D’Angelo Russell has become the talk of the Lakers in recent weeks. We already told you he was having a fantastic rookie season, but then he went and scored 39 points in a win over the Nets and has kept up his strong play with excellent scoring and good assist numbers.
While Russell is still only scratching the surface of what he can become as a player, this type of play is what many hoped for when he was drafted. It’s also the level of play some thought he might not reach after struggling at the beginning of the year.
But it was Russell himself who told you this is what it would be like. He told us he would struggle, but that, eventually, he would start to figure things out and show what he could do. Earlier in the year he sat down with Mike Trudell from Lakers.com and laid it out for fans:
Right now, I don’t really like doing interviews … because I know that once I get comfortable with my team, my coaches and all that, the same problems I was having months ago, people are going to be like, ‘Dang, he’s come a long way.’ Because everywhere I’ve been, I’ve struggled first, but then made (success happen). At first when I got to Montverde, I was playing behind Mike Frazier*, and I felt like I was better than him. He’s really good, but I had confidence, and after a while I was starting, and had blown up a little bit and people were looking to me like, ‘Lead us, man!’ and I was thinking, ‘I’m 15 years old!’ But my coach gave me the keys. Then I got to college, and struggled at the beginning of the year, but soon I got comfortable and took off. I never knew I’d be the No. 2 pick in the Draft, but it happened. Out here, I struggled in the beginning, started to find my way and it’s up and down. But this is a whole different level. You’re playing against grown men … vets. Playing against Hall of Fame coaches that take away everything you do well. This is a whole different animal.
So I’d always rather be a late bloomer at anything I do. I don’t want to be great right away. I love the process. I love when people say, ‘You suck! You’re a bust!’ I love that. Because whether it’s months or years, whatever it takes, best believe they’ll be thinking about those words they said a while ago.
Quite the prophetic quote from the rookie, huh?
Like I said above, Russell is only scratching the surface of what he can be as a pro. He is still learning the game, the league, and how he can most be effective. While he has done extremely well of late, there will be more valleys and his play will decline. This is natural and part of the maturing process. Still, though, it’s great to see how well he is playing now and how it is helping to quiet some who might have questioned him being drafted 2nd overall.
Speaking of living up to his draft status, Kevin Pelton and Chad Ford took Russell’s recent level of play as an opportunity to look at how he’s come along this season and discuss whether he is the “next superstar point guard” for ESPN Insider ($). The entire article is worth a read (you will need insider access), but here are a couple of highlights:
On whether his recent play is just a hot streak or more in line with expecations:
Kevin Pelton: Nearly 20 points and five assists per game would be high expectations. What I’d say is this big stretch has brought Russell’s season averages right in line with what I projected based on his performance at Ohio State.
In fact, Russell has been slightly better as a scorer than I projected, using more of the Lakers’ plays and shooting a higher percentage inside the arc than his college stats suggested. (That’s offset in terms of his overall win percentage, the per-minute version of my wins above replacement player metric, by the Lakers’ poor defensive numbers.)
Remember, that projection had Russell atop my stats-only board and second behind Towns when factoring in the scouting consensus. So I’d say he’s right on track in terms of what the Lakers were hoping to see.
On what’s working and what’s not:
Pelton: My biggest concern about Russell offensively was his inability to get to the foul line, which probably relates to the lack of elite athletic ability. That has carried over. He’s attempting only 2.7 free throws per 36 minutes, which isn’t good for a player who takes so many shots (15.1 field goal attempts per 36).
Yet Russell has been good enough as a 3-point shooter — and, perhaps more accurately, prolific enough — that he has scored with adequate efficiency. And when Russell makes his 3s, as he has since the All-Star break, he’s a legitimately outstanding scorer.
Russell’s biggest strength remains the ability to create shots. A 23.6 percent usage rate is on the high side for a rookie point guard. He’s also a good defensive rebounder for a point guard.
Returning to weaknesses, ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM) backs up the concerns about Russell’s defense. His minus-2.4 defensive RPM ranks him in the bottom quartile among point guards.
Does that combination make him a plus player right now? Probably not. But projecting forward, there’s little question in my mind Russell will get there given his age and the tendency for young point guards to struggle in the NBA.
On how he compares to other one-and-done point guard prospects:
Ford: I don’t think anyone’s even close this season. I actually personally preferred Emmanuel Mudiay to Russell on draft night, but clearly Russell is having the better rookie year.
I’m still curious how Mudiay adapts next season. It was a pretty big jump for him from China to the NBA. But Russell’s superior scoring and shooting ability give him a clear edge right now.
After that, you have to go back to the 2011 draft when Kyrie Irving went No. 1 to find a one-and-done PG with Russell’s potential. I think I prefer Irving as a player, but Russell has the ability to be a similar shooter and a more creative passer.
Looking forward to this year’s draft doesn’t help much either. The only legit one-and-done point guard prospect is Kentucky’s Jamal Murray. I love Murray. He’s a great, fearless scorer with a crazy high basketball IQ.
But Russell is a better athlete and a much more creative passer. Murray is stronger and a better shooter. If they were both in the draft today, I’d lean Russell over Murray.
All in all, both Pelton and Ford have a rosy outlook for Russell. They too acknowledge there are areas of improvement — especially defensively. At the end of their post they project whether Russell can be a superstar, but do not come to any definitive conclusions. Both Pelton and Ford believe Russell has the ability to be an all-star, but that it will take him maxing out his potential to reach the upper tier of players who fall in the superstar category.
All of which is to say, the Lakers seem to have found themselves a player. So, like Russell in his quotes above, when the Lakers made him the 2nd overall pick, maybe they were right too.