D’Angelo Russell is Elevating his Game by Attacking the Paint

Darius Soriano —  January 7, 2017

It was the Lakers’ first game after a nice Christmas win and D’Angelo Russell really wasn’t shooting the ball that great. The opponent was the Jazz and Russell closed the game with only 4 points on 2-11 shooting. Fans were in my twitter mentions telling me I was being overly praiseful of the Lakers’ 2nd year point guard because I had the audacity to tweet this.

Since that game the Lakers have played 5 games and Russell has used a similar blueprint he used vs. the Jazz to have more success and, in the process, somewhat quieting his critics. Russell remains engaged defensively and that in and of itself is worthy of praise. But it’s his work on offense which has been opening eyes as he’s posted games of 28, 22, 19, and 18 points over that stretch. Here’s his shot chart from that stretch:


The part which stands out to me most is that big green circle right around the basket area. It reminds me of what Russell was doing during the preseason where he looked primed for a breakout campaign, using his size and deft finishing ability to be a threat around the rim.

That ability is important for any guard, but especially one with Russell’s profile where a heavy 3 point rate buoys his individual attack. As teams start to scheme Russell the first thing they will look to take away is his outside jumper. They will chase over the top of screens, show higher and with more frequency with big men when he’s coming off screens, and dare him to try and get into the paint and be a finisher.

In the last 5 games, Russell has been doing just that. His percentage of shots taken the near the basket has increased by 5% points and you can see from the side by side pictures of his shot distribution that there has been a shift in his approach (left: games through Christmas, right: last 5 games):


Seeing these charts is one thing, but actually seeing how Russell is going about his business is another. Russell is simply not settling as often for long jumpers as often even if his 3 point attempts have also increased. Here, rather than hoisting a long bomb as the big man tries to close out on him, he uses the defender’s momentum against him and attacks the lane.


He’s also not settling as much when getting a switch in the P&R, like on this play against the Blazers.


Team’s don’t often switch screens against Russell, though. So, more often he’s just looking to turn the corner more than he has all season.


Or, he’s turning down the screen entirely and using teams’ aggression against them by beating overplays — especially when he’s able to do so by going to his strong hand.


The beauty of this type of aggression is that it starts to open up more craftiness around the hoop, like this wonderful ball fake and finish against the Heat on Friday.


When you start to get into the paint more, you draw more fouls. Not only because you’re putting yourself in better position to actually draw fouls, but because the referees start to see you as a player who is gaining advantage against your defender. Like here:


Or here:


Or, you know, here:


Beyond his scoring and ability to get to the foul line, though, one of the ways this type of aggression really helps the Lakers is that it opens up his playmaking ability. One of the things I have consistently said about Russell through his first year and into this one is that he is a better passer than he is a playmaker.

The former skill is hugely important, of course, and should not be downplayed. His ability hit cutters and deliver pocket passes helps get his teammates easy shots — not only on direct shots, but via “hockey” passes which create the type of pinging ball movement defenses struggle to defend.

But, when Russell is aggressive with penetration, it sets up the types of lobs and drop-off passes which lead to direct, easy scores:


And, another:


I know a lot of these plays look simple. But, simple or difficult isn’t the point.

The point is that this isn’t necessarily how Russell has played through nearly a year and a half in the league, but in recent games he’s been doing it much more. And by unlocking this aspect of his game, he’s not only showing how much he can help his team but also making himself much less predictable and much more difficult to guard overall.

Darius Soriano

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to D’Angelo Russell is Elevating his Game by Attacking the Paint

  1. Yes, he’s unquestionably talented.  But I still have a problem with him when he stands there, pounding the ball on the floor until time runs out and then takes a poor shot, without the ball ever being touched by a teammate.  He strikes me as being better as a 2 guard – he’s not enough of a true, pass first point guard that gets ball movement going.  Alonzo Ball anyone?


  2. Drive and kick. If he’s going to run the offense, he has to be able to keep defenses honest by getting to the rim and being able to shoot outside. All the good ones have that versatility in their game. Whether his approach has changed due to regaining his health or gaining more experience, it’s great to see him driving the ball and making plays for himself and others. I still am skeptical of him as a finisher at the rim but if he can become more consistent with that aspect of his game, it will be great for the team moving forward.


  3. I love the post because we get to talk about our prodigal son, D1gelo. 

    Simply basing off of the eye test, D’Angelo is a big guard (6’5) who has amazing court vision. This is where the “point guard” tout comes from because he is able to throw passes like a quarterback throwing a touchdown. Ok forgive my NFL reference. But when you examine his game, his strengths and his tendencies, you begin to realize Dloading is NOT a PG. He is a lead guard, ball-on-hand-type and a willing+creative passer.

    On the offensive end, he is best-suited for the PNR. Why Walton doesn’t run PNR heavy, IDK, but if you want Russell’s offensive repertoire to be displayed, it will be on that form of offense. In terms of range, the kid can shoot from anywhere. Not yet Curry range, but close. Lets not forget he is 20, and just realizing his potential. No one mentioned Curry in the legends talk when he was at this age.

    In terms of size and body type, his dominance on Damian Lillard and other smaller guards on offense is just a beauty. His length and how he shoots the ball, gives him what I call the “Andre Miller postup game” if you know what I mean. If you want to be a consistent 20ppg scorer in the NBA, can’t afford to have 18pt-nights on 6 threes. You gotta get to the line. By posting up.

    Now, in terms of defense is where we’re going to discuss it a little further. D’Angelo is not the quickest or fastest guard out there, which brings me to the point of roster composition since we’re building a team around him. Having Ingram be more assertive in the future doesn’t complicate this either since we know Ingram’s game is more all-around than being dominant on offense. I believe he would be the perfect 2nd star beside Russell.

    So, on defense where the NBA is dominated by quick/fast PGs that play PNR alot, Russell’s lack of athleticism is shown by him being late on rotations most times. This problem can be addressed by acquiring our own version of Patrick Beverly, an off-ball guard that can catch and shoot, while having the defensive prowess to stop/slow-down quicker PGs. Delly from Milwaukee comes to mind as the perfect fit for this, as does Beverly himself. Not only will our 3D1 (3pts, defense, pg) allow Russell to rest off chasing quick PGs, it will also allow him to focus on the offensive side of the floor where he is dominant. 

    We do have some veterans on our team that are valuable to other current contenders, lets hope Mitch sees this and finds a way to get the 3D1 that we need to mould Russell into a superstar sooner than later.


  4. KermitWashingtonKilla January 7, 2017 at 9:42 pm

    Exactly! I’ll be the crazy guy who suggest trading assets for a lottery pick in this year’s loaded draft. (Or luck into #3) Most mocks have 6 of the first 8 players off the board as point guards. Focus on someone projected as a plus defender.
    Package together Randle and Lou or Young or Black
    2017 Rotation:
    Rookie- Russell- Deng – Nance – Mozzy
    Clarkson – FA – Ingram- Robinson- Zuback
    Russell can then maximize his game at combo guard depending on the lineups. Get stronger defensively by starting Nance or Ingram and move Deng to the 4. Trade Randle before we overpay him. Then develope a true point guard for Luke’s offense.


  5. There are times when every one of our guards decide to take the final shot, and it doesn’t work out. I would say however it’s not accurate to characterize D’Angelo in that light. He’s much more versatile than that.


  6. Great post!

    There’s a hidden defensive benefit for DAR getting into the paint as much as possible – it wears down smaller opposing point guards who hurt Russell when they have the ball. Anything that tires a player’s legs has to negatively effect them on the other end of the court. It also helps the starters match their opponents until the bench can blow out the other team’s reserves (pretty much the most consistent facet of this team.

    I commented here back in November that Russell started to learn to use his size advantage in that wonderful road win against Sacramento near the start of the season.

    In the first half, DAR was getting shredded by Ty Lawson (just like he had two days earlier against JJ Barea), and the Kings’ starters built a nine-point lead.

    But when they came out in the third quarter, Russell took Lawson down into the paint, resulting in eight points, one assist and one turnover. He shot only high percentage shots, going 3 for 5 on shots 15 feet or closer. He also drew two fouls on Lawson (missing a free throw a three-point play, and making two more.

    Lawson and Russell came out of the game at the same time, with the result being the Lakers’ starters stayed even with Sacramento’s starters for the first 7:17 of the second half.

    The bench came in against the Kings’ reserves and went on a 15-2 run, to led 76-73. This forced Boogie Cousins to re-enters in at 9:45 – much earlier than their coach would have liked.

    Lawson came back in with the score tied at 5:33, but Russell did not. Lou Williams was hot, and the Lakers retook the lead to finally win by 10 and stay above .500 (5-4).

    I really felt like DAR was starting to figure this stuff out, but unfortunately, he got injured three games later.

    In the last couple of games he put some pressure on Lillard in Portland and then on Tyler Johnson in the Miami game. (Johnson is the small reserve guard who made 4 of 6 3’s to help Miami win the game the Lakers blew a 19-point lead.) Against Johnson, Russell made a three-point play in the third quarter, while Johnson went 0 for 3. With Russell in the game during the first 9:15 of the second half, he helped the Lakers build a 12-point lead.

    Let’s hope he keeps making these good in-game adjustments.


  7. DAR: Whether you like him or not – it is not arguable that DAR is one of the keys to our future.   I am not a huge “fan” of DAR  (I really like Ingram), but I am a huge fan of the Lakers so I will root vehemently for DAR to succeed.  In the short run, we should give him as much exposure to situations and schemes that will aide his (and the other youngsters’) development.   In the intermediate run, there is some debate, and I favor the plan where we deal the vets (why did we sign some of them anyway) to get picks and free up PT and shots.   Where the real Debate comes, is in the long run and it comes first with an assessment of DAR  (which does not need to occur until year end).   There are some who think DAR will be on the Wall and will be the central super star of the franchise.   This would suggest “building around him”.   I do not think he will ever be that good and more importantly – if he is our “main” player – we will not be that good.   Rather – I am hoping he will be an All Star  (albeit not a super star), but I am hoping we will add a super star(s) for which DAR will be a #2 or #3.    The future plans and moves made by the Lakers are dramatically impacted by this assessment.   The FO will not have the luxury to simply say that DAR is going to be a fantastic player and he will improve.   The question is whether he is the Best Actor on a Blockbuster team or whether more realistically, he could be a Best Supporting Actor   (it is awards time in Hollywood after all).


  8. Your analysis is spot on and nuanced, wwlofficial! Thank you. I hope you keep commenting and maybe even become a more formal commentator.


  9. TempleOfJamesWorthy January 8, 2017 at 11:08 am

    I wonder if DAR’s lack of aggression earlier in the season was related to his knee troubles Hanging outside and taking (comparatively) easy jump shots is a common tactic used by players who are tired/injured/old.

    Even so, I am coming around to the view DAR will never be a Homeless Man’s Magic Johnson. He does, on occasion, see and execute some Magic-esque passes, but DAR doesn’t seem to have the same Magic/Bird thinking-3-moves-ahead feel for the game.

    Instead, I think DAR could one day be an Impoverished Man’s James Harden. With his already well-developed shooting ability, very good ball-handling skills, and decent size, he could continue to develop as an offensive force. However, his future is probably as a nominal shooting guard (paired with a more-athletic nominal PG who can adequately defend Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, et al.).


  10. Great read Darius!
    I’m for keeping an open mind, however see many fantastic possibilities in him.
    What give me hope that he will reach his full potential is the fact that his mindset and work habits, combined with his god given talents will undoubtedly pay off.
    I don’t see him as a ‘poor man’s’ anything, but a unique individual; which someday, others will be compared with.


  11. I think we would be better off had we drafted Prozingas. Thoughts?