A massive bubble encompasses the 2nd largest city in the US. Although the city of Angels houses eclectic principles, patience and context are unable to penetrate through. Naturally in such a world, the Lakers’ highest draft pick since James Worthy in 1982 was expected to instantly transcend into the league’s top tier of players and drag his team out of the cellar. However, 11 games in, with D’Angelo Russell averaging 9.5 points, 4 rebounds, 2.7 assists off of 39% FG% and the Lakers at 2-9, the aforementioned rookie has rapidly been labeled a “bust”. Has Russell’s uneven performance merited such categorization or is it time to receive some insight from the alienated parties: patience and context?
Whether Russell’s newly acquired title holds merit or not, there have certainly been some glaring deficiencies in his game. The flaw with the largest potential to drastically dampen his long-term ceiling is his inability to foray into the paint. His 1.7 drives per game place him behind the archaic Richard Jefferson and the drive-allergic Danny Green. This is reflected by his excruciatingly low 1 FTA per game. While he is more than capable, Russell is merely reluctant to put the ball on the floor, whether it be as the initiator of the pick and roll or as the recipient of a pass that collapsed the defense. This tremendously limits the extent to which he can force the defense to converge and really restrains him from showcasing his passing ability. Until he is able to traverse into what is seemingly unchartered territory, his game will be plagued with a predictability as the perimeter holds him at bay like quick sand.
Unfortunately, this effect is prevalent during another phase of the game as well. Defense was nowhere to be found in the list of Russell’s strengths prior to the draft, and what we are now seeing exemplifies that. Los Angeles is relinquishing an abysmal 110.2 points per 100 possessions with Russell on the floor, the worst mark of any Laker. While that metric unfairly paints too poor of a picture regarding his defensive ineptitude, which I will touch on later, Russell is not absolved whatsoever. Russell has lacked the lateral quickness to stay in front of his original assignment during drive attempts. When not involved in the primary pick and roll coverage, he often loses awareness of his man or side obstacles such as off-ball screens and thus forces his teammates to scramble.
With Russell not attending to his original assignment Napier, Shabazz is able to migrate from the top of the key to the corner for the game tying 3.
Russell’s unable to shift his feet fast enough to prevent Bledsoe from gliding in for the layup.
Russell gets caught by Hollis Jefferson’s off ball screen, which forces Bryant to scramble to the open man.
Unlike defense, a skill set that was listed as one of Russell’s fortes was his outside shooting, as heralded by his 41% mark at OSU. Unfortunately, that 3-point shooting prowess has not translated to the NBA, as Russell has only been converting the long bomb at a 31% clip. However, if you look deeper, indicators of an able 3-point shooter arise, as Russell drains open 3’s (closest defender is 4-6 feet away) at 41% and wide open 3’s (closest defender is >6 feet away) at ~36%. Thus, that excessively low percentage can be chalked up to shot selection, which should improve given time. Finally some light! Russell’s also knocking down the mid range shot at 41.7%, which in isolation seems average. Yet, one of the deadliest shooters from this distance also possessed a 41% mark during his debut season: Chris Paul. Thus, peeling back a few layers and sprinkling some context helps reveal potential for future shooting success. This same process can expose some pieces about the rest of his game, that if placed together, can result in a high-quality NBA point guard.
Assists are the metric used to gauge a player’s passing competency. It is easy to deduce that with a mediocre 2.7 assists per game, Russell has not lived up to his billing of being a savvy, intelligent playmaker. This not be more misleading. At a closer look, Russell exhibits a comprehension of timing and exploiting defensive positioning well beyond his years. When the spacing allows for such reads Russell is able to whip a pass to his open teammate whose defender temporarily abandons him to cover or tag the screener. Unfortunately these opportunities are few and far between in Scott’s antiquated system. Russell manipulates the defense by utilizing a couple dribbles to the divert the attention to the strong side before executing a pass to the open man on the weak side. This either drastically increases the level of difficulty of the closeout to the recipient of the pass or forces a rotation, which opens up realms of possibilities for the offense. This threat will become more lethal when Russell is given opportunities to access more areas of the court.
Russell diligently moves left until Bjelica is far enough from Kelly. This strips Bjelica the ability to recover and forces Muhammad to cover Kelly, which leave Young open.
Russell dribbles to the FT line, which forces Harris to veer closer towards him. As soon as Harris enters the paint, Russell whips a pass to Clarkson.
Russell waits for the second World Peace is deep enough in the paint that it attracts Whiteside’s attention before executing the laser-like pass.
Additionally, his excellent vision translates to the open court as he constantly finds the narrowest of chances to place his teammates in a position to score. There are times when Russell’s awareness of his teammate’s position surpasses the teammate’s own, which results in a turnover due to his lack of readiness to receive the pass. Lastly, not only is Russell a competent passer, he’s also a proficient decision maker, highlighted by his 10.7 turnover rate, which shines in comparison to fellow rookie Mudiay’s 17.1. This IQ will aid Russell in realizing how to circumvent some of his shortcomings in other areas.
Two elements about Russell that are barely mentioned are his size and length as a PG and his handles. His 6’5” height and 6’10” wingspan are a major asset. As he continues to develop and understand how to utilize his fortes to compensate for his liabilities, he will begin to consistently rely on the aforementioned qualities. As of now, he has portrayed flashes of the potential of his length to remain connected to the ball handlers while fighting around screens, to disrupt a shot attempt if the opponent has already created a slight edge, and to impede a stationary opponent’s view of the court, resulting in steals. This is a similar defensive strategy to the one that Klay Thompson implements, and it has served the champion well.
Although Williams seems to have the step on Russell, the latter utilizes his length to block the former’s shot attempt.
Russell applies his length to fight around Gallinari’s screen and stick with Mudiay.
While he uses his length to bypass his lack of lateral quickness, his handle can help propel him into the paint. Russell has flashed a smooth crossover and change of pace dribble that has conned defenders and thus revealed a gaping hole for the PG to attack. With potential for a large arsenal to counter his flaws, the rookie needs to figure out his most effective ways of attack and hone in on them.
On top of the weaknesses within his game, Russell has been dealt a bad hand. His headstrong head coach is adamant about instilling the Princeton and isolation-heavy sets, which induce stagnation and force Hibbert to be a playmaker. Sure, the Lakers are 3rd in pick-and-roll frequency, yet even those sets do not generate any movement. Rather than having the big roll and forcing the defense to converge, they require the big to stay back. Instead of initiating a motion heavy offense, Russell is watching Bryant, Williams, Young, and Clarkson create for themselves.This is indicated by his usage rate of 20, which pales in comparison to Mudiay’s 28.3 and Okafor’s 26.1. So is there a chance Russell undergoes tremendously limited development and ends up being the bust he is currently proclaimed to be? Possibly. However, taking into consideration the situation and his age (19) and pairing them with the signs of potential Russell showcases, patience is the only answer.