Coming out of Ohio State D’Angelo Russell was billed as a complete offensive player. Yes, his outside shooting and court vision were highlighted as real strengths, but when watching tape of him there were so many other aspects of offensive basketball he excelled at – especially as a scorer. He possessed a polished mid-range game, had a nice floater, could get to the rim and finish, and could work in the post against smaller defenders.
Early in the year it was only his mid-range jumper (specifically out of the P&R) and his 3-point shot (mostly as a spot up option) which carried over most quickly. However, in the 2nd half of the season, we have seen the more of the offensive prowess he showed in college start to surface in the pros. Especially his work in the post.
Russell in the post. This is a real thing.
— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) March 9, 2016
Russell first started show glimpses of his ability in the post at the turn of the year. At that time Mark Medina sat down with Lakers’ assistant coach Larry Lewis (who Russell has credited in interviews) and Lewis spoke about his point guard’s work from the block:
He has potential on the block that I don’t think anyone has seen yet. Over the past five or seven games, there have been glimpses of him in the post. But he’s got a lot of talent on the block. I really believe in that. I believe that it’s something that can help us win. Without a doubt, he’ll do that for the rest of his career.
The game is really about mismatches. The more mismatches that are created, it leads to advantages. If he’s playing against a smaller, quicker guard and that guard can beat him off the dribble, he can counter that by being bigger and stronger than that guard. He can pound that guard on the block. If he is having an advantage over me, I also have an advantage over you.
Russell has made Lewis seem prophetic with those comments.
Per NBA.com’s Synergy statistics, Russell really has become one of the better post scorers in the league. And not just for a guard — I mean for all players. For the season, for players with more than 50 post-up possessions, Russell ranks 15th in the NBA, scoring .98 points per play. This number places him in a tie with Russell Westbrook, only slightly below Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge (both at .99 PPP) and slightly above DeMarcus Cousins and Karl Anthony-Towns (both at .95 PPP).
Russell’s volume of possessions in the post isn’t near what those big men put up, but he’s a guard. He’s doing most of his work out of the P&R, in isolation from the perimeter, and as a spot up option. But just because Russell isn’t spending a lot of time in the post doesn’t diminish his value to the Lakers or make how he’s scoring there less impressive. He’s showing an ever evolving game from the block, working over defenders with a nice array of moves.
Check out this sampling just from the last 10 games:
This possession against Kyrie Irving shows a combination of strength, patience, and his great shooting touch. Look at how Russell backs down Kyrie, doing a great job of re-establishing the post after the ball gets poked away. Once Russell gets to a comfortable spot, he simply turns away from the ball pressure and sinks a fading jumper.
That type of poise isn’t rare, either. Against the Nets we’ll remember Russell’s huge scoring night, but so much of his success came via recognition of situations and then simply hitting shots against a defender who he put into a disadvantageous situation.
Here Russell finds the much smaller Shane Larkin defending him. So rather than trying to beat him off the dribble after facing him up, Russell simply backs him down by using his superior size. On this possession the shot clock is winding down, but Russell again shows good patience to work his way to a spot on the floor where he feels comfortable. Unlike the shot against Kyrie, Russell doesn’t feel the need to spin away from pressure, instead going right into a “Dirk” fade against the smaller man. Buckets.
As Russell starts to show that he can hit his jumper out of the post, he can then start to build off that move to keep defenders guessing.
On this play Russell finds himself in the post against Elfrid Payton. Rather than bang into his man like in the possessions above, Russell uses a quick drop step to spin off his man to the baseline. After completing his spin, Russell then uses his size and strength to keep Payton on his hip and finish through contact for the And-1.
Drawing fouls in the post is a great way for Russell to get to the foul line, especially since he’s not the most explosive athlete who’s going to get to the rim and draw shooting fouls against rotating help defenders. This too is a skill he’s continuing to develop, showing it more and more against defenders who he puts on an island.
Here Russell is isolated against Steph Curry, working his way deeper into the post while help lurks nearby. Russell does a great job of flattening out his angle to remove the help scenario then simply dips his shoulder into Curry’s chest, exposes the ball for a reach in, then sweeps his arms up through the contact to earn a trip to the foul line.
Again, Russell isn’t going to be a guy who out-jumps his man and then challenges a big man at the rim to earn FT’s. But by working in the post and picking on smaller defenders with his large frame, he can earn trips to the line and get the types of free points which not only boost a scoring average but help your team by getting teams into the bonus faster and slowing down the tempo when needed.
This isn’t just a random occurrence, either. Russell’s ability to draw fouls in the post is actually elite, though in a small sample. Per NBA.com’s Synergy numbers, for players with more than 50 post-up possessions, Russell is 3rd in the NBA at earning FT’s out of post up possessions and 1st in the NBA in drawing shooting fouls out of the post, both at 27.8%. I do think this number will go down as post up possessions become a bigger part of his game and, as a result, individual defenders and teams start to better scheme for his work on the block, but these numbers now are very encouraging.
Moving forward as Russell gets stronger and gains more experience, I can only imagine his work from the low block will only increase in volume and, hopefully, effectiveness. If that becomes the case, I can imagine the Lakers finding more ways to invert their offense and using Russell’s combination of scoring touch and passing acumen to do damage from spots on the floor guards typically don’t excel from.