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.
There are some variances, but you get the point. Now, compare those to his shot chart from the preseason:
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.
LT Mitchell says
DAR has the offensive skills to be an elite scorer within a few years….. but he simply does not have the skills to be an elite PG. The team wants him to be a go-to scorer, manage the offense, and guard opposing PG’s (who are almost always quicker than he is). That’s a hefty burden on a 20 year old. It’s not easy getting into rhythm when you are getting burned defensively.
I think DAR would have more success if he played SG. His defensive workload would be reduced by guarding SGs (a much shallower position) and he could focus on what he does best….score.
Right now, Lou is the more effective PG and Nick and Clarkson are the more effective wing scorers. That could change if DAR starts getting more minutes at SG.
I must admit I have very ambiguous feelings toward young Mr. Russell. On one hand I see a great shooting touch and a certain offensive cleverness that can’t be taught. From all accounts from team sources, he has a strong work ethic and desire to succeed. Despite the Nick Young faux pas, he seems to get along well with his teammates and has embraced a new direction and start with Luke Walton and his coaching staff. The fact that he is a high draft choice for my favorite team makes me root hard for his success.
Yet, I have reservations about his game. My concerns relate to his lack of explosiveness off the dribble and a seeming inability to get into the paint with the possibility of scoring or setting up others. I have too often seen good defenders like George Hill, Eric Bledsoe and Ricky Rubio be able to disrupt his dribble and stifle his offensive forays. I tell myself to temper these observations with the facts That he is still very young, his lost year under Byron Scott and that he was one and done at The OSU. However, my doubts remain. When combined with the fact that his defensive play is far less than stellar, his body of work thus far leaves me realizing that he is still a work in progress and far from a finished product.
I’ll continue to hope for the best. Time has a way of answering all these questions as does the ruthlessness of the nightly competition in the NBA.
_ Robert _ says
I hear many fans say that Russell is “going to be fine”. OK – but what does that mean?
He is an NBA player so I guess if I was trying to guard him at the local gym, I would clearly say he was fantastic. But what does this mean in NBA terms? Yea – it is speculation – but the whole topic is speculative. So what does it mean?
Is he going to have a chance at being HOF? Is he going to make All NBA teams more that 3 times? Is he going to have a career like Kobe? Like Nick Van Excel? Like Kareem Rush? All of these guys are fantastic – but there is quite a gap between Kobe and Kareem Rush. Where will Russell fall on that scale? In other words – at this point – whose career do we think is a good over/under point to slot in Russell’s projected career?
Nobody is arguing that he has some talent. Of course he does. He was the second overall pick – he better have some talent. And in order for it to be a success he needs to have a fairly decent career. I am thinking – with the #2 pick overall – you are looking for a guy who will make at least several all star teams and play a leading role for the team with some reasonable success (like a conference title at least once or twice). Yea there are plenty of busts but there are also some super stars, so the middle of the road would be a guy who makes several All Star teams during his career.
To translate to my list of players: In order for me to consider Russell at least a reasonable success – in my book he needs to have a significantly better career than Nick Van Excel and needs to be more like a Norm Nixon (who is a great Laker). Do I think he will do that? I don’t know. However I do not think he will be the lead guy on a great team (not a Magic or a Kobe).
If anyone is willing to state that he will do that or something close to it – I am all ears : ) And yes – I know he is “just a kid” – so factor that into your response and let me know what type of career he will have : ) But don’t tell me I am a hater – I just have high standards. I am not looking for another Nick Van Excel. We need better than that.
_ Robert _ Check out Lakers Film Room and you can see what Darius is talking about. Look at the highlights from the Sacramento game and you will see why Russell is already playing beyond his years. The box scores simply do not do this team justice. Passes and plays are being made that lead and should lead to wide open shots. The recipients are simply not taking the shots or not making them. That will come around in time. When the team is locked in on defense, they are capable of turning defensive possessions into offense. It is a huge improvement over last year and they will keep getting better. It is way too early to get down on any of the players in this system.
_ Robert _
There are no crystal balls here.
We can only go by the flashes of what we have seen thus far.
Some of us take those previews to heart, and some ignore them expecting far more reliability than Russell or most kids are going to give you.
First everyone was doubting his offensive capability, and now they grudgingly admit that he’s got that, but are not complaining his turnovers, both of which can be worked out, and about his defense which he has shown in previews that may not be lock down, but adequate.
If you are expecting a Kobe or Lebron, then no he probably won’t fit your bill, but I see a 25 to 30 point 10 assist player, and that is good enough for the team concept which Walton is keen on building.
With this team, we don’t need a Westbrook, only a Russell, and I’m happy about that.
new rr says
_ Robert _
_ Robert _
My view on Russell is unchanged. I think his ceiling is a guy in the John Wall range, albeit with a different skillset than Wall’s. Russell’s one-and-done college numbers were similar to Wall’s; his numbers this year are not that different from Wall’s rookie numbers, which was Wall’s age-20 season. I still do not think that Russell will be good enough to be a franchise-anchoring two-way superstar. Whether Walton is doing the right thing by playing Williams as much as he is is another question, but I can’t really second-guess it based on how the whole team is playing. I said in preseason that I did not think that Walton would really coach the team entirely based on building and reps for the young guys, and would in fact try to win as many games as possible while building up the young guys in public, and that is exactly what is happening.
As to the post below by Fred P, the Lakers are in fact at the bottom of the NBA in converting open shots. As per NBA.com they are last in EFG on such shots on 2s, and making only 27.8% of open 3s. OTOH, they are very high in closely guarded shots and have several guys (Randle, Nance, Ingram and Mozgov) shooting over 80% at the rim
LT Mitchell If you play him at SG though, who do you play at PG? I think the problem is all the burden of ballhandling/creating is on him in the starting 5. Unlike the bench where you have Clarkson, Lou Will, and Ingram all capable of doing it.
The best solution is can see is to start Ingram in place of Deng as a point forward of sorts. That way him and Russell can share the ballhandling duties allowing DLo more freedom to focus on scoring.
Also Deng’s current deficiencies can be hidden against opposing benches.
ChanDelaCalzada LT Mitchell
I understand the reasoning to move Russell to SG. He has trouble guarding quick athletic PG’s like Dunn. So instead match him up with SG’s. That might solve issues for Russell but, the team doesn’t have a guy who step into Russell’s position and stop those guys either.
_ Robert _ says
rr: Agreed on all counts. John Wall is probably a good ceiling. Can we at least hope for Norm Nixon (which would mean a couple of rings)? (I just like mentioning Norm – because he is not only a great Laker – but is one of the coolest Lakers).
Fred: Not down on anyone. It is about expectations. If gradual improvement is all we are looking for then we will almost certainly get that given our starting point. We now have Luke – COTY. However guys like Russell and Ingram need to deliver big over the next couple years in order for us to be really good. Unless of course we sign a major FA – which is what we will need.
LKK : We are aligned. Hope for the best while being concerned.
Kev: Must you always disagree with me : ) Actually – I enjoy the discussion. That said – If DAR gets 25 and 10 for an extended period of time during his career he will not be John Wall as rr suggests – but rather he will be “on the wall”. So – yes – I will be more that happy with that.
Mid Wilshire says
If D’Angelo Russell ends up being as good as John Wall, I can live with that. I personally think that the next outstanding Laker could very well be Brandon Ingram. I’m very impressed with him. Of course, he’s only 19.
If Russell becomes the next John Wall and Ingram surpasses him and the other young guys continue to develop — Randle (who I still believe could be very good, maybe even one of the better PFs in the league), Clarkson (who is still refining his game and is already playing at a high level), Nance (the ultimate energy-guy), and Zubac (who really intrigues me and could surprise us all) — then the Lakers could have a genuinely bright future ahead of them.
But I still think we may be 3 years away from competing at the highest levels of the NBA.
Hearing Norm Nixon’s name brings back great memories. I really loved his game and watching him play. Good thread. Some good points made. I think ultimately, the primary ball handler on this team is going to be Brandon Ingram. I can envision that with added experience and strength, Brandon will be able to play and defend all 5 positions on the floor. I’ve liked seeing DAR finishing plays off back cuts and misdirection sets. @LT Mitchell… I tend to agree that he doesn’t have elite point guard skills. A good player comparison to me is Bradley Beal. DAR needs to play off a true playmaker. Ingram may be that guy.
I think part of what ails DAR is the Lakers “equal opportunity” team structure.
When Magic Johnson was the Lakers PG (note: I’m not saying DAR will ***ever*** be as good as Magic), you didn’t see Kurt Rambis or James Worthy or Larry Spriggs dribble the ball up and initiate the offense. They passed it to Magic and filled the wings.
Contrast the Showtime Lakers with DAR’s Lakers, where Randle, Clarkson, Deng, Lou W., et. al are almost as likely to bring the ball up as DAR is.
Yes, DAR has the 2nd-highest usage rate on the team, but several Lakers have similar mid-20% usage rates. Compare that to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where LBJ/Irving/Love have near-30% usage rates, and the next highest (for regular rotation players, not Kay Felder in garbage time) is under 14%.
In short, as Darius hinted, DAR isn’t GETTING THE BALL ENOUGH to develop his offensive game.
Yes, it appears that DAR will ***never*** be explosive enough to contain the waterbug athletes at the PG position. But neither was Magic back in his day. Magic learned to use size, strength, and skill to create his offensive opportunities and to make plays for his teammates. In contrast, I see DAR most often shooting outside shots off of playmaking generated by OTHER Lakers.Occasionally, he’ll use his height to post up and shoot turnaround jumpers over shorter PGs.
But DAR is not BEING the PG often enough. Maybe it’s a case of youth/lack of strength that will be overcome with time/development. I think at some point the Lakers have to decide if DAR is going to be their “PG” (most likely an oversized PG like Magic paired with a more athletic guard who CAN defend uber-athletes) and give him a real chance to do it. Or they need to accept it’s not going to happen and move DAR to wing permanently.
But if the Lakers coaches are keeping the ball out of DARs hands so other Lakers can showcase their ball-handling skills…well, that’s a strategic mistake, in my view. DAR’s one truly exceptional skill is his ability to make plays for others with his court vision and passing ability. He can’t use that skill if he’s being put into positions where he mostly has to take jump shots.
Lakers Future says
You always make so much sense, Darius. You laid out what I was thinking but couldn’t quite articulate when I have had similar “NSFW” conversations about the team. I also think this is to be expected with so many young players trying to find their way. Russell is trying to carve out a space for himself. But so is Randle. So is Ingram. Clarkson still is to a degree as well. It’s easy to get lost in all that.
This team’s development will move in conjunction with each player reaching his “ah ha!” moment. Randle seems to be discovering his role. Clarkson is settling into his role as a sixth man. Lou is excelling in his role as the steady hand off the bench. Moz is a pro and already knows his function. Put those things together and you get a team that is much better than many thought initially.
But the next step will be for Russell to figure out his place. If that happens this season then they may slide into the playoffs. But that development takes time. And its not always a linear process. There will be times where it seems he takes a step back after taking two steps forward.
Lakers Future says
_ Robert _
I doubt Russell will be HOF worthy. My guess is the next HOF Laker is playing for another team right now. And I’m fine with that. The goal for the Lakers is to build as good a team as possible with their drafted players. And then add a star (or two) in free agency. The mistake over the last few years is they have been trying to do this backwards. And that doesn’t work.
Excellent post ToJW !
Anyone that has followed D’Angelo’s career, knows that his play making, and passing abilities are extraordinary.
If you only judge him by what you have seen in his growing pains, or under leadership which may not be using him to his best strengths on the majority of plays, then of course you have an alternate view.
There is an old saying, “Just because you haven’t seen it, doesn’t mean is does not exist.”
I believe that time will bear the facts out that D’Angelo will be a sharp shooting, passing magician, floor general, for some team.
A double or triple double machine that makes the game exciting.
Better than Kyrie or Harden.
Let’s hope it’s the Lakers.
_ Robert _
Robert, I’m not being contrary to you just for the sake of doing so.
I believe it’s just a clash between a positive outlook, and those call themselves ‘realists’, but in my opinion, – since the future is always a mystery- are simply glass half empty types. :-}
John wall, adveraged 8 assist a game when he was 20 years old, russell isn’t prone to penetrate and dish which is how most point guards get the majority of assists, instead he is a pick n roll passer. When Russell does penetrate and pass under the basket it can sloppy at times.
Above darius mentions that the lakers may want to move dlo over to shooting guard, it will be interesting if the lakers go after a point guard in free agency to play with dlo, but also he could excel at the point this year, he tends to get better as the year goes on
I know it’s getting old but the player his stats best resemble at this age his steph curry, in his first year curry was 21 and here’s his stats, pts 17.5, tov 3.0, ast 5.9, fg% 46, 3p% 43, mins 36……here’s russell’s at age 20 in his 2nd year, pts 15.4, tov 3.0, ast 4.7, fg% 41, 3p% 36, mins 27…….keep in mind russell’s shot has struggled