The first time I heard longtime ESPN analyst Jalen Rose claim that his entire career was hurt once he was selected in the first round of the 1994 Draft by the Denver Nuggets, I didn’t totally believe him. How bad could it have been? After all, Rose ended up being a 20+ PPG scorer on an Indiana Pacers team that made it all the way to the NBA Finals just a few seasons later.
Now? I totally believe him. I believe that rookies drafted into the wrong situation have a huge hill to climba��whatever their natural talents area��to reverse the habits and coping skills that are learned on a team lacking support. Also, I think there is an opposite and equal reaction for players who match successfully with their teams. Think of Kawhi Leonard’s prodigious work ethic being directed successfully by Gregg Popovich and the wise counsel of elder Spurs.
I’m going to guess, though, that whatever obstacles Rose faced with the .500 Nuggets of the mid-nineties pale in comparison to the lonely season that No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell is having with the 9-37 Los Angeles Lakers. Their record is bad, yes, but it’s the lack of organizational direction that is making their 2015-16 season one of the most confusing from any team in recent memory.
If their biggest priority for this season is simply holding onto their 2016 fist-round picka��it’s only protected if it lands in the top three slotsa��a.k.a. tanking, then they’re executing the strategy quite well. Russell and second-year lottery pick Julius Randle have been bumped out of the starting lineup. They’ve had their minutes capped while Kobe Bryant has the green light to shoot as much as possiblea��and he’s one of the most inaccurate in the league.
But if tankinga��and thus growing youngera��is the Lakers’ goal, then why did the team commit $42.5 million this offseason to bring in veterans Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams, and Brandon Bass? Your guess is as good as mine. The Lakers have at least kept their cap space for this upcoming summer wide open, with only $26.1 million currently committed for 2016-17.
If I were a free agent, though, I’d want to steer clear of this team for the dismissive way they’ve handled Russell. Even if the Lakers repeatedly hit the jackpot in free agency, as appears to be their main strategy, Russell is an essential part of their future. So far, he has only been exposed to a selfish, inefficient, isolation-heavy brand of basketball at the professional levela��all while being plunged into darkness by the perpetual shade that his own coach is throwing at him.
Russell could have been spending this season learning about the sacrifices and creativity required to win in the NBA. Instead, it just looks like he’s trying to learn how to survive. What does Year Two look like for Russell if all he learned in Year One was how to tread water? What about Year Three?
The playbook is basically empty compared to the rest of the league. Going by the percentage of their possessions dedicated to a certain play, no team runs isolation more than the Lakers, and no team features individual ball-handlers more than them either. Coming from this type of system, the fact that Russell has actually been able to improve his field goal percentage in January is a testament to his individual playmaking ability.
Consider this highlight reel of his 23-point night against the Portland Trail Blazers earlier this week. While he receives a nice pass from Jordan Clarkson for his second field goal of the game, Russell really has to do the rest by himself:
Russell’s fellow rookies Karl Anthony-Towns and Kristaps Porzingis are essentially playing in a different world. Even though neither the Minnesota Timberwolves nor New York Knicks are playoff teams, both squads move the ball at least respectively well, frequently creating viable shots for their young franchise centerpieces:
According to the sleek analytics website Inpredictable, Russell is third-worst on the Lakers this season in terms of helping the team’s win probability, ahead of only Randle and Bryant. A closer look at Inpredictable’s numbers, though, shows that Russell is third-best on the Lakers in terms of adding win probability with his shooting (behind Clarkson and Williams)a��and worst on the team in terms of taking away win probability with his turnovers.
While he’s guilty of his own unwise errors and miscues, as is any rookie, one also doesn’t have to look for very long to find many examples of the Lakers’ slow ball movement and spacing tripping up the pass-first Russell.
Take this play against the Spurs. Russell is shoveled the ball with the shot clock dwindling down. He attempts to make a pass in the lanea��but with two other teammates already in the key, the Spurs have already erased every passing lane:
Or, here against the Sixers, the Lakers’ play is telegraphed so completely that Philadelphia’s Robert Covington (wearing No. 33) easily anticipates where and when the pass will occur:
This last Russell turnover, against the Rockets, really shows the depths of their problems. LA enters into their offensive set slowly and only have ten seconds left once the first action yields nothing. They then run a second action for Russell, a pick-and-roll, but the play is heading right into Williams who is already posted up in the corner:
Houston is able to blitz the pick-and-roll, again erasing all available passing lanes.
Russell’s personal assist rate has plummeted from 30.1 percent last year at Ohio State to 22.8 percent thus far with the Lakers. As is the case with Russell’s other individual statistics, that drop in efficiency appears to be a function of the team that surrounds him.