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: