You will not find a more divisive member of the Lakers today than D’Angelo Russell. Opinions of him run the spectrum of hot takes, with full throated endorsements and dissents colliding each day wherever you are. There’s not a single player who inspires as much debate, no, belief that they’ve pegged him not just for what he is, but what he will be as a player.
A quick example: This past Saturday I was checking into a hotel in the Bay Area and one of the employees who handles valet parking saw me rocking my Mitchell and Ness Lakers hat. He asked me if I was a “real” fan or not. I chuckled and said I was legit and then he peppered me with qualifiers — “Real like you’re nervous about the lottery on Tuesday?” Yes, I said. “Real like you didn’t want the Lakers to draft D’Angelo Russell?” — whoa there, buddy. “He’s got a terrible first step, doesn’t pass well…” I stopped him there.
This is how it is with Russell. Like an apparition, you either see it or you don’t. And no matter if you’re on the pro or con side, the person who doesn’t see it has instantly lost some credibility with you.
Fast forward to today and there are rumblings about Russell’s status with the Lakers. After the team retained their pick and the prospects of Lonzo Ball (or, in what would be a minor miracle, Markelle Fultz) becoming a Laker is now perfectly plausible, Russell’s name is starting to be muttered in the same sentence with words like expendable. The reasoning goes something like “who needs Russell now that you’re going to get Ball? Ball is the PG of the future, not Russell, trade him for someone better!”*
This is a mistake.
If you listen to the Laker Film Room Podcast that I co-host with our good buddy Pete Zayas (subscribe and rate!), a common theme we discuss is the type of player the Lakers should be trying to add to the roster. It’s pretty straight forward, we want players who can shoot, pass, and defend.
I don’t need to explain why these things matter — they are the key elements of basketball. Of course these three things aren’t the entire substance of a player — smarts, athleticism, competitiveness…they all matter too. But, if we can assume those other things are there at a reasonable level, give me as many players as you can who can do those three things at as high a level as possible.
Russell is not a good defender at this stage (though he made strides this past season and was not as bad as his general reputation would lead you to believe), but he is a good shooter and a very good passer. So, Russell checks off two of those three boxes.
Now, consider, this past season there were only eight players in the NBA who shot at least 35% on six or more 3 point field goal attempts per game while also tallying more than 4.5 assists per night with an assist percentage of 25% or higher. They’re names you’ll know quite well:
- Steph Curry
- Isaiah Thomas
- Damian Lillard
- Kyle Lowry
- Mike Conley
- Kyrie Irving
- Kemba Walker
- D’Angelo Russell
Besides Russell, Kyrie is the youngest player on that list and he’s a full 4 years older than Russell at 25 years old. Lillard is the least “experienced” player on this list, with this past year being his 5th season in the NBA. Russell just completed his 2nd season. In fact, if you search for players who have posted those stats in their 1st or 2nd seasons,
the list only has one name: D’Angelo Russell only 4 players in history have done it: Lillard, Russell, Damon Stoudemire, and Van Exel (all of whom were at least 2 years older than Russell at the time).
In the system that Walton runs — where spacing and ball movement are at a premium, Russell showing strong ability in these areas make him a pretty important piece. This doesn’t make him infallible nor someone who’s not replaceable. That’s not the point of this at all. The point is, though, is that you want more of these players, not fewer of them. And, as it stands, even if you swap out Russell for a different player who also spaces the floor by making threes and is a very good passer who sets up his teammates, wouldn’t it be better to try to add that player to Russell? Again, you want as many of these players on your roster as possible.
Look, I get that Russell needs to improve. I could rattle off multiple areas where growth is needed — consistency, defense, shot/pass decision making, general attentiveness and engagement with the action. These things matter (some of them a lot) and, until he makes strides, his full and immense talent will not be truly optimized. I’m pretty sure he understands this too, though. And considering he just turned 21 this past February, I think he’s on his way to figuring out how to make the needed improvements.
And, if the Lakers are smart, they’re going to give him time to do just that. Even if that ends up being right next to the guy fans want him replaced by.
*I always laugh at the logic which says a team should trade a player that fans don’t like because they think he’s bad, with the expectation they will get someone better in return. If you think Russell sucks, what makes you think some other team is going to give you a better player for him? Is it because that team is stupid? Because you’re a better judge of talent then they are? I mean, come on.