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How D'Angelo Russell found another gear amid trade rumors: 'At my best when I don't think'
National Basketball Association

How D'Angelo Russell found another gear amid trade rumors: 'At my best when I don't think'

Updated Feb. 15, 2024 6:55 p.m. ET

LOS ANGELES – Ahead of last week's NBA trade deadline, D'Angelo Russell released control. 

Hearing his name in endless trade rumors, the Los Angeles Lakers guard decided to approach the high-stress situation as though he were a passenger on a plane, knowing that he had no agency over his fate. So, he stopped worrying. He embraced uncertainty. 

"Honestly, everybody around me, like my friends, my family, they were kinda panicking a little bit, panicking for me," Russell told FOX Sports. "And I kinda just never let my mind go there. For me, it was wake up, come to work. I just kinda stayed in that moment. It allowed me to catch a vibe, just flow through basketball, you know."

Russell indeed caught a vibe. He transformed from a player in and out of the lineup into one who was outperforming nearly anyone the Lakers could potentially acquire. 


Over a nine-game stretch from mid-January to the end of that month, Russell averaged 27 points on 50.4 percent shooting from the field and 50.8 percent from beyond the arc, a marked uptick from the 10.2 points he averaged in December that led to him falling out of the starting lineup for seven games from Dec. 23-Jan. 11.

"I never played to not get traded," Russell told FOX Sports. "I was just kinda like, f--- it. And that ‘f--- it' allowed me to play my game."

Russell forced the Lakers to recalculate his value, an incredible feat considering the crushing pressure he was under with his name constantly involved in trade rumors on television and social media. It may have changed his career trajectory. 

"Guys come in, they care about their percentages, they care about all this stuff and then they struggle," Russell told FOX Sports. "As soon as I stopped caring about it, I played my best basketball of my career."

Russell is no stranger to trade rumors. Since being drafted by the Lakers with the No. 2 overall pick in 2015, Russell has been traded four times: from the Lakers to the Brooklyn Nets in 2017; from the Nets to the Golden State Warriors in 2019; from the Warriors to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2020; and back to the Lakers at the 2023 trade deadline.

Ahead of this year's trade deadline, with the Lakers linked to everyone from Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray to Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine, Russell's future was once again uncertain.

Adding to the intensity of the situation, LeBron James tweeted an hourglass emoji on Jan. 30 as the Lakers sat in ninth place in the Western Conference, seemingly urging them to make a move ahead of his looming $51.4 million player option for the 2024-25 season. 

It would've been impossible for Russell not to hear it all. But he didn't let it get to him. 

Russell responded to the noise around him with inner quietude, silencing it. He had a season-high 39 points against Utah on Jan. 13, cementing himself as a starter once again. He went on to have seven games in a row in which he scored at least 20 points, including a 34-point game against Portland on Jan. 21. The organization took notice. So, too, did James. 

"The boy 9Lo been in his (bag)!!!!" James wrote on his Instagram story on Jan. 22. "Keep loading bro @dloading."

The Lakers ended up standing pat at the Feb. 8 trade deadline, with Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka explaining that they didn't want to make a move that could "lead to marginal improvement."

For Russell, the fact that he's still in a Lakers uniform is a relief. But he acknowledged that he had steeled himself to go anywhere, with his primary goal wanting to feel deeply appreciated. 

"Hell yeah," Russell said of his excitement to still be a Laker. "I've been enjoying it. The energy is good. I enjoy being in L.A. But I wanted to be somewhere I'm wanted. So, for me, if they don't want me, I'm cool. I'll go. I'll play in Detroit, to be honest. Like, I just want to be wanted. But yeah, I definitely wanted to be here."

Russell now remains where his career began, but this time around things feel very different. His first stint with the Lakers lasted only two seasons amid uneven play and locker room drama. 

When the Lakers reacquired him five years later, it was clear he had matured. He had grown his 3-point game and become an All-Star with the Nets in 2019, helped both the Nets and Timberwolves reach the playoffs in 2019 and 2022, respectively, and had become a better teammate. 

"I came in a little raw still when I was young, when I was 18," Russell told FOX Sports. "So I was unprofessional, to be honest. And then the older I got, I learned how to be professional. 

"I give credit to [newly acquired Lakers teammate] Spencer [Dinwiddie]. When I was traded to Brooklyn, he was there and I saw his preparation, to be honest. I saw how he was a pro and I just kinda put all of that in my bag. And then we went our separate ways. I've told him that before. But him, Joe Harris, those two guys were two guys that I just watched. I may not have said anything. But I watched them and I just give credit to them, to be honest."

Russell's return has been mostly a success. 

He helped the Lakers go from a 2-10 start and sitting in 10th place in the Western Conference at the trade deadline last season to reaching the Western Conference Finals before losing to the eventual-champion Denver Nuggets

He was solid against Memphis and Golden State in the first two rounds of the playoffs, averaging 15.7 points on 44.5 percent shooting. But he struggled against the Nuggets, averaging just 6.2 points and finishing a -47 on the series. 

Still, the Lakers believed in him, re-signing him to a two-year, $37 million deal in free agency last summer. And after a rocky start, Russell is now once again shining with the team. 

He's averaging 17.6 points on 46.5 percent shooting from the field and 41.8 percent from beyond the 3-point line. And he has emerged as the dependable third scorer that the team needed behind James and Anthony Davis.

Lakers coach Darvin Ham praised Russell for showing poise and patience when he was coming off the bench. They had a one-on-one chat about it at the time, and Ham was impressed by his approach. 

"I think we both landed on it's all about winning," Ham said on Christmas. "How can we best put ourselves in position to get wins? He's a trooper, man."

Russell said things really clicked for him after he suffered a tailbone injury in late December. He used the next week to study the Lakers from the bench and realized that he needed to do things differently. He was deferring too much. He needed to play his game. 

"You've got to complement [James and Davis] by being aggressive," Russell told FOX Sports. "So that was just my focus when I came back. It worked out, I guess." 

Against New Orleans last Friday, Russell had 30 points, including six 3-pointers and a second-quarter stretch in which he scored 14 straight points in under two minutes. In Wednesday's win over Utah, he had a career-high 17 assists along with 11 points and nine rebounds. 

For Russell, playing for the Lakers has come with a learning curve. But he finally feels as though he has found himself. He's no longer trying to fit in. Or overthinking. 

He's just playing his game. 

"Early, I was kinda trying to figure it out around these guys and that may have not been the best way to do it," Russell told FOX Sports. "But, I know I'm at my best when I don't think. And next to these guys, you've got to think.  But me, I'm a high-IQ basketball player, so the more I don't think, the better I am."

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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