selections in their history, and four turned out to be Hall of Famers: Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson and James Worthy.
In his bright red suit at the draft in Brooklyn, Russell didn’t appear to be a player who fears the spotlight.
“That franchise isn’t used to losing, and I’m a winning player,” Russell said.
The 19-year-old Russell is widely thought to have the highest potential in this draft, with sublime passing skills highlighting an all-around offensive game. Russell’s playmaking, 3-point shooting and overall swagger persuaded the Lakers to gamble on the 6-foot-5 point guard instead of playing it somewhat safer with a big man.
Russell immediately relished the opportunity to play in a backcourt with Kobe Bryant, who will be 37 years old this fall when he returns from his second major injury for his 20th NBA season.
“I’m really looking forward to him taking me under his wing, if possible, and really just feeding me the most knowledge he can,” Russell said. “To be in this position on that franchise, on the West Coast, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, is a great opportunity to really take my game to the next level.”
Coach Byron Scott was thrilled by the pick, praising Russell’s poise and leadership in his three-on-three workouts for the Lakers. He already imagines Russell in the Lakers’ backcourt alongside Jordan Clarkson, who made the all-rookie first team this year.
“It was a decision that either way we made, we were going to be in pretty good shape,” Scott said. “I think Okafor is going to be a good center in this league. I just think D’Angelo has a chance to be a superstar.”
Kupchak disagreed with the notion that his selection of Russell is an indicator of the NBA’s evolution into a guard-dominated league, as exemplified by Golden State’s title run behind point guard Stephen Curry and no standout big man. The Lakers’ history is built on banners won by dominant centers including George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal.
“You still need quality big men in this league, and if any of those players on the wall were available, we would have selected them,” Kupchak said, indicating the row of retired jerseys hanging above the Lakers’ practice court.
Russell reacted modestly to Scott’s prediction of superstardom, but he believes the league is changing in a way that will fit his skills superbly.
“I mean, who won the championship? They did,” Russell said of the Warriors. “They put something together that was beautiful with just wings and guards. There was no size really on the floor, so I feel like it’s slowly been changing to a wing and guard league.”
Nance was a somewhat surprising pick late in the first round, but the athletic forward improved his stock during pre-draft workouts. Brown, who went to high school in Orange County, is a solid outside shooter and wing defender, potentially filling two areas of serious need.
The Lakers’ most important draft in decades still was surrounded by the usual drama that habitually envelops the Lakers, who have been linked to a possible trade for All-Star Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins.
Los Angeles also hopes to be active in free agency next week, perhaps attempting to lure LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Marc Gasol or another big man to play alongside forward Julius Randle, the seventh overall pick last summer who broke his leg in the season opener.
Kupchak confirmed he will focus his free-agent pitches on frontcourt players. He’s hoping the Lakers’ mystique and a young core headlined by Russell will allow him to accelerate their rebuilding process.
“We feel we have a great product, a great city, and a great legacy to sell,” Kupchak said. “We’re going to do the best we can. We’re always optimistic going in. It’s always a challenge.”