The other night I was out with a friend having a drink and talking basketball. In between some NSFW commentary on topics from around the league, he asked me about D’Angelo Russell. My buddy, an OKC Thunder fan, said he really likes Russell and wants him to do well. He asked me if I had any concerns about Russell (I will get to my answer to that in a minute) and then we went on to discuss how good we think he can be as a player.
In Sunday’s game against the Timberwolves, Russell did not play well. It took him 10 shots to score his 7 points and he struggled defensively, both when trying to contain Ricky Rubio off the dribble and when forced to switch onto other wings/bigs. This type of game isn’t indicative of how Russell has played all season, but it’s also not the first time it has happened. In a loss against the Pacers he scored 11 points on 3-10 shooting and the Pacers attacked him with Paul George down the stretch, intentionally singling him out by forcing switches defensively. A loss against the Jazz saw him score 9 points on 3-14 shooting while George Hill cooked offensively on the other end.
For the season, Russell is scoring 15.4 points a night and dishing 4.7 assists. He’s shooting 40.5% from the floor, including 35.9% from distance. If these numbers sound familiar, it’s because they are quite similar to the ones he posted last season: 13.2 points, 3.2 assists, 41.0% shooting from the field, and 35.9% from behind the arc. Russell is scoring and assisting better and in fewer minutes a night, but if you look at his shot charts, things this year resemble last year.
If there is any sense of disappointment of how Russell is playing, I think it is at least in part related to this shot chart. Russell was fantastic during the preseason, shooting very well and posting some very big games. He looked like he had “arrived” and that a breakout season was on the way. The contrast between what he showed during the exhibitions vs. what he’s done in the regular season can leave folks a bit down on him.
I don’t blame you if you are one of these people. In the aggregate, Russell is playing fine now, but I think the hope is that he would be playing better. This is both reflective of his own play and of expectations of what he is capable. I think most observers of the league believe Russell to be a high caliber prospect who’s ceiling is at the “all-star” level (at least). Fact is, he’s not shown that level of play yet this year.
So, should we be worried about Russell? I don’t think so, personally. We can talk about the things that Russell isn’t doing well so far*, but I think his shooting will come around and that, over time, he will find the right balance between scoring and passing. I have written I would like him to look for his own shot a bit more, and hopefully he will start to do that soon. I understand there are other mouths to feed, though, and I’m guessing he might recognize the same thing.
There is often a fine line between a reason and an excuse, so I will walk carefully here.
Russell spent most of last season dealing with a coach and a system which didn’t always play to his strengths while also managing the impact of Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour. Russell not only dealt with a short leash, but also saw his late game opportunities minimized and removed completely depending on what day of the week it was. To say it was not the best situation for him to develop his game would be stating it mildly.
This season Russell is on a team which is seemingly better than many expected. One of the strengths is its guard play, with Lou Williams playing some of the best basketball of his career (if not the best). Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson have also taken steps forward in their 3rd years. These three players are important in this discussion because they can squeeze Russell for minutes (this is mostly Lou) and they are guys who have the ball go through them on offensive possessions; they are shot creators for themselves and teammates.
While it is early in the year, what we may be seeing is Russell dealing with the skipping of a development step many young players drafted as high as he was often work through. Very high draft picks are typically selected by very bad teams who have lots of room to grow to get better. Because they are high picks, they are often given the keys to the team — ready or not — and allowed to play through mistakes in order to learn how to manage at this level. As that maturing occurs, the team (hopefully) improves and that young player (or players), with all that talent, apply those lessons to become impact players on those teams. For many high picks (or draft picks who have a normal development curve), this is the path taken to becoming good.
While Russell played on a bad team last season, though, he never got the keys. And now, it looks as though he may be on a team which isn’t as bad as many thought, but he still really doesn’t have the keys nor does he have much experience to sort out what works and what doesn’t. Working in that situation is a challenge any player would have to work through, but that is especially true for a 20 year old point guard.
In an ideal world, I would have wanted Russell to get a lot more out of last year. I wouldn’t have minded him struggling, as long as he got the chance to spread his wings more by playing through his errors while getting good guidance on what he can do to get better. This year, then, he could have had a bit more valuable experience under his belt and used that knowledge base to adapt better to a team which was ready to improve a bit more than expected.
Of course, that didn’t happen and now, this year, he looks to be working through some things at a time when several other key members of the team are performing better than expected.
Again, and I cannot state this strongly enough, I believe Russell is going to be a fantastic player. He’s already showing flashes, but so far this season those highlights have not had staying power. Maybe that’s circumstance or maybe he’s just in a funk and needs to snap out of it. I’d buy either explanation, really. It would be good if he found his stride and started looking more like the player he was during the preseason, though. And until he does, there will be rumblings.
*I think one area Russell has not been good in is his defense. This bears out in the numbers, especially the on/off stats which say the team is 19.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Russell is not in the game. Randle and Mozgov offer similarly poor splits, but Russell is the worst of that trio and has the worst numbers on the team of any of the rotation players.
Russell has been too easily beat off the dribble and is not doing a good job of getting through screens on or off the ball. He has shown some nice instincts when jumping passing lanes, but those skills do not overshadow the work he’s receiving in other areas of defense. I do think Russell can improve on this end, but this is not like his shooting where he is operating from a position of regression from previous strong showings which we know he can recover from. Russell has never really shown he can be a strong defender and unless he starts to, his reputation as a negative defender will only deepen.
All of this is to say, for all the talk about how Russell can still be excellent in this league, that is mostly based on projecting out his offensive skill at this point.