Wellbet, INSIDE NBA (ESPN) — The youngest Los Angeles Laker to ever score at least 40 points in a regular-season game — no small feat, that, considering the franchise’s illustrious history — was quick to point out a key fact underscoring his performance.

“We don’t have anything to lose,” D’Angelo Russell, all of 21 years and 24 days old, said Sunday after a career-high scoring effort in a 125-120 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Staples Center.

Yes, the Lakers, who at 20-50 have the NBA’s second-worst record and the worst in the Western Conference, have absolutely nothing to lose — unless they win, which for them is quite bad, as they need to lose, and often, to have the best chance of keeping their top-three protected pick in this summer’s draft.

Such convoluted circumstances are less than ideal, and it’s not as if the Lakers have the horses to remain competitive most nights (as their record clearly indicates). But the overall landscape affords coach Luke Walton leeway to tinker with lineups without risking the nightly outcome. He has taken advantage of his opportunity lately by having Russell come off the bench, a move that upset a sizable portion of the fan base that wants to see the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft as a starter.

In the wake of the demotion, Russell met with Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka and president of basketball operations, Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

Their message?

“Be aggressive,” Russell said last week. “No matter what my role is, just be aggressive.”

After being a reserve for three games, Russell was set to come off the bench again Sunday … until, not long before tipoff, the Lakers decided to sit Nick Young because he was ill. Russell started in Young’s place at shooting guard, a first for a player who has played point guard all season.

The role switch sparked a masterful scoring outburst, which began with 18 first-quarter points. In about 41 minutes, Russell made 14 of 22 from the field, including 7 of 12 from 3-point range, trading blows with Cavaliers flamethrower Kyrie Irving, who dazzled with a game-high 46 points.

Irving approached Russell after the game to offer praise.

“He said he’s supporting me,” Russell said. “He knows I want it. He just told me to keep working.”

Said Irving: “He’s a great young player. I’ve been playing against him for a few years in the league, and I understand what he means to the Lakers.”
Moved to start at shooting guard, D’Angelo Russell went for 40 points on 14-of-22 shooting Sunday, including seven 3-pointers. Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

Russell also was the youngest player since LeBron James to finish with at least 40 points, six assists and one or fewer turnovers. (James pulled that off as a 21-year-old, too.)

“He’s a special guy,” James said of Russell. “He’s a special player.”

Throughout another ugly rebuilding campaign, the Lakers and their fans are buoyed by the occasional highlight-filled performance from their promising young players, as such evenings appear to foreshadow a better future, a crack of light in the current darkness.

Drilling down to the bedrock of Russell’s success against Cleveland, though, reveals that much of his damage came via a shift in job title — from point guard to shooting guard.

“I feel like when you’re playing shooting guard, you’ve got to score the ball or make plays for your teammates,” Russell said. “Playing the point guard, it’s harder to do that, be aggressive, try to score the ball every time, because you’ve got to make at least one pass. But figuring it out, whatever position I’m in, I’m going to try to make the best of it.”

When not tasked with orchestrating the offense, Russell unleashed his offensive talents and seemed to pair well with Jordan Clarkson playing point guard, a backcourt combination Walton has preferred to avoid.

“Individually, they’ve both made great growth throughout the season,” Walton said, “but for whatever reason, the two of them on the court together, when we’ve tried it, hasn’t statistically been very good for us. But it’s good to see that it worked tonight.”

Walton noted that consistency is an issue for Russell, as it is for all the Lakers’ young players, but Russell ratcheted up his aggressiveness from the opening tip Sunday, perhaps a nod to the superior competition, or to the advice from Pelinka and Johnson, or because he wanted to prove himself a starter — or all of the above. Regardless, Russell showed why he was drafted so highly, which he has done here and there but not nearly enough to cement his status as franchise star.

“We’ve all seen him when he gets going, he’s tough to handle,” Walton said.

When asked about inconsistency, Russell referenced his mindset and how it needs to change.

“I feel like realizing every night is not going to be as easy as the previous night or whatever,” he said. “You’ve got a different team every time you play, so everybody has to do something different. You can’t go into the game with the same mentality as you did last game, as far as where you’re going to find your spots or how you’re how going to guard a certain player.

“It has to start from scratch every game, and I feel like with me, that’s how I’ve been approaching games, with the same mentality, and it hasn’t really worked out for me. I have to start over and come up with a different approach.”

So perhaps the different role helped Russell flourish against the Cavaliers, but it’s far too early — and one game is too small a sample size — to draw any definitive conclusions about Russell or any of the Lakers’ fledgling talent, one way or the other.

“Whatever position they have me on the court, I’m a basketball player, not a point guard or a shooting guard,” Russell said.

All that’s certain now is that the Lakers and their fans will gladly accept any glimpse of light — especially of the white hot variety, as was the case Sunday — from players who both parties hope will form a future foundation of success. And with the Lakers having nothing to lose, Walton & Co. can experiment as much as they’d like, hoping to find solutions that might seem small but might also, in time, add up to something more.

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