D’Angelo Russell scored a career-high 44 points in Brooklyn’s massive 28-point comeback victory over Sacramento Tuesday night. He orchestrated both the Nets’ largest come-from-behind win and highest-scoring fourth-quarter in franchise history. Those are two huge accomplishments on their own.
But notably for Russell, 16 of his 44 points came off layups and shot attempts within six feet of the rim. If there’s any takeaway from his career night, it’s that he can break down a defense and get his shot in the paint, rather than just being a jump-shooter.
That’s an accomplishment because Russell hasn’t done much of it this season. Brooklyn’s all-star has only 116 field goals within five or fewer feet on the year. That ranks him lower than guards who play significantly fewer minutes and lesser roles, like New York’s Allonzo Trier, Washington’s John Wall — who hasn’t played since the day after Christmas — 37-year-old Dwyane Wade, and Cleveland’s Jordan Clarkson.
In total, there are 44 guards with more field goals made within five or fewer feet than Russell. Two of those guards are his teammates: Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris.
Sacramento’s defense helped Russell do this. They allow about 52 points in the paint per game, the second-most in the league behind only Phoenix. That means you, the reader, could probably lace up and get a layup on the Kings tomorrow night.
But points in the paint, for guards, means something else. It means that guard was able to break the defense down.
Russell has never been known to be a downhill attacking guard. He’s compensated for that by hitting 3s at an alarmingly high rate. Against Sacramento, he notched his 202nd triple of the year, the most ever in a Nets single season. Earlier this season, he became the youngest player to reach 500 threes made, a record that stood until Devin Booker caught him in early March.
Brooklyn complements Russell’s skill set with better penetrators. Dinwiddie is a relentless rim attacker with the speed to get by his man on a whim. Caris LeVert broke defenses down at will before his nasty leg injury earlier in the season. Somehow, Harris has developed into the one of the best finishers at the rim in the NBA, due to the threat of his jumper.
Russell never showed that kind of ability to get to the rack at will. Partially, that’s because he didn’t need to get there, but he’s not the quickest guard in the NBA. Russell’s foot speed is certainly not comparable to De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Schroder, or Russell Westbrook. It’s just not in his DNA, and it’s inhibited him from getting around some of the league’s stickier defenders.
But that wasn’t the case in Brooklyn’s comeback against Sacramento. Russell is known to have ice in his veins when the game’s on the line, and he tends to freeze the defense by knocking down threes they still don’t expect him to shoot. Now, he’s showing he can freeze defenders and get to the rim, too.
If this is a part of Russell’s game the league hasn’t seen, it’s another layer to a young player who’s becoming more dangerous by the week.