A TURN­ING POINT

Kupchak takes a big risk, and here’s hop­ing he has big plans for next week

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - BILL PLASCHKE

About that NBA draft that ap­peared to be a Lak­ers slam dunk?

They broke an­kles, stepped back, and shot a trey.

All the hype over the fran­chise- chang­ing big man the Lak­ers would be mirac­u­lously handed with their sec­ond pick? They didn’t want him. The cel­e­bra­tion over the ac­qui­si­tion of a kid who can lead the Lak­ers into their next cham­pi­onship era?

That kid might ac­tu­ally be a 29- year- old dude from Port­land.

In their best no- look pass since Magic, the Lak­ers snubbed Duke cen­ter Jahlil Okafor for Ohio State point guard D’An­gelo Rus-

sell on Thurs­day with a pick that was about far more than Okafor or Rus­sell.

The Lak­ers com­mit­ted the un­think­able act of ig­nor­ing an im­pact big man for a streaky shooter be­cause they are con­vinced they can ac­quire a cer­tain big man in free agency, which be­gins next week. That man is Port­land’s LaMar­cus Aldridge, whose skills are sim­i­lar to Okafor’s, mean­ing Aldridge’s pres­ence would make the Duke star re­dun­dant while mak­ing the Ohio State star shine.

Mitch Kupchak, the gen­eral man­ager who had the fi­nal call on this pick and thus has put a bit of his legacy on the line with it, de­nied that free agency was a fac­tor ... but ex­plained ex­actly why it could be a fac­tor.

“It so turns out that there are a lot of big men that may be avail­able dur­ing free agency and if you look at the guys in the back­court, there may not be as many,” said Kupchak at a news con­fer­ence. “But that wasn’t a fac­tor.”

Hmmm, sounds like a huge fac­tor, which makes this a huge gam­ble that Aldridge will take as much as $ 30 mil­lion less — per NBA rules — to sign here. But then again, why would Kupchak base the most im­por­tant draft pick of his ca­reer around a wish? Here’s guess­ing Aldridge, who has been un­happy with the di­rec­tion of the Trail Blaz­ers or­ga­ni­za­tion, has al­ready given the Lak­ers some sign that he will sign. If not, there is al­ways that con­so­la­tion prize that would be Kevin Love, or, maybe ... hey, they just bet­ter come up with some­body right? Un­til they do, it feels like Kupchak drafted like the black­jack player whose gut tells him to hit on 16.

In go­ing with the 6- foot- 5 Rus­sell and po­ten­tially Aldridge in­stead of Okafor and po­ten­tially a free agent guard such as Go­ran Dragic, it could be a sweet hit, or it could be an ab­so­lute bust.

Dur­ing re­cent in­ter­views, Kupchak of­ten re­ferred to this draft as be­ing dan­ger­ously like the 1984 draft, where big man Sam Bowie was taken sec­ond and Michael Jor­dan was picked third. No, Kupchak did not want to be the guy who passed on the next Michael Jor­dan.

But what if, in­stead, it’s like the 2010 draft, where another smooth Ohio State shooter, Evan Turner, was taken sec­ond and cen­ter DeMar­cus Cousins was taken fifth?

It’s not that the 19- yearold Rus­sell, who played one col­le­giate sea­son, is a ter­ri­ble choice. He’s a smooth shooter, a cre­ative passer, and po­ten­tially the draft’s clos­est thing to this year’s NBA MVP, Stephen Curry. But he could also be this draft’s clos­est thing to Jonny Flynn, the sort of highly drafted all- or- noth­ing guy who breaks as many hearts as he lifts.

The Lak­ers took a streaky guard who was three- for- 19 shoot­ing in his most re­cent game, a blowout loss to Ari­zona in the NCAA tour­na­ment. The Lak­ers passed on a big man who set a Duke record with 35 dou­ble- digit scor­ing games. Depend­ing on his de­vel­op­ment, there could be lots of D’An­gelo Rus­sells out there. But, al­ready with­out ques­tion, there’s barely a hand­ful of Okafors.

Yet Lak­ers Coach By­ron Scott, who pushed hard for Rus­sell, said there was one main dif­fer­ence be­tween the play­ers.

“I think Okafor is go­ing to be a good cen­ter in this league,” Scott said. “I just think D’An­gelo has a chance to be a su­per­star.”

Scott said he made his de­ci­sion dur­ing Rus­sell’s sec­ond work­out with the Lak­ers, a se­ries of three- on­three games that showed his com­pet­i­tive skills. Scott mar­veled at Rus­sell’s lead­er­ship qual­i­ties, his abil­ity to make the smart pass, get to the bas­ket, shoot the three- ball, and play tough de­fense. Dur­ing Scott’s news con­fer­ence Tues­day he ac­tu­ally brought up the names Magic John­son and Chris Paul while say­ing the kid seems to have to the tough­ness to hang with Kobe Bryant.

“He has a lit­tle bit of an edge to him­self,” Scott said.

Dur­ing a con­fer­ence call in­ter­view with re­porters, Rus­sell showed a bit of that edge when he said he wanted to “def­i­nitely bring back that win­ning at­ti­tude.”

Rus­sell ac­knowl­edged he was stunned to be cho­sen ahead of Okafor, but then said one needed only to watch the NBA Fi­nals to un­der­stand why.

“Who won the cham­pi­onship?” he said. “[ Golden State] did, they put some­thing to­gether beau­ti­ful with just wings and guards.... This is slowly chang­ing into a wings and guard league.”

For the Lak­ers, Thurs­day was about guards and wings and a prayer, one that will be an­swered when they re­place the big man they didn’t take, the one ev­ery­one will now be wait­ing for them to find.

Kathy Wil­lens As­so­ci­ated Press

D’AN­GELO RUS­SELL, shak­ing hands with Com­mis­sioner Adam Sil­ver af­ter be­ing picked by the Lak­ers, saw his stock rise as the draft ap­proached and was called the most tal­ented player on the board by some.

A L O O K AT T H E T O P 1 0 P L AY E R S C H O S E N , A S WELL A S T H E L A K E R S ’ O T H E R F I R S T- ROU N D S E L E C T I O N

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