When watching today’s the NBA, it is hard to escape the idea that the league is moving more and more towards perimeter oriented attacks. The pick and roll is now a primary action of most offenses and teams are valuing spacing and three point shooting more than ever. The Warriors just won the championship featuring an offense predicated on high volume three point field goal attempts, backed by Steph Curry, the first point guard to win league MVP and an NBA championship in the same season since Magic Johnson. And while I’m of the mind that the NBA isn’t so much a guard’s league as it is a skill league, it would be foolish to ignore the importance of a dynamic perimeter player to winning basketball.
This brings us to D’Angelo Russell, the Ohio State point guard who is currently rated as the top guard in the draft and a real option for the Lakers with the 2nd overall pick. While some will bristle at the fact the Lakers would even consider passing on whichever big man is on the board after the Wolves make their selection, Russell’s game is diverse and exceptional enough to put some of those concerns to bed.
To put it bluntly, Russell is a fantastic offensive player who really can do it all on that end of the floor. He possesses a smooth, refined game with equal parts savvy and moxie to be able to hurt defenses all over the floor with his scoring and ability to create shots for his teammates. Combine his skill level with his excellent size (6’5″) and length (6’9.75″ wingspan) and you quickly see why scouts salivate over his prospects at the next level.
When watching tape on Russell, his scoring ability instantly stands out. His jumper is smooth and comes with a quick release. He has range beyond the NBA three point line, but has real comfort level getting into the mid-range, separating from his man, and hitting jumpers in the 15-18 foot range. Further, when defenders crowd him, he has a good enough handle to get into the paint and either finish with a floater or get all the way to the rim for a bucket. Not to mention he can do excellent work off the ball as a spot up shooter or as a worker off screens as well. Being able to score in so many ways and at all three levels of the offense will serve him well in the NBA as he should be able to keep defenses off balance by not allowing them to key in on a single aspect of his game.
The most impressive part of his offensive game, however, might just be his court vision and passing ability. It’s clear Russell has a high basketball IQ. He can see how defenses are moving within their scheme and then has an ability to think one or two steps ahead to deliver a pass to an open teammate.
One of the keys to being a successful point guard in the league is the ability to make the “next level” pass when defenses take away first and second reads. Many guards never truly master this skill, but Russell already looks to have this part of the game in his tool-kit after only a single college season. The complex skip passes, delayed entries to diving big men, and “hockey” passes where he’s making the pass which leads to the pass for the assist are all part of his arsenal, showing an acumen for passing which is rare in a prospect his age. His willingness to accept pressure from defenses and be a willing passer out of that pressure with the poise he does is just fantastic.
Where Russell does have some issues is on the defensive side of the ball. While he has the physical tools to be a good defender, there are times he floats through possessions or simply doesn’t engage. In a recent article on Grantland, one anonymous NBA scout had this to say about Russell’s defense:
My issues with him are defensively. He guards with his instincts, that’s it. He’s so creative with his offense, so he knows the game, he’s smart. He knows how to defend — he’ll get into the passing lanes, he knows how to dig and recover, he knows rotations. But he can’t (expletive) guard anything. He’s disinterested. I saw [Ohio State] play Marquette earlier in the year. They were playing zone defense. Thad Matta doesn’t play zone. They were doing it to help Russell.
He gets by with his instincts, and I don’t know if you can do that in our league. I think that’ll be an issue for him. But he’s prideful enough and works at it [enough] to just be (expletive) capable.
The good thing is that Russell is young enough and smart enough to improve. Just as we talked about with Jahlil Okafor, it’s easy to forget these guys are only 19 years old and are nowhere near finished products. Russell has the physical tools and with the right coaching and a desire to improve, there is no reason he can’t become at least a passable defender. He has to want to do it, though. My guess is that he will, but that is just a guess.
Speaking of Okafor, I have said this before on twitter, but Russell is, to me, essentially the point guard version of the Duke big man as a prospect. Both players possess good size for their positions (including excellent length), both are offensive wizards who were the focal point of their team’s attack, both make the game look very easy, and both are knocked for their relative lack of athleticism and their questionable defense. Like with Okafor, I have few doubts Russell develops into an excellent pro who, at the very least, is an impactful offensive player who you can trust to get baskets and create easy looks for teammates. If either develop into even neutral defenders, the value their offense brings will be well worth the investment of a high draft pick.
When thinking about the Lakers, then, one has to strongly consider Russell as an option. Yes, the team has Jordan Clarkson, but as I have noted with other prospects in relation to fit next to Julius Randle, it would be silly to pass on a player who has such a high ceiling simply because you wonder about his fit next to a player who he may be (and in Russell’s case with Clarkson, likely is) better than.
The more pressing question, though, would be whether passing on a big man to draft Russell is the keenest idea. For me, personally, it is not. But the argument can be made (rather convincingly, I might add) that as the game does continue to evolve and the rules only further benefit perimeter players, having a potentially elite offensive player on the perimeter is even more important than having an elite offensive big man. Forget about the Warriors for a moment and think back to some of the most successful Lakers’ teams — whether we’re talking Kobe, Magic, or West this organization has always had a closer on the wing who could initiate the offense and either get his own shot or create a good one for a teammate. Russell, at his best, looks to be a player who fits that mold.
Whether the Lakers value that more than what a big man like Okafor could bring to the table isn’t known. But it’s not silly to think they would. Especially when it comes to Russell. He looks to be that good. If you don’t believe me, here are some clips to see for yourself: