There’s not a single player on the Lakers’ roster who receives as much backlash from fans as D’Angelo Russell. Often viewed through a deficit model, there is a vocal group of detractors who like to point out all he does not do and/or all he does do, but not well enough. It’s a fascinating (and often frustrating) thing to observe, especially when most metrics (as well as my eye test) point out that Russell is one of the team’s best players and top contributors.
Thinking what I think and knowing what I know, I have taken to the internet (my site, twitter, etc) to defend Russell’s play; to highlight the things I think he’s doing well and the ways in which he’s helping the team. This is often met with some combination of thank you’s, he’s still a bust tho’s, and a few flat out I don’t care’s. I say all this just so that you know that I know what’s going to happen next. So take this with this preface: I don’t care.
D’Angelo Russell is trending up even if you don’t see it.
First, a few stats to compare this season’s version of Russell to the rookie season version:
- Rookie: 28.2 minutes a game, 13.2 points, 3.3 assists, 3.4 rebounds. 41% shooting overall, 35.1% from deep. 13.2 PER
- 2nd Year: 27.1 minutes a game, 14.9 points, 4.8 assists, 3.7 rebounds. 40.2% shooting overall, 34.8% from deep. 15.7 PER
So, to briefly summarize, in fewer minutes per game this season than last, Russell is shooting a hair worse overall and from deep, but still scoring more, assisting more, and rebounding more. His PER is up. As are his TS%, eFG%, and his usage rate (which are not in the bullets above). Just looking at these numbers, there’s no argument to be made he’s not improved from last year. This, though, should be expected. He was the #2 overall pick in his draft. This fact is not lost on me.
Of course, all situations require context, including Russell’s past two season. This is from a piece I recently wrote about the team’s young players finally becoming the focal point of the team:
The following season (last year), both Julius Randle and (then rookie) D’Angelo Russell played key roles, but also had their minutes and rotation spots jerked around by Byron Scott who also catered to Kobe Bryant who was in his farewell season. Kobe led the team in usage rate and, during the 2nd half of the season, it was no secret that the focus of the team was to get Kobe the ball to let him go to work. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this approach was in direct competition to developing the young players.
Fast forward to this year and while there have been huge strides forward in prioritizing the development of Russell, Randle, and rookie Brandon Ingram, it’s also not a stretch to say Lou Williams and the career year he’s been having became another variable in how the young players were used, deployed, and the context of the roles. Lou wasn’t exactly Kobe from a “name” perspective, but his play and production was such that he took on a very similar role as offensive hub and key closer.
Now that Williams has been traded, though, all that is left are the young players (and Nick Young). It’s the young guys who now have the reins and they will succeed or fail in roles which mirror where they were selected in the draft…
I did not write the above to offer excuses for how the young guys have played this year. Overall, I think they’ve done well (though have been inconsistent), so I don’t feel the need to make excuses for them. That said, I think the above offers the subtext of their experiences as players up until 5 games ago when Lou Williams was traded at the deadline — especially Russell (who was in direct competition with Williams for minutes, role played, and de facto lead guard on the team).
Which brings us to what Russell has done over those past 5 games since Lou was sent to Houston:
- Since Trade Deadline: 32.8 minutes a game, 20.6 points, 5.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds. 46.8% shooting overall, 34.1% from deep. 17.9 PER.
It should be noted, those FG% and 3 point FG% include his 7-20 shooting (2-11 from deep) against the Pelicans on Sunday. I don’t add that caveat for any reason than to explain that he just had a really bad shooting night and these numbers are still good.
These aren’t the only numbers, of course. From his rookie season to this one his assist percentage (the % of teammates baskets Russell assists on while he’s on the floor) has risen 8.1 points to 29.3 overall — and in the last 5 games that number is up even higher to 31.9. Other metrics which have improved from last year to this one include his FT rate (though not by as much as I would want) and his win-shares/48 minutes.
I understand there’s much growth that is still needed. I’d like his turnover rate to improve. I’d like him to continue to improve defensively (though, I should point out, I see improvement in this area from last year too — especially related to how he’s navigating screens, the angles he’s taking defending in isolation, and his hand activity/placement on and off the ball). Him figuring out how to better use change of pace, finding the right shot/pass balance, and playing harder for longer are all things which can improve. These things aren’t givens, either. He needs to actively work at them.
He’s improved and continues to do so, though. It’s evident in his stats and, from my vantage point, in how he’s playing from night to night. This does not mean there aren’t ups and downs. Every player has those. And it doesn’t mean he’s anywhere close to where he’ll need to be if he’s going to fulfill his massive potential. But that’s the point, isn’t it? He’s just turned 21 years old and he shouldn’t be close to a finished product. The parts of his game which require reps and experience shouldn’t be refined at this stage of his career.
The players who show those things early are the exceptions not the rule. Which is to say, maybe Russell won’t be an exception, but that doesn’t eliminate him from being a fantastic player. I don’t know if he’s going to get there for sure, but the trends tell me to give him some time because we’re already seeing improvement.