I have many thoughts about D’Angelo Russell. Most of them good, some of them concerning, all of them pitted against the backdrop of his age, the direction the league is headed, and his current position on this specific version of the Lakers.
That’s a mouthful, I know.
In a shade under 4 weeks, Russell will turn 20 years old. In NBA years, he is a baby. And while he possesses a polished game, it sometimes only takes a light wipe to pull away some of that veneer and see all that he currently is not. And when playing for an organization that is not used to the types of lows currently experienced and in an era of instant gratification/reward seeking, the breaking down of what Russell isn’t has become a favorite pastime for some.
I am not completely exempt from this. I look at Russell and have concerns. He has a laid back demeanor that can, visually, influence how hard I think he’s playing — especially defensively. There are some bad habits I see nightly. Not running back hard on defense. Not defending with assertiveness. Relaxed hands when guarding on the ball. Lack of effort to fight on the glass when switching in the P&R. Not enough…well, effort. I see it.
Then I reflect. These are flaws, but they seem to be habits that can be broken. I watch guards who came into the league young and see where they are now and understand that the things I don’t like now are things which can be learned and executed as a career advances. I remember that he’s not yet even 20 and I know through good teaching and a want to be better, improvement comes over time. That doesn’t just apply to basketball.
I also see all the good in this kid’s game. All that skill. The ball handling — which could be tighter, but is still excellent. The shot making and pure stroke. The feel for passing and how defenses move. The ability to not only see the pass, but execute it on time and on target. The desire to lead. The recognition of the moment and the visual uptick in wanting to do more in games that are tight, late. And then I remember that he’s not yet even 20 and that through good teaching and a want to be better, improvement comes over time. And that, in this case, it does apply to basketball.
The month of January has been Russell’s best of his rookie season. I don’t need to tell you the stats. His scoring is up, his shooting is better, and his adjustment to playing within the flow of the game and then stepping outside of that flow to make an imprint has been the best it’s been all year. He has, seemingly, started to turn the corner and “get it”.
Or maybe not.
“Personally, for me, lackadaisical turnovers. I take the blame for a little bit of that. I’ve just got to be better. I’ve never really played point guard in my life. I went to college, I was a basketball player and I played every position. I got to this level and point guard was just thrown at me, so it’s something you’ve got to adjust to. It’s the hardest position in this league. I’d rather it be hard now than later. I’ll figure it out.”
Those are Russell’s quotes, via the LA Times, after last night’s loss to the Bulls. Russell played poorly. He had too many turnovers, more than one of which was the product of plain carelessness. During the game, there was also a report from Turner Sports’ David Aldridge where he said Russell “doesn’t know what he doesn’t know” and “has no idea what to even ask Byron Scott on what he can do to improve”. Aldridge added that Russell wants to get better, but doesn’t yet know how.
From Russell’s quotes to Aldridge’s in-game report, it’s all more than a bit troubling. But, let’s step back.
Heading into the draft, Russell consistently called himself a “basketball player” and skirted using the term “point guard”. Last night’s quotes that he never really played the position are important and telling. My own eye test says Russell is a “lead” guard in that he is very comfortable with the ball in his hands and making plays for himself or setting up his teammates for baskets. He has struggled some in running the team’s offense, but not any more so than Jordan Clarkson (again, in my opinion).
In fact, Russell has seemed almost too intent on running the team’s sets as often as he can, either as the player bringing the ball up or in giving up the ball early and letting his backcourt partner get an opportunity. Russell makes a play call (“chin”, “elbow”, etc) on most every possession or gives the ball to Clarkson or Lou Williams and dutifully stands in the corner as a spot up option. I have not tracked this, but the eye test tells me the Lakers other lead guards (Clarkson, Williams) do not make these same types of calls every time down.
Now, place this in the context of what it is that the coaches — specifically Byron Scott — want from Russell vs. what is seemingly wanted from other players. Earlier this week Russell was benched in the last two minutes vs. the Mavs for “trying to take over the game” and his confidence, while highlighted as a positive, was also placed in the negative context of bordering on cockiness. Russell was called out for the ball “sticking” with him.
Another theme of the season has been for Russell to cut down on his “mistakes”. In early November, Scott talked about the importance of winning and player development, and mentioned Russell’s need to cut mistakes down to help him stay on the floor. Later he also threatened the “young players” (aka Russell and Randle) floor time by also focusing on not wanting to see the same mistakes being made. And two weeks before being made a reserve, Scott had this to say about Russell’s mistakes:
“That learning curve is going away. We’ve been playing him minutes. He’s getting minutes and making mistakes. Now is a time I expect and will be more demanding. I’m not going to accept some of the mistakes we’re making, especially the ones that he makes over and over again. That’s up to him.”
I can’t speak to what standard others are being held to behind the scenes, but these types of public comments have, throughout the season, landed on Russell’s lap more than his teammates. When considering Russell isn’t the only one making mistakes, isn’t the only one where the “ball sticks”, and isn’t the only one trying to “take over games”, it all gets a bit murky in trying to decipher the head coach’s intent.
I have zero insight into how Byron Scott, behind closed doors or in his own mind, feels about Russell. I have heard some things on this topic that I will not report because they are hearsay and I don’t feel comfortable putting them in print. I will say, though, that Scott does seem to want to get the best out of Russell, but seems to only go about that in one way, at least publicly. Scott is fine issuing occasional compliments to his point guard, but will almost always balance those words with a critique. I get the sense Scott wants to humble the player in an attempt to break him down and build him back up. That said, this is pure speculation on my part.
What I can say is while I do not know how effective this approach is for other players, it does not seem like it is working terribly well with this specific one. Russell doesn’t seem to respond well to the public nature of the criticism and seems to internalize what is being told to him while searching for ways to improve, but not quite knowing what steps to take to get there.
Some of that, is on him to figure out. But it is also on the organization, the coach included, to bridge that gap. Russell must be willing to work and those around him must find the best ways to foster and nurture that desire to work. It’s on both sides to make this happen and get the most out of him.
My two cents on all this is pretty simple, though. I think Russell is fine. I think he has the potential to be a dynamic player for a long time. He also has some bad habits that need breaking and to be put in positions which aid him reach the top end of his potential. Whether that is happening now is up for interpretation, but I have my doubts. It’s on everyone in the organization to make sure I — and anyone else who thinks that — is wrong about that.