June 6, 2016
His young voice was full of joy, and his sense of humor permeated a conversation.
D’Angelo Russell is having the time of his life in China.
“Man, I’m living over here. I might not come back,” Russell, laughing, said in a phone interview with The Times late Saturday night. “If I don’t come back for the first Lakers game, you can’t blame me.”
Russell started cracking up; the joy of a 20-year-old who had a tumultuous rookie season still abounds.
But it’s not all fun and games for Russell in China.
He has worked out every day while traveling, continuing a trend that started in Los Angeles after the worst season in Lakers history.
Russell paused to let a question about how much he trains in China sink in, his tone turning serious.
“Every day. … Every day,” Russell said. “I actually said I wasn’t going to take this trip if I couldn’t. The only other place I’ve been to out of the country is Mexico, and China is my second place. So I didn’t want to go if I couldn’t get the time in the gym.”
Before he left, Russell once put on his Twitter account that he had been waking up at 5 a.m. in L.A. to start his workouts.
“Oh, yeah,” Russell responded. “I feel like I have something to prove, man. It’s a dedication thing.”
At 6-foot-5, 195 pounds, Russell know he needs to get stronger. He’s fully aware that all of his skills must be sharpened in order to make a meaningful impact in the NBA.
“I’ll let my game speak for itself,” he said.
As the conversations eased into his thoughts on the Lakers hiring Luke Walton to be the team’s new head coach, Russell became excited.
He said he has talked to Walton “as much as possible” but is trying not to bother his coach too much. Walton is an assistant coach with Golden State, and the Warriors are in the midst of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I’m beyond happy,” Russell said. “I’ve heard so much about him. Kobe [Bryant] even said Luke is one of the top two coaches in this league in this day and age. I’m just looking forward to being coached and pushed.”
Walton, 36, last played in the NBA three years ago. He won two NBA championships with the Lakers and went 39-4 as the interim head coach of the Warriors this season while head coach Steve Kerr recovered from back surgery.
That, Russell contends, should make it easy for Walton to relate to this generation of players.
“I think he’ll relate great, especially with the younger guys and the older guys,” Russell said. “The older guys are his age, and then the younger guys he can relate to because he’s seen that growth over in the Golden State organization. It’s a great fit.”
Russell’s first season with the Lakers didn’t come without challenges.
His maturity was questioned. He was a starter, then was benched and then was a starter again. He didn’t always see eye to eye with his tough-love coach, Byron Scott.
Then the walls almost completely caved in on Russell. A video surfaced on social media of Russell recording a private conversation with teammate Nick Young in which Russell is asking Young questions about being with other women besides fiancé Iggy Azalea.
Looking back, Russell knows how much he endured.
“I’m glad it all happened. Honestly,” Russell said. “I’m glad I went through all those — I don’t know — all those adversities, different sets of adversities. I think it shows your true character. It’ll only make me stronger.”
Now Russell can share his wisdom about life in the NBA with friend Ben Simmons, who many say will be the first overall pick in the draft.
The Lakers draft second overall and are expected to take Duke’s Brandon Ingram, who is scheduled to have dinner with team officials Wednesday night and then have a private workout for them Thursday.
Russell and Simmons won a high school national championship together at Montverde Academy in Florida.
“He’s got a changing life experience coming up,” Russell said. “He’s got to be prepared for it.”
Before Russell took his talents to Florida, he attended Central High in Louisville, Ky., the same school as the iconic Muhammad Ali.
Russell said he had the good fortunes to meet Ali “plenty of times,” even though it was when the former heavyweight champion was struggling with Parkinson’s disease.
Russell said he was sad to hear that Ali had died Friday.
“It’s crazy to see somebody with that type of legacy go,” Russell said. “I went to his high school and I’m from the same city, so for somebody like him to pass away, it hurts. I’m young, so when I first met him, he was struggling a little bit and I didn’t get to see him at his best. I just knew how great he was back in the day.”
There were moments during the 2015-16 season when Russell showed signs of how talented he is and why the Lakers used the second pick in last June’s draft to select him.
There was the time, for example, he had a career-high 39 points against Brooklyn and a career-high eight three-pointers in that game.
He even made the NBA’s second-team all-rookie team.
Russell now is working to be better for next season.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I want to let my game speak to that.”