The headliners at the McDonald's All-American Game have a way of possessing their own magnetic pull. Two years ago, the swarm was focused on Andrew Wiggins, then an uncommitted and largely mysterious Canadian prodigy who had kept his recruitment almost completely in the dark. Last season, the focus was on the big men, as Jahlil Okafor, Cliff Alexander, Karl Towns and Myles Turner went at each other hard for two days at practice.
D'Angelo Russell was in the gym last year too, if anyone happened to notice him. At the time, nothing about Russell seemed particularly captivating. He wasn't part of a super class going to Kentucky or Duke. He didn't have the show-stopping athleticism of the class's consensus top guard, Emmanuel Mudiay. He was ranked the No. 18 prospect in the class by Rivals and was mostly distinct as the guy who had to replace Aaron Craft in the backcourt at Ohio State.
Nine months later, it's a different story. Russell is a star for the Buckeyes and one of the best freshmen in the country. He's developed a reputation for making mind-bending passes that need to be watched 10 times in a row. He's also arguably the fastest-rising player in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Russell puts a crazy amount of spin on a pass
D'Angelo Russell put a crazy amount of spin on this pass against Iowa in January.
How did all of this happen so quickly? High school rankings are far from scripture, but rarely does a freshman on the fringe of the top 20 suddenly become the type of player NBA lottery teams start circling like vultures after a few months in college. For Russell, it all goes back to his high school days and his time on the grassroots circuit. As absurd as it sounds for a player this talented, Russell's debut at Ohio State really might be the first time he's been allowed to function as the primary option in his team's offense.
Russell grew up in Louisville, but transferred to Florida's Montverde Academy ahead of his sophomore season. Montverde has turned itself into a basketball factory over the last few years, but a roster loaded with DI talent meant no one was bending over to accommodate a young player like Russell. The result was a season in which Russell often found himself riding the bench.
Montverde was loaded the next year. Kentucky-bound center Dakari Johnson and Florida-bound point guard Kasey Hill were each ranked in the top 10 nationally of their senior class, and West Virginia recruit Devin Williams was a consensus top-50 player. There was even a little known Cameroon native learning the game in practice named Joel Embiid. That year ended with Montverde winning its first mythical national championship, as Hill scored 19 and Johnson scored 18 in the title game.
Russell went on to play with Each 1 Teach 1 in the summer, where he shared the backcourt with North Carolina point guard Joel Berry. Berry had been with the program for four years to Russell's one, and was the first player ever named Florida's Mr. Basketball three times. Duke recruit Grayson Allen was there too, making this arguably the most stocked perimeter attack on the circuit. The only problem was that even in AAU, the game is still played with just one ball.
Even as senior at Montverde, Russell was often overshadowed by an Australian import named Ben Simmons in his first year on American soil. Simmons is now the No. 1-ranked senior in the 2015 class and will play his college ball at LSU. He and Russell teamed together to win Montverde another mythical national title, but it was Simmons who was named the championship game's MVP at Madison Square Garden with 24 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.
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Things didn't start smoothly for Russell at Ohio State due to a transcript issue that meant he didn't report on time with the rest of the Buckeye freshmen. As soon as he stepped foot in Columbus, though, word started spreading that Russell could be a special player. He was getting hyped by NBA oracle Adrian Wojnarowski weeks before his first real college game.
Russell started off the season hot, dropping 32 points in 25 minutes on Sacred Heart and 22 points the next game on Campbell. Things got dicey when Ohio State faced real competition, though. He shot only 6-of-20 from the field against a stout Louisville defense and struggled later in the month against North Carolina, finishing with 11 points on 4-of-17 shooting in a loss.
The start of Big Ten play was when Russell really began cooking: 22 points against Illinois on 13 shots; 27 points against Minnesota on 17 shots; 21 points against Michigan on 12 shots. In a close win over Northwestern, he finished with 33 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He also did this:
Ohio State still suffers from a lack of quality big men, but Russell's impact has been a season-saver for the Buckeyes. He's No. 9 in the country in PER at 30.49 while posting a true shooting percentage a shade under 61 and an assist rate of 31.0 that ranks No. 75 nationally. Ohio State's offense, which was No. 128 in the country a year ago with Craft, is now No. 20, according to KenPom.
The Synergy Sports numbers are impressive, too:
|Transition (27% of the time)
|Pick and roll ball handler (19.8%)
|Spot up (14.5%)
|Off screen (9.2%)
|Hand off (4.1%)
Russell is now up to No. 2 in Draft Express' 2015 big board, setting up the most interesting debate of draft season: Who will be the first guard chosen, Russell or Mudiay? Mudiay is the stronger, more athletic prospect with much more upside as a defender. He also didn't receive the free publicity Russell has at Ohio State because he played this season in China instead of honoring a commitment to SMU.
Russell does have one thing over Mudiay, though, and that's shooting. With added emphasis placed on outside shooting seemingly every year in the NBA, Russell's pure stroke is going to be a big plus for his draft stock. He's making 44.5 percent of his three-pointers on 6.5 attempts per game, and has had two games where he hit six three-pointers.
At 6'5 and with a 6'9 wingspan, Russell has the size to play either guard spot in the NBA. He's shown the passing ability to make many believe he'll be able to stick as a point guard. He's alternated running the show with senior Shannon Scott at Ohio State throughout the year, but there's no denying that Russell is the most talented player the Buckeyes have at this point.
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Ohio State's ultimate success in the tournament might depend on how much it can get out of its frontcourt, where Amir Williams and Anthony Lee have struggled. When the Buckeyes space teams out with Scott, Sam Thompson and Marc Loving joining Russell, good things tend to happen.
Russell has hinted at a return to school, but that's a common thing to hear from top prospects this time of year. Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker said the same thing before becoming the No. 2 and No. 3 picks in last year's draft. It's at the point now where Russell won't have much of a decision to make, regardless of how Ohio State fares in the NCAA Tournament. He's simply too good for the college level.
Russell has always had the size, shooting and passing ability of a superstar guard. It just wasn't until Ohio State finally put the ball in his hands and let him go to work that everyone finally realized it.