Those who are panicking about D'Angelo Russell may want to revisit the career arc of another smooth lefty Ohio State point guard prospect. As the No. 4 pick in the 2007 draft, Mike Conley was expected to be an immediate difference maker for a struggling Grizzlies franchise, but it didn't happen right away. He was considered a bust by many and took years to develop into the sublime player he is today.
And yet, Russell's bumpy start has led to a lot of angst in Lakerland. The Lakers won 21 games last season, their worst winning percentage in their vaunted history. Everyone wants a savior, especially Lakers fans. As the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, it was supposed to be Russell.
He very well could be, but it won't happen overnight. Even the 19-year-old Russell will tell you that.
"[The NBA] is a whole different animal," Russell said in an interview with Lakers.com. "So, I'd always rather be a late bloomer at anything I do. I don't want to be great right away. I love the process. I love when people say, ‘You suck! You're a bust!' I love that. Because whether it's months or years, whatever it takes, best believe they'll be thinking about those words they said a while ago."
And that's fine! If anything, Russell is actually ahead of schedule given his history.
It took him a while to become a highly ranked prospect as a kid. At Montverde High School, he sat on the bench behind future Florida guard Michael Frazier. It was only after Frazier left that Russell shined as an upperclassman. He ended up as the No. 16 ranked player in the loaded 2014 class.
But even then, Russell was not considered a one-and-done type prospect entering Ohio State. It was only after he took college basketball storm as a freshman that he was considered a future star. It may have taken a while, but Russell keeps getting better in high school and in his lone year in college.
Considering Russell's history, maybe early expectations should be tempered.
"Sometimes it takes two or three years [for players to develop]," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told the L.A. Daily News. "But it looks like D'Angelo is getting better on a good pace right now. It could stop or it could continue. You don't know. We may know a lot about him by the end of the year."
The situation clearly isn't ideal because Russell plays with Kobe Bryant. Not the five-time champion Kobe Bryant, but the 37-year-old zombie Kobe Bryant who has one of the league's highest usage rates and worst shooting percentages. Even Kupchak admits the team "cannot move on" until Kobe retires.
Kobe's presence on the floor isn't good for the development of any young player, never mind a 19-year-old point guard that needs the ball in his hands to play his game. Kobe absolutely deserves every second of his farewell tour, but these young players have families to feed and long careers ahead of them. Yet even with Kobe's Magical Mystery Tour sucking up attention, Russell has made strides in areas of his game that made him the No. 2 pick in the first place.
Russell's bread-and-butter is making plays in the pick-and-roll. At Ohio State, Russell was a maestro with the ball in his hands, capable of zig-zagging his way into the paint to create shots for his teammates.
He's done a solid job so far with the Lakers considering their talent level. The Lakers rank 30th in effective field percentage, 29th in points scored per 100 possessions and 27th in three-point percentage. Despite his team's offensive ineptitude, Russell is hovering around the point guard league average in turnover rate in situations where he's the ball handler in a pick-and-roll.
Russell's 1.45 assist-to-turnover ratio overall is somewhat underwhelming, but that's largely due to the presence of Kobe. When Kobe is on the floor, the ball isn't in Russell's hands as often as it needs to be. Russell has a subpar 1.15 assist-turnover ratio when he shares the court with Kobe. But when Kobe is off the floor, Russell's assist-turnover ratio jumps to 1.88, which is second among all rookie point guards.
Russell has shown off some of the same flare that he did in college with no-look passes like this:
The highlights are nice to see, but Russell's fundamentals are also strong. He's displayed excellent vision as the pick-and-roll ball handler even given the Lakers' offensive limitations.
That pocket pass to Larry Nance requires pinpoint accuracy, and Russell leads him perfectly to transition into the shot. Russell's teammates won't always convert these looks, but when more talent surrounds him, his assist numbers will improve.
More roster talent should also lead to more scoring opportunities in the paint for Russell, which in turn means more opportunities to improve his finishing ability, where he has already shown flashes.
Russell did a great job of changing speeds to create some space against Jahlil Okafor, then beautifully lofted the ball high up over Okafor's long wingspan to avoid the block. That play was out of a spread pick-and-roll set that gave Russell more space than usual to attack.
Russell isn't a freak athlete like many great point guards, but he's a silky smooth ball handler, so he can get by on finesse in time. Even as a rookie, he's shooting near the league average in the restricted area. On drives, as defined by SportVU, he's shooting 46 percent, which is similar to last season's marks by Jeff Teague, Isaiah Thomas and Mike Conley. That's on a small sample for Russell, but it's encouraging considering one of his supposed weaknesses is his ability to finish inside.
Russell's shooting success off the dribble (25.5 percent from three, per SportVU) needs to improve. It's possible his lack of burst hinders him when trying to create space to release his shoot. But at 6'5 with a long wingspan, he did make strides throughout the year at Ohio State.
Here's an end-of-clock situation where Russell lacks the quickness to shake Ty Lawson of all defenders and jacks up a long, contested mid-range jumper.
But look at the elusive move by Russell in this clip to get by one of the NBA's best perimeter defenders in Marcus Smart. Russell missed the shot, but that's not important. It's the process that counts. This dribbling wizardry will eventually lead to a lot of knockdown shots for the Lakers.
Partially due to Kobe's go-to presence, Russell has spent a lot of time off the ball. At Ohio State, he proved he can excel with or without the ball in his hands, since his point guard instincts give him a natural understanding of spacing. It doesn't help Russell that Kobe uses so many possessions when he's on the floor, but Russell's upside in part depends on his offensive versatility, so he's adapting.
Russell essentially says "move Kobe, get out da way" by shifting to the wing, which puts himself in a more preferable position for an easy pass and open spot-up three. Plays like this were common for Russell at Ohio State, so it's a positive to see his shot translate to the NBA. (Russell's off-ball awareness has also led to many easy at-rim chances, which Silver Screen and Roll's Drew Garrison detailed here.)
On the year, Russell is shooting a modest 34.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, per SportVU. That's a positive indication that he can hit from behind the NBA arc. Once the Lakers really focus on developing Russell's skill set in games, they should use him on more off-screen actions to get him open shots.
The bottom line is that despite the Lakers' many problems, Russell's weaknesses have shown signs of progress and his other hallmark traits have begun to translate. Despite weirdly getting benched and having to subjugate his game for the good of Kobe Bryant's retirement tour, he's getting better. That should excite Lakers fans, not worry them.
It remains to be seen if these developments will sustain, advance or regress, but there's no denying that progress has been made. For a teenage point guard playing in a less-than-ideal situation, Russell is doing quite alright.
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