As part of a new series here at Forum Blue & Gold, we’re examining a single skill to keep an eye on with players this season. It could be their best quality or an aspect of their game that, if successful, will help the most. The two sound similar, but aren’t exactly the same. For this part of the series, I’m looking at D’Angelo Russell’s pull-up jumper.
D’Angelo Russell’s greatest talent is arguably his passing. He sees the court insanely well and can pull off passing angles few would even consider. That being said, whether or not Russell can develop a consistent shot to keep defenses honest will go a long way in opening up those passing lanes.
To a certain extent I liken it to how Kobe Bryant would guard Rajon Rondo in those classic match ups and playoff series from 2008-10. When guards would defend Rondo with more standard tendencies (going over the top of screens, sticking to his hip, etc.) Rondo would regularly torch them. So, Phil Jackson employed Kobe as more of a general shadow, simply staying in front and daring Rondo to shoot. The strategy changed what the Celtics were trying to do, and was the best way to manage such a supremely talented ball-handler. The video below is great at displaying this technique.
Now, is Russell’s shot anywhere near as broken as Rondo’s? Nope. Not remotely so. But it definitely became an issue in the Las Vegas Summer League where, for whatever reason, his shot simply wasn’t falling. I’m not going to read too deeply into a handful of exhibition games where rhythm is always tough to come by for rookies, especially. Russell was a pretty good shooter (.449 FG%, .411 3P%, .756 FT%) in his lone season at Ohio State shooting many of the shots he can anticipate this season.
A couple minor tweaks could help, too.
First, if you’ll allow me to nerd out as the shooting coach I was once, Russell’s backspin isn’t completely true. Whereas you’d like to see the ball spin right over the top, Russell’s shot spins with a slight lean to the left. He’s left-handed, so this makes some sense and is generally a pretty easy fix. What this means, though, is any contact with the rim will have a slightly different and tougher-to-predict bounce than you’d idealistically like to see.
If I really nerd out, when you watch his shot, the ball travels through the right side of his body and on his release, he flicks his right thumb behind the ball, giving it that slight side spin. Fast forward to the 40-second mark on a catch-and-shoot three he makes and you’ll be able to see some of those minor tendencies.
Keeping his right thumb behind the ball is a popular move from young players hoping to add some range. As Russell becomes stronger, this issue can almost fix itself. Freeing up that right hand will go a long way in aiding rhythm off the dribble, as will simply playing in the NBA for more than five games with a bunch of guys he’s never played with before.
The options while running the pick-and-roll become limitless as this shot develops. Defenders have to stay joined at the hip or else risk giving up two points with a poorly-contested jumper. As he comes off the screen, any kind of fake getting ready for the shot has to be reacted to, and creates space for other options. His passing also benefits greatly as the spacing becomes more and more open, increasing the margin for error with pocket passes back to the screener or whipping the ball to any teammate as the defense is forced to react to Russell’s own shooting opportunity.
Failing to develop this shot consistently, though, will seriously hurt the Lakers’ chances at running the pick-and-roll at peak efficiency – something they’ll absolutely need in Byron Scott’s offense. Fortunately, however, Russell will share the backcourt with someone who could very easily handle more of the creating responsibilities in Jordan Clarkson, if the former doesn’t develop a consistent enough pull-up jumper.
Russell’s understanding of the game is such that he could very easily slide into more of the shooting guard role, especially seeing as he played a lot of that position at Ohio State. So, although as I described he could greatly aid the team and his own individual game as his shot improves, there are still ways to effectively use him on the court.
Still, though, it goes without saying how vital shooting has become in the NBA. Just ask the aforementioned Rondo, who’s gone from a widely-considered elite point guard to a reclamation project for the Sacramento Kings.