D’Angelo Russell is having an elite rookie point guard season, particularly for a teenager, but it appears to be going largely unnoticed outside of Lakerland.
In many ways, Russell is a victim of the combination of high expectations and the power of first impressions. Lakers’ fans, desperate for a savior—or, at least, a reason to hope—thrust upon him the expectations of the next franchise star. And those are very real expectations for this organization, the franchise of Kobe and Shaq, Magic, the Logo, and so many others. I was admittedly not immune to those hopes, pouring hundreds of hours into pre-draft reading/watching/debating, flying out to Vegas for summer league from across the country, etc. And I was passionately pro-Russell for the pick.
For several reasons—some easily identifiable and some not—Russell had a rough start, failing to burst out of the game like Kristaps Porzingis and Karl Anthony Towns, and has as a result largely been overlooked. Something about Russell’s summer and November just felt off. Maybe it was conditioning, or Byron, or his attitude, or learning the point guard position, or being 19, or Kobe’s insane start, but Russell was clearly out of sorts. He played tentative, with no aggression or confidence, never attacking the basket, and just generally looked lost. There was a lot of fan panic and as the Lakers spiraled, the league’s attention naturally focused on several of the more immediately successful rookies.
But Russell has gradually and unequivocally turned his season around and has put together a sustained stretch of brilliant play for a 19 year old rookie point guard. Statistically, he has gotten better every month. The eye test has shown a truly radical transformation; he’s just a different player now than he was in July or November. Many have written about this recently from different angles, and I’m sure much of what I say will be duplicative.
In an attempt to add some value to the conversation, I have focused this analysis on comparing Russell’s statistics at different points in the season to those of other first year rookie guards over the last decade or so. The table below lists the statistics for 30 such rookie guards. A few preliminary notes, and then my takeaway conclusions will follow:
- I used three different snapshots for Russell: (1) season long, (2) January/February (23 games, so over a quarter of the season; throwing out the one game he left after 7 minutes due to injury), and (3) February (10 games).
- I tried to pick the 30 most relevant comparisons from recent years, but surely forgot a player or two. Thirty is admittedly a big group, but I wanted the comparison to be as accurate and thoughtful as possible.
- The players are arranged in descending order based on PER.
- I added age because I think that’s a critical factor when considering where Russell is at on the developmental curve vs. other players. Obviously, Dwyane Wade at 22 was at a different developmental point as a rookie than Russell is now.
- I used per-36 minutes states to make it a true apples to apples comparison.
- Note that, other than steals, I did not include defensive statistics, including some of the helpful advanced defensive statistics. That analysis would be illuminating and important, but I decided to focus primarily on the offensive side of the ball in this post. Surely, defense is critical to understanding the overall value of a player, and is Russell’s current greatest weakness.
|D Russell (season)||19||13.7||42.1||51.3||23.2||16.4||4.7||4.5||1.5||2.1||3.1||2.6|
|D Russell (Jan/Feb)||19||15.5||44.7||55.2||23.8||17.9||3.6||4.8||1.4||2.1||3.3||3.9|
|D Russell (Feb)||19||18.8||45.9||58.3||22||18.5||3.7||4.9||1.2||2.2||2.2||4.9|
- The first thing that stands out is comparing Russell to himself – he’s simply getting better as the season goes along.
- His PER for Oct/Nov/Dec was about 12.9, his PER for Jan/Feb is 15.5, and his PER for Feb is 18.8.
- 15.5 is better rookie PER than Westbrook and Harden. 18.8 is better than everyone but CP3 and Kyrie.
- His points/36 min and TS% went from 14.1 pts and 48.8% for November to 18.8 and 58.3 for February.
- Note that getting steadily better through a rookie season is not automatic. Porzingis, for example, has tailed off a little; he shot out of the gate with a 20.0 PER for November, which fell to 17.8 for February (still solid). Many rookies hit a wall, but Russell is getting substantially better each month.
- If you throw out Russell’s first phase of the season, which is probably justified given the perfect storm nightmare of Byron’s antics, Kobe’s insane first month or two, and being 19, his stats show elite production compared to the list.
- His PER for Feb is 3rd overall, and his Jan/Feb PER ranks 10th.
- His scoring and three point shooting are elite.
- For points/36 min: 7th on the season, and 2nd for Jan/Feb and Feb. Russell’s 17.9 per 36 for Jan/Feb is better than Curry, Harden, CP3, Rose, Wade, Lillard, and Westbrook. Only Kyrie scored better than Russell has over the last two months.
- For 3s: tied with Curry for 2nd for all time periods. He’s making substantially more 3s per 36 than some of the league’s elite shooters did as rookies, like Lillard, Harden, Kyrie, and Thomas. Only Cam Payne is higher, and he’s a spot up shooter playing 11 minutes a game next to Westbrook/Durant.
- His shooting efficiency has risen to elite levels.
- While his TS% is 12th for the season (a solid 51.3%), his Jan/Feb rank 4th (55.2%), and his Feb ranks FIRST (58.3%).
- This allows for him to score at the elite levels noted above while not being a usage hog (9th on the season and 9th for Jan/Feb).
- I included FTA to highlight his improvement in that area, especially because it was a source of real concern.
- He began the season with an anemic taste for the paint, but has completely done a 180 over the last two months, showing a real talent for drawing fouls in his own unique ways (either at the rim or with a defender on his hip in the midrange).
- His Jan/Feb ranks 11th in FTA, and his Feb ranks 8th. For example, his 4.9 FTA for Feb compare favorably to eventual foul-drawing magnets like Harden (5.0) and Wade (5.3), and is better than others like Rose (3.0) and Lillard (3.6).
- Russell’s assists are on the low side, admittedly, at 25th on the season and 24th for Jan/Feb. But that is something that just doesn’t concern me given the context, and I’m trying hard to not just explain away numbers I don’t like… Both in college and this year, he has shown that he possesses special vision. The passing talent is there. But he has clearly been hampered by the brutal combination of Byron’s (non) system, not having any semblance of a pick and roll big (Hibbert might be the worst in the league and Randle just doesn’t have this skill yet), and usually having poor spot up shooters (cough, Kobe). I am not sure he’ll be a Westbrook, Rondo, or Wall in terms of assists per game, but I do think he can create for others in an elite way.
- When you factor in Russell’s age, his stats become even more impressive.
- The only other 19 year olds on the list are Kyrie, Parker, Mudiay, and Exum, and he’s been better than all of them but Kyrie (who put together one of the top two rookie PG seasons of the last decade).
- 15 of the players on the list were 19 or 20 as rookies. If you rank within that group, Russell’s stats really stand out. Comparing his Jan/Feb numbers to those 15 players, Russell ranks 5th in PER, 2nd in TS%, 2nd in Pts, 4th in USG, and 1st in 3s.
- After CP3 and Kyrie at #1 and 2 in PER, the next 5 ranked players were either 21 or 22 as rookies. For example, Wade and Lillard were 22 and Curry was 21. Age matters, and given Russell’s in-season development, just imagine what his production will be in two years – an eternity from now (and, hopefully, from Byron Scott…). I’m confident he’ll be putting up stats that compare with anyone on this list.
- By any measure, he’s put together an excellent year. He’s light years better than several other highly touted rookies – Mudiay, Smart, Exum, etc. And he’s been comparable to several eventual all star level players – Deron Williams, Parker, Harden, Lowry, Westbrook, etc.
- Russell’s Feb stats are on par with just about anyone – 3rd in PER, 1st in TS%, 2nd in Pts, 11th in Ast, 8th in Stl, 1st in 3s, and 5th in FTA. Put that all together and it’s probably better that everyone but CP3 and Kyrie.
So where does this leave us? What will Russell ultimately become? Well, we have no idea, of course. But the point of this analysis, I believe, is that we can rightfully look forward with hope for a truly special player. He’s shown enough sustained production at such a young age, and in such a toxic environment, to believe that he will be doing amazing things when 25 years old with the right teammates and coach around him.
He can do everything on the offensive end. He can shoot from 3, the midrange, and is increasingly crafty in the paint (despite the lack of explosiveness). On the last point, note that he’s currently ranked 40th among guards in FG% within 5 feet of the rim at 58.9%. That’s a higher percent than more notable guards such as Wall, Harden, DeRozan, Kyrie, and Westbrook. He has a pretty remarkable touch around the basket already, even if he’s only dunked once.
Plus, as discussed before, he is growing in his ability to draw fouls, and is already making 3s at an elite rate. He’s a beautiful pick and roll passer, especially when Black (the only competent rolling big) is on the court, and has shown an ability to make the speed pass to three points shooters like Clarkson, Williams, and Young. He has shown signs that he can one day be the engine of a great offense, and there aren’t many players in the league that rise to that level. I would not be surprised to see him averaging something like 23, 5 and 7, with extreme high volume in 3s (2+ makes per game), and solid efficiency (45/40/80, and a TS% between 55-60, which would be elite).
While this is sunny outlook offensively, a critical part of his overall development will be improving on defense. And while I did not focus on defensive statistics in this post, it is clear that Russell is largely a weak defender now that must substantially improve. That said, his defensive deficiencies, to me, seem largely rooted in habits rather than tools.
He has shown pretty solid on the ball tendencies – better than our other guards (which isn’t saying much, I know) – and has the length to disrupt shots and deflect passes (as shown by his solid steal rate). He also has shown the ability to be a strong defensive rebounder for a point guard. But he has somewhere between awful and horrific team instincts right now, regularly getting back cut, overly digging down to offer unnecessary post help (leaving his man open for endless open threes), ball watching too often, etc. This is an area where strong coaching and a few years of development should make a huge difference.
All of this underscores the need to make sure he maximizes these gifts through the right environment, resources, and coaching. I do not believe Byron is the coach to inspires, preferring he be replaced by someone who can inspire Russell to take this team over, rather than constantly doing drive by media shootings. He needs an elite pick and roll center (Whiteside would be perfect … on paper…); Randle needs to round out his game; need a Brandon Ingram (type) at SF.
Spending the first few years of his career in a toxic environment with outdated schemes would be such a shame. I love all of our young players, but Russell is the one that can really carry us places, and the team needs to set him up to find that greatness.