With no fanfare at all, D’Angelo Russell walked off the Brooklyn Nets team bus and into the hallway where Lakers coach Luke Walton held court. For several minutes, reporters had pressed Walton about Russell, about the former Lakers point guard’s time in Los Angeles and about what went wrong.
Then a respite came.
One reporter asked about Lonzo Ball’s performance in the previous night’s game. As Walton answered, Russell walked by. They made eye contact as he passed and Russell saluted his former coach. Minutes later, he saluted himself.
“I went through a lot,” Russell said of his tenure with the Lakers. “Kobe’s farewell, everything. I went through a lot, so, just to overcome that, I salute myself for that.”
On Friday night at Staples Center, the Lakers beat the Nets 124-112, and Russell donned the opposing jersey for the first time at Staples Center. He faced the team that moved on from him, and the point guard his former organization put its faith in, just as it once believed in him.
“I think possibly it could have worked out for him [with the Lakers],” Walton said. “We went in another direction and I think in the long run it’s going to work out for us and it’s going to work out for him. So it’s hopefully a win-win.”
The Lakers were propelled by a dazzling debut from rookie Kyle Kuzma in his first start (21 points, 13 rebounds), an inspired performance by former Nets center Brook Lopez (34 points, 10 rebounds) and an impressive showing by Brandon Ingram (18 points, 10 rebounds).
Russell finished with 17 points on 8-of-24 shooting, with seven rebounds and seven assists. Ball finished with six points on 3-of-15 shooting (0 for 3 from three-point range) with seven assists and five rebounds.
Russell was drafted second overall in 2015 in a draft conducted by then-Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and then-executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss.
Buss is a rare spectator at Lakers games since a legal battle with his sister over control of the team. He sat courtside for Russell’s return to Staples Center.
Russell’s first season with the Lakers was a season dedicated to saying farewell to Kobe Bryant, who announced his retirement in November of 2015.
His second season was marked by turmoil in the organization. In Walton’s first season, the Lakers began 10-10, but then went 2-14 in December. By February, Buss and Kupchak had both been fired and replaced by Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka.
It quickly became clear the Lakers were planning to draft a point guard. That didn’t yet present murmurs that the Lakers were open to trading Russell. Still, Walton said he never reached a point during the season where he coached Russell as if Russell was on his way out.
“We were coaching D’Angelo as [if] he was going to be our point guard for the next 10 years,” Walton said. “… We do that with every player that we have because we don’t know, we don’t know what will happen in the future. We don’t know what will happen if someone will really get traded or not get traded.”
Johnson and Pelinka traded Russell to the Nets on June 20, two days before they drafted Ball second overall. The Nets also took Timofey Mozgov and his contract that would have tied up $16 million in salary cap space for each of the next three seasons. They sent center Brook Lopez to the Lakers and also a draft pick that became Kuzma.
To explain moving Russell, Johnson later said he “needed a leader.” The comment didn’t go unnoticed by Russell. “I would say it ruffled a few feathers,” Russell said. Asked if he believes he is a leader, Russell said “of course.”
The crowd offered an assortment of boos and cheers for Russell when he was introduced before the game. Russell subbed in with 9:45 left in the second quarter and had a light exchange with Walton at the scorer’s table. Upon checking in, the boos got louder.
After the game, Russell feigned ignorance. “I don’t recall,” he said, about his reception. “I don’t recall.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli