While many analysts project Russell to have a higher upside, Okafor seemed to fit the mold for the Lakers, who have a rich lineage of star big men throughout their franchise's history.
"We felt [Russell], at No. 2, was a player we couldn't pass up," general manager Mitch Kupchak said at the Lakers' training complex.
A gathering of Lakers fans at their facility gasped when the pick was announced, a clear sign that they -- along with many others -- expected the Lakers to take Okafor.
"I didn't know at all," said Russell on whether he knew the Lakers were going to select him. "I didn't know at all, man. I'm still in shock."
Russell is only the sixth Ohio State freshman to be selected in the common draft era (since 1966).
Kupchak acknowledged there was a debate over whether to take a center, a position the Lakers have traditionally preferred, or a guard, especially as there is more of a focus on the perimeter game and shooting 3-pointers in today's NBA.
He then referenced the retired numbers of former Lakers centers that were hanging on the wall in the training facility.
"You look around this building and you see [Wilt] Chamberlain and you see [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] and you see Shaquille O'Neal -- those are three pretty good centers," Kupchak said. "There was a center available that we did not select. Then there's also Jerry West and Gail Goodrich and Magic Johnson. So you can debate the whole topic.
"Am I going to say that we selected [Russell] because we think that's the direction this league and this game is going? I don't think that's the case. You still need quality big men in this league, and if any of those players in the wall were available, we would've selected them. But they weren't. So our choices were what they were and we're very happy to have D'Angelo be a Laker."
Lakers coach Byron Scott said Russell reminded him of his former Lakers backcourt mate Johnson.
"Just watching him in 3-on-3 [situations], the way he commanded guys to do certain things -- the last guy that I saw that that I played with was [Magic Johnson] ... and he did that in 3-on-3 with guys that he didn't know," Scott said. "So obviously we're anxious to see what he can do in 5-on-5 with guys that he's going to play with on a regular basis."
Scott said Russell is also "on the level" of another point guard that he coached in the NBA:Clippers All-Star Chris Paul.
Johnson tweeted his approval of Russell's selection:
Did the Lakers have anything against Okafor? Kupchak said no, but as a former North Carolina grad, he did poke fun at Okafor for playing at rival Duke.
"His choice of schools was not a good choice, but he's a great player," Kupchak said.
The Lakers figure to chase a big man in free agency, possibly Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge.
"That wasn't a factor in our choosing [Russell] as a player," Kupchak said. "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. But that wasn't a factor."
Scott seemed elated at the selection of Russell.
"We really felt this kid was special," Scott said. "I think Okafor is going to be a good center in this league. I think D'Angelo has a chance to be a superstar."
The Lakers later selected Larry Nance Jr. of Wyoming at No. 27 and Anthony Brown at No. 34,giving the team a chance to restock one of the NBA's worst rosters while preparing for life after Kobe Bryant, who will be 37 years old when he returns for his 20th season.
As far as advice to Russell, Scott said, "Stick as close to Kobe as possible."
"Man, Kobe is a great dude," Russell said. "Not knowing how much he has left in the tank is the scary thing, knowing how much he brings to the game and if he leaves what we'll lose. But I'm really looking forward to him taking me under his wing, if possible, and really just feeding me the knowledge, the most knowledge he can and just letting me use that as fire against my opponents."
D'Angelo Russell picked second overall by Lakers
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak discusses why Los Angeles picked point guard D'Angelo Russell of Ohio State with the second overall pick in the NBA draft.