A few summers back, during a Team USA training session in Las Vegas in July, I was part of a discussion with USA/Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski about how players today are different from past eras. Remember, Coach K has as old school a background as you can get — West Point and Bob Knight. Krzyzewski said he’d learned he had to approach modern players differently; the “I say jump and you say how high” mentality didn’t work. However, if you took the time to explain why you wanted certain things done, if you mixed in positive with the negative, if you treated them as an individual and really taught them, the modern player would run through walls for you just like the old-school players did.
Consider that context for the discussion about the development of D'Angelo Russell with the Lakers.
Bashing Scott for his jerking of Russell’s role around and the apparent lack of communication between Scott and his young players has been a favorite pastime of Lakers fans this season. Lakers fans have turned on Scott as much or more than they ever did Mike Brown or Mike D’Antoni — the fact Scott is a Showtime Lakers icon doesn’t slow that tide anymore.
That criticism reached a peak last Friday when the Lakers lost to the Los Angeles Clippers. Former NBA player and UCLA star Don McLean is an analyst for the Clippers, but more than that he works out a lot of young players helping them prepare for the draft (or even college, I’ve spoken to him at Adidas Nations events before). McLean is active in player development, and like all guys in that field he’s protective of his own.
McLean worked with Russell before the draft last season, and he didn’t hold back going after Scott on the broadcast, as reported by Bill Oram of the Orange County Register.
“I really wish Byron Scott would just give D’Angelo Russell the keys and say, ‘Go for it, man,’” said MacLean…
“If Byron Scott would say, ‘You know what, D’Angelo? I don’t care if you turn it over 15 times tonight, you’re going to play 35 minutes, go for it,” he will figure it out,” MacLean said. “He really will.”
That’s the system that Denver and coach Mike Malone have used with Emmanuel Mudiay, and while that rookie has a ways to go (especially with his shot), you still have seen him start to turn a corner, to begin to develop real chemistry with Nikola Jokic.
Byron Scott doesn’t see it that way at all. And he fired back.
Scott sees it this way: If you just let Russell (or any rookie) have minutes in spite of mistakes you are rewarding bad behaviors and they will never learn. They will feel entitled. It’s an old-school method. He’s doing with Russell (and Julius Randle) what he did with Jordan Clarkson last season, holding back the minutes then eventually unleashing them. Scott said the other day he plans to put Russell back in the starting lineup, likely after the All-Star break.
McLean fired back at Scott on a radio interview Monday, but that starts to distract from my point, and my questions.
It should be noted, Scott was drafted by the Lakers onto a 54-win team that reached the NBA Finals, was stacked with Hall of Famers and veterans, and Pat Riley still got Scott in 49 games as a rookie. Scott was much better for it and much improved his second season.
What we don’t know — because we’re not at practices, not in the film sessions — is what Scott and his staff are doing to teach Russell to do things the right way. Other than to slap him on the nose and say “bad dog” by limiting his minutes. Scott is old school, has he figured out how to adapt and reach younger players, or does he only know one way?
Based on Russell’s comments to NBA.com’s David Aldridge, Russell is a guy in need of being shown the right way, a guy thirsty for that knowledge but not being given the water.
Russell: At this day and age, you kind of have a feel for what you did wrong. It might sound weird, but you don’t know what to ask. So like, I turned the ball over. I know I turned the ball over and I’m coming out of the game. I’m not sure if that’s why you’re pulling me out, but I’m not sure what to ask. ‘Cause I know I turned it over. There’s nothing that you can possibly say that’s going to bring that turnover back, or anything that I can possibly do. But it’s like, I don’t know what to ask. It’s like, he wouldn’t, I don’t know, tell me if I don’t ask. So that’s where it’s kind of a blur.
Aldridge: Is that just part of being a young guy — not knowing? You don’t know what you don’t know?
Russell: That’s the best way to put it. I don’t know what I don’t know.
That’s a mature statement from Russell.
More mature than we have seen from a coach comfortable with criticizing his rookies to the media.
Scott also has a tough balancing act this season — making sure the fans get the Kobe Bryant farewell tour experience while developing young players for the future.
Russell is showing signs of improvement this season, and while Lakers fans will tell you that’s in spite of Scott, the coach and his staff clearly have some role in it. Could Russell be handled better? From the outside looking in it’s not fair to draw hard and fast conclusions, but it appears there is a generational gap that his hampering things.
Scott is not going anywhere the rest of this season — he will coach the Lakers through April, reports Mike Bresnahan at the Los Angeles Times. That shouldn’t be a surprise; he was brought in to guide the final years of the Kobe experience, and to help the Lakers sell some history while setting up a new generation. He reportedly is on an audition for his job the rest of the season.
I’d be surprised if Scott is back next season, he’ll get more time on the golf course and the Lakers will pick a new direction.
But until he goes, don’t expect Scott to change.