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.
Couldn't care less about Russell's misses right now. Love his engagement on defense & the spots he's getting to offensively.
— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) December 28, 2016
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, 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:
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.