February 29, 2024

D’Angelo Russell was roaming in the key as the last line of defense for the Lakers when Sacramento Kings All-Star point guard De’Aaron Fox dribbled past Gabe Vincent and Max Christie before entering the lane for a layup. As Fox rose toward the basket, Russell stood his ground and blocked the shot during Wednesday night’s preseason game.

Earlier in the second quarter of the game at Honda Center, Russell took a charge on Kings center Domantas Sabonis, another noteworthy moment for the Lakers point guard because he was putting in the effort to play defense.

Admittedly, Russell knows he has been viewed as having shortcomings on defense. He’s out to change that perception.

“Yeah, I mean, last year they found a way to get me off the floor by not playing defense, I guess,” he said. “So, [I] try to be a reason to eliminate that. Not give them a reason to not have me on the floor. Try to be as dangerous as I can on offense and try not to be a liability on defense. So, that’s what I’m working on. I’m trying to do it now before the season so I continue to practice those good habits.”

During the Western Conference finals last season against the Denver Nuggets, Russell lost his starting job in Game 4, the role going to a better defender in Dennis Schroder.

The Nuggets would seek out Russell in pick-and-roll plays between guard Jamal Murray and center Nikola Jokic because he was deemed a weak link in the Lakers’ defense.

If teams hunt him out this season, Russell wants to be more of an impediment.

“It’s just him taking responsibility and wanting to become a better all-around player,” teammate Austin Reaves said after Friday’s shoot-around before a preseason game that night against Golden State. “Obviously offense is … you’re never going to worry with him. To me, he’s one of the most skilled guys, plays with great pace. Defensively, he does the right things. He’s in the right positions. And obviously in training camp so far, I think you’ve seen him take another step forward in that aspect and we have nothing but faith and confidence in him in what he’s doing on both ends.”

For Russell, it’s more about being smart on defense, being in the right spot and being committed to the task.

“Oh yeah, he’s more aggressive on the defensive side, for sure,” forward Rui Hachimura said. “He’s more focused on the defense. We know he got offense. He’s now more vocal, which helps a lot. I like when the point guard, the leader is vocal. It’s easier for me to kind of get into the game. He’s always trying to communicate with the other guys.”

It is true that scoring is not an issue for Russell.

He’s averaging 16.7 points and 6.3 assists in the Lakers’ first three preseason games while shooting 63.3% from the field and 61.5% from three-point range.

Yeah, that’s correct — 61.5% from deep.

“I know I’ve been working on it,” he said. “The things I’ve been working on, I’ve tried to translate to the preseason and approach it like it’s the real games. Been working out for me. … Just working on the approach. A lot of preseason is the wrong approach. For me, I wanted to set myself up right for the season with preseason, training camp and all these opportunities vs. easing my way into the season.”

In that preseason game against the Kings, Russell was cooking on offense, probing Sacramento’s defense, finding holes to drive to the basket, delivering the ball to teammates at the right moments and, of course, knocking down threes.

He was eight-for-12 shooting in the game, two for five from three-point range, while scoring 21 points and handing out eight assists.

“D-Lo was coming off the pick-and-roll and shooting the ball like he was playing ‘H-O-R-S-E’ at times,” Kings coach Mike Brown said of Russell.

The Lakers showed their faith in Russell by re-signing him over the summer to a two-year, $37-million contract, and Russell showed his commitment by agreeing to the deal that gave him a player-option after the first season.

Lakers coach Darvin Ham let Russell know where he stood by announcing to the basketball world on media day that he is the starting point guard.

“He and I communicate about play calls and trying to get other people involved, getting others the ball,” Ham said. “Him picking his spots to be aggressive. Him doing a great job baiting the defense and getting them to be off-balance. Finding people at the rim. Him getting opportunities at the rim as well as threes and mid-range and him finding the open man. … And so, it’s been wonderful, man. It’s been wonderful.”

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