The buzz is already here. After a strong summer league, an invite to Team USA’s training camp as part of the Select Team, and social media clips of the work he’s been putting in, D’Angelo Russell is being properly recognized as a player on the rise. Buzz and actual NBA production, however, are not the same. Can Russell carry over a summer of proper work into real progress?
At The Ringer, Kevin O’Connor believes it will by proclaiming Russell is better than you think he is. O’Connor covers a lot of ground in his piece and the entire thing is worth your time, but this passage is the crux of his argument:
Russell played so well without Kobe that he could have been in the conversation for second-place Rookie of the Year votes if Bryant hadn’t played last season. His usage skyrocketed without Bryant, and while his scoring efficiency dipped slightly, his per-36 numbers improved drastically. He projects as the full-time starter alongside Jordan Clarkson under new Lakers head coach Luke Walton, so he could receive a similarly high usage rate. It’ll be a shock for Lakers fans to go from Scott’s Kobe-centric isolation offense to Walton’s free-flowing, motion-based system. But the stylistic change is tailor-made for Russell’s strengths as a versatile combo guard.
Yes. All of that. Redistributing Kobe’s touches across the roster while replacing Scott’s offense with one which caters more to Russell’s strengths and…voila, improvement. This is the basic formula, but beyond the schematic changes and adjustments in usage, I’m looking in an an even more simple direction: experience and confidence.
Last season Russell was very up front about how, in both his high school and college career, he has been a slow starter who, over time, learns what is expected of him and how to accomplish that via time on the court. He noted this to inform people of how he envisioned his development arc going in the pros. As a cerebral player who, even as a 19 year old rookie, was able to eloquently explain what he saw on the court and where his struggles were, this makes sense.
However, though he did play over 2,200 minutes (3rd on the team), the shifting between starter and reserve, the inconsistent opportunities to close games or play in crunch time, and the (generally) short leash he experienced might not have been the best way for him to gain “experience”. Further, interpreting those coaching decisions as a lack of confidence in him isn’t a stretch. But even if that wasn’t the case, the head coach using the media as a megaphone for all which displeased him about Russell’s game surely had some effect on him — even if he says it did not.
Looking ahead to this year, going beyond how Russell will be used on the floor, the feeling of belief in and around him and his game is different. While Luke Walton can say some of the same things about the “young players” his predecessor did, the context feels different — especially with Russell. All you have to do is listen to how highly Russell already speaks of his coach to understand there is a connection which did not seem to exist last season.
This isn’t just about sound-bites. One only need to look at summer league to see the difference in Russell as an on-court product. We all know July in Las Vegas isn’t the best approximation of a February night in Memphis, but this really isn’t about raw production or stat accumulation anyway. Take the numbers away and Russell still looked like the best player on the floor. He moved with purpose and had an air of confidence behind every action. He played like a high lottery pick in his 2nd summer, personifying the “man among boys” cliché expected of players in his position.
And while I do not expect Russell’s summer performance to translate perfectly to the regular season, I do not think shifting the conversation in that direction in entirely pertinent. What I am looking for in him is the confidence he played with — the confidence which was too often chipped away at last season by an environment which all too often seemed intent on checking him and putting him in his place rather than nurturing him to elevate his level of play.
More than scheme or tactics, this is what I believe matters. The fact is, truly great players can get numbers regardless of what offense they play in. Russell, for his part, did some of that his rookie season — he really did. Don’t get me wrong, improved schemes will help, but what will help him make the leap is the type of belief in his ability which drives lineup decisions from his coaches and self-confidence when the player is in the moment. Combine that with him continually gaining experience and I see a breakout on the horizon.