D’Angelo Russell’s raw stats don’t seem that bad. On a very basic level, most people wouldn’t complain about a second-year guard putting up 14.9 points per game, for instance. And, he did just drop 40 on the Cleveland Cavaliers. But with the proliferation of perimeter stars in the modern NBA, that kind of production is no longer acceptable.
When you compare his numbers to other lead guards (defined here as the guard with the highest usage rate on his team, so long as he’s started at least half his team’s games), Russell’s production looks pretty grim. Here’s how he compares in five key categories:
Points Per Game: 24th
Field Goal Percentage: 29th
Three-Point Percentage: 17th
Effective Field Goal Percentage: 24th
Assists Per 100 Possessions: 18th
Now, this might seem like a big data dump, so let me contextualize it a bit:
- Russell has been neither an efficient nor a high-volume scorer. He has not be an above-average passer or three-point shooter.
- His average placement on these lists is 22.4.
- Russell has a higher usage rate by at least four percentage points than every player listed who scores less points per game than he does; a lower field goal percentage than all but Mudiay; a worse assist/turnover ratio than all but Mudiay (who are in fact the two worst qualifying point guards in the NBA in that area).
- He may have the 24th best effective field goal percentage of the 30 listed “lead guards,” but in actuality he is not as efficient as many of the players below him. Effective field goal percentage does not consider free throws. He takes only 2.8 free throws per game. That is exactly as many as Reggie Jackson takes. It’s lower than everyone else on that list that is below him. Even Mudiay, who by now you should’ve realized is probably the worst point guard in the NBA. Both DeRozan and Westbrook triple Russell’s free throw attempts.
- Russell got a big boost in the assist rankings because of the use of usage rate as an objective standard. There’s some degree of subjective ambiguity when it comes to the term lead ball-handler” on a lot of those teams. Five of the players listed share ball-handling duties with a pure point guard who fulfills the games started requirement and averages more assists per 100 possessions than he does (Ricky Rubio, Elfrid Payton, Kyle Lowry, Rajon Rondo, Matthew Dellavedova). And if you drop the games started requirement, Jeremy Lin would be included on this list as well. There is no such ambiguity on Russell’s team. He has the ball in his hands.
- If we treat the listed players as an absolute definition of a “lead ball-handler,” Russell would be putting up 4.34 points below the average for one (19.24), shooting 4.903 percentage points worse from the field (45.03), shooting nearly exactly the average from three-point range (34.96), would have an effective field goal percentage 2.92 percentage points below the average (50.62), and would be posting almost 0.8 fewer assists per 100 possessions than average (9.08).
- If we do not treat the listed players as an absolute definition of a “lead ball-handler,” and include players from other teams to form a subjective set of rankings, we should be able to say that Russell is safely better than Bogdanović, McConnell, Mudiay and Williams. But worse than Lowry, C.J. McCollum, Nic Batum, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker. That would mean at this moment he’s not among the 30 best lead ball-handlers in basketball among guards alone. When you include forwards, he probably isn’t in the top 40.
- There is a reasonable argument to be made that Russell is not the best lead ball-handler on his team. The Lakers score 0.77 on Jordan Clarkson pick-and-rolls compared to 0.69 with Russell. Before Russell’s arrival, Clarkson put up 7.1 assists per 100 possessions as a rookie. And he did that on Kobe Bryant’s team. He has a higher effective field goal percentage this season, and for their careers, as well.
All of that is the long way of stating the very obvious: D’Angelo Russell has largely been a disappointment for the Lakers so far.
You optimists out there might contend that between Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragić and Isaiah Thomas, there have been plenty of late-blooming guards over the past several years. But those guys were all later draft picks. That is simply almost never the case with guards picked in the top five. Let’s track the drafts between 2005-2014, the 10 drafts before Russell came into the league.
In those 10 drafts, 17 guards (or at least guard-like forwards) were drafted in the top-five. The following 10 averaged more points per game in one of their first two seasons than Russell is this season: Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo, Russell Westbrook, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal and Victor Oladipo.
The next three never averaged more points per game than Russell is at any point in their career: Ricky Rubio, Evan Turner and Dante Exum (though it’s unfair to fully judge Exum because of his injury). Raymond Felton and Dion Waiters did both surpass Russell, but they did so by less than one full point, had higher field-goal percentages and did so on mediocre teams. If Russell improves from a 15-point scorer to a 16-point scorer with no improvement in efficiency and without playing for a winner, I think we can safely categorize him as a bust.
There’s James Harden, but most of his improvement correlates with playing time and opportunity. His scoring improved by 23 percent between his rookie and sophomore seasons when he got a 17 percent increase in minutes. And then, in his third year, his playing time increased by 18 percent. Suddenly, his scoring went up 38 percent. He got better, but he also received significantly more playing time. More importantly, he got significantly more playing time without Russell Westbrook. He played 921 minutes without Westbrook as a rookie and 1,031 without him in his second season. By the time he got to Houston, he was free of Westbrook entirely. And there was a reasonable expectation of what he’d become outside of his shadow.
You could’ve argued that Kobe Bryant had the same effect on Russell last year. But, Russell hasn’t exploded post-Kobe like we’d hoped.
That leaves Mike Conley as a one-person sample for guards from the top-five growing from a bad player in his first two years into a very good one later on. But Conley has never made an All-Star Game, averaged 20 points or even posted seven assists per game. Betting on Russell’s improvement on this point just seems unwise. Guards picked in the top-five almost always show more than he has early in their careers. Those who don’t wind up as busts.
Again, this is all a roundabout way of saying that Russell has been bad, at least relative to our expectations. What we should really be exploring is why he’s been so bad. And, whether or not they are faults he can recover from.
Check out this highlight video of Russell running pick-and-roll at Ohio State:
What stands out is how decisive Russell is. On the first play of that video it takes him one dribble to know that he’s shooting the three. There’s no wasted movement. The occasions that involve him pounding the ball are all-purposeful, an attempt at losing his defender, and when he goes to the hoop he’s usually in the air before the defense even knows what’s happened. (In fact, he’s almost too quick in that regard. But more on that later). He takes jumpers the moment he’s freed.
That’s not to say that adaptability is bad. But a ball-handler has to be supremely confident in his decision-making in the pick-and-roll for it to be effective. Let’s compare that to some of his pro-footage:
Here’s a play where Russell simply does not know what he wants to do with the ball. He initially gears up for the pass, changes his mind, and then changes it back all in the span of a few moments. He doesn’t trust what he’s seeing on the floor. A 6’5” point guard’s vision is typically excellent, and it was one of Russell’s most valuable traits coming out of college. But it means nothing if he doesn’t trust it.
That’s obviously an extreme example, but it’s endemic of a larger problem: Russell hesitates too much. Even in highlight videos that only show his made shots and assists, you can catch glimpses of it:
Fast forward to the 2:10 mark. It’s a basic but beautiful out-of-bounds play. Russell inbounds the ball to Brandon Ingram, takes one step towards the baseline before racing back around around Ingram for the hand-off as Tarik Black steps in to screen to prevent the switch. It’s a perfectly designed play to create a three at the top of the key. Except Russell doesn’t take it, despite it being wide open. He keeps dribbling, eventually winds up in traffic and winds up with Dewayne Dedmon’s hand in his face on a long-two. Even with his poor percentages in both spots (see shot chart below via NBA.com), he’s giving up an open shot with an expected value of 0.88 points for a guarded shot with an expected value of .68 points.
It’s not just that it’s a bad decision. The key is that he made no decision. He missed his window of opportunity to either take a good shot or make a good pass (and if he were feeling particularly ambitious, there was a nice zip pass across the court to Ingram in the corner available to him). So he had to settle for a bad shot (the one he took) or a bad pass (a hand-off to Nick Young that Dedmon had an easy switch onto). Timing is everything in the pick-and-roll. What makes Chris Paul so good isn’t necessarily that he’s constantly making better decisions than anyone else. It’s that he’s making faster decisions.
Russell’s NBA upbringing hasn’t been ideally suited to building confidence. He spent his rookie season watching Kobe’s farewell tour. His coach openly attacked him in the press. He was involved in a major team scandal. But this year, in a more nurturing environment that has given him a ton of control over the offense, he really hasn’t been any better.
In fact, he’s been slightly worse. The Lakers are scoring 0.69 points per possession on Russell pick-and-rolls this year, down from 0.71 last year. Last year, that was the second-worst number in the league among players to attempt as many pick-and-rolls per game as he did behind, you guessed it, Emmanuel Mudiay. This season? Russell is attempting 6.7 pick-and-rolls per game. You’d have to drop down to 4.2 attempts (Nic Batum) to find a player whose pick-and-rolls produced fewer points per possession.
If this really is just a confidence issue brought about by Byron Scott and Kobe, it should’ve been resolved by now. If we don’t start to see his decision-making match what it was at the college level soon, it might just be too late for it to ever get there.
What do you think of when you hear the name “Joe Harris?”
You might think of that white guy who used to be on LeBron’s team. Maybe you’ve caught the Nets once or twice this year and seen him make some three-pointers. Here’s how you should think of him now:
The guy who takes nearly twice as high a percentage of his own shots within three feet of the hoop as D’Angelo Russell.
Russell takes only 13.7 percent of his shots within three feet of the hoop. He is a second-year point guard who is 6’5” and pushing 200 pounds. That is bad. That is really, really, really bad.
Go back and watch some of those pick-and-roll videos. Notice that most of the time, even at the college level, Russell either passes before he’s within range of the hoop or takes a jumper himself. When he does take a shot within close range of the basket, it’s almost never a contested layup. But rather, some sort of floater or fadeaway. He does not attack the basket and he avoids contact like the plague, and there’s not a good reason why. He makes 57 percent of the shots he does take within three feet of the hoop, an acceptable enough number for a point guard. Russell has more than enough size to handle physical rim protectors (if Allen Iverson could do it, so can he). He just refuses to go there.
Take a look at some of the plays from this excellent Coach Nick breakdown of Russell’s 39-point game against Brooklyn last year:
Skip to 1:35. Russell gets the rebound and initiates the fast break. He has a clear lane to the basket… but settles for a floater. Now check out the 4:00 mark. Russell has a chance to use his speed to get around Brook Lopez for a layup, but once again settles for a floater. He’s perfectly capable of playing near the basket without the ball in his hands. He can catch and lay it in just fine. But he’s clearly not comfortable enough as a ball-handler to truly drive. That idea of comfort and confidence is a recurring theme here.
He’s never going to be an elite athlete, and maybe that’s what’s holding him back. He didn’t jump at the combine, for instance, but he posted a 30.5 inch standing leap later in the draft process which would’ve placed him 19th in a draft class in which he was chosen second. But you don’t need to be a great athlete to score at the rim. James Harden is a notoriously mediocre athlete, but he attacks the basket relentlessly. He’s good at it, but the volume in general matters. Having an explosive first step is very helpful, but if you angle your body correctly, manipulate defenses properly, adjust in mid-air and apply the right touch on the ball you can make up for not having one.
But Russell hasn’t yet found his way around it. That’s fine for a second-year player. What isn’t fine is his lack of trying. You’re never going to find the answer if you don’t start asking questions. But Russell has been content to act almost exclusively as a jump-shooter.
That has several major consequences that impact his offensive effectiveness. First of all, it leaves easy points on the board when it comes to free throws. They are the most efficient shot in basketball, bar none. Only two players who score more points per game than Russell take less free throws: Victor Oladipo and Serge Ibaka. Lou Williams averages three more points per game than Russell despite taking fewer field goals… largely because he takes three more free throws per game. You get the idea. Free throws are important.
But think about how defenses must plan for Russell. If they know he isn’t going to attack the basket, they can be far more aggressive in defending him on the perimeter. They can go over on screens, they can have their bigs approach him in the middle of the court if he does dribble past his man. Part of what made Kobe Bryant so good was that he was a credible threat from anywhere on the floor. He didn’t take more than 28 percent of his shots from any one area of the floor, and didn’t take less than 12.4 percent in any one area either. The equation with Russell, though, is pretty simple. The further away from the basket he gets, the more likely he is to shoot.
Russell has to recognize that. He has to show at least a basic willingness to drive to the hoop. He has to make defenses prepare for it. Not only will it create more efficient shots at the rim and more free throws for him, but it will also generate more space on the three-pointers he’s still going to take a lot of. And, those three-pointers are probably going to be the basis of his success as a scorer anyway. He probably needs to get from 35 percent to around 38 percent on three-pointers to be a somewhat efficient scorer anyway. By attacking the basket more, he could kill both birds with one stone.
Russell is theoretically supposed to be a great passer. His touch at the college level was well beyond that of your average 18-year-old, and his vision was flat out excellent even independent of his size. Check out some of his highlight passes from college:
What you’ll notice more than anything is Russell’s remarkable anticipation. A good passer knows where his teammates are going to be. A great one knows where the defenders will be as well. Russell reads the floor flawlessly in most of these plays, manipulates the defenders with his eyes and nails his teammates in stride with perfect passes.
Russell busts one of those passes out every now and then, but we’ve also seen a lot of this from him at the NBA level:
Go to the 0:45 mark. Russell takes what should be a routine shovel pass and feels the need to try to make it look remarkable. It works here. But it doesn’t always. It leads to a fair number of turnovers (once again, Russell has the second worst assist/turnover ratio among qualifying point guards in the NBA). Russell hasn’t quite figured out what the appropriate level of both risk and showmanship is in the NBA.
Heck, go back to that play we broke down against the Spurs. John Wall would’ve hit Ingram in the corner for the open three-pointer. It’s not fair to compare any second-year player to John Wall, but Russell was supposed to be that caliber of passer. And it hasn’t translated to the NBA level yet. He tries to make a lot of simple passes look flashy because he hasn’t yet reached a point where he’s capable of consistently making the actual flashy passes.
There are things Russell already does extremely well. He’s one of the best bounce passers in the league and uses it as much more of a weapon than most modern point guards, who are obsessed with lobs. Check out this one on the break:
But ultimately most of Russell’s passing at the NBA has been fairly limited in scope. He hasn’t dipped his toes into the deep end yet with advanced cross-court passing. That’s what makes guys like LeBron and James Harden so valuable. They can get the ball to any point on the court that they want to, whenever they want to. You always have to defend the whole court against them. You can’t rotate your defense towards them very aggressively because they’ll burn you for it.
Russell is several levels below that at this point, and it shows. The Lakers in general aren’t aggressive in their ball movement, and that’s reflected statistically. The Lakers are 26th in assists per game and 27th in potential assists. It’d be one thing if they were just missing shots, but they really aren’t doing much to actively create them. That is the kind of passer you expect Russell to be, someone who actively creates shots. He’s not there yet, and the idea that he’s regressed a bit since college is frustrating.
Averaging more assists per game and per 100 possessions at the college level than in the NBA makes virtually no sense. Go look at any other top point guard prospect, whether it’s Chris Paul, John Wall, Derrick Rose or whoever, and you’ll see their assist numbers skyrocket as soon as they reach the NBA. It’s common sense. NBA teams make more shots because the players are better. You’re going to get more assists passing to NBA-caliber players than you are passing to college-caliber players.
True, Russell hasn’t had ideal teammates with the Lakers. But everyone he plays with now would’ve been his best teammate at Ohio State by far. That he hasn’t had that same assists spike in a two-year sample, and in fact has gone backwards, is extremely troubling. It suggests that there is something less translatable about his passing than there was about that of every other great point guard to join the NBA and see their numbers translate more readily in the past decade.
There’s an argument to be made that the very skill-set we described above is inherently more valuable to the college game. Russell is much better at generating post looks for his big men than three-pointers for his wings, for example. The low post game is dying in the NBA while three-point attempts continue to rise. If he can’t make those higher-upside cross-court passes, he might be something of a dinosaur as a passer. Even with the high-percentage layups he can find for teammates.
There just isn’t all that much evidence yet to suggest that he can drive and kick like most star point guards today. If you look at most of his highlight reel passes, they’re fit into enclosed spaces. But, they’re sent in a fairly straight line from the middle of the court. Great NBA passers excel at sharply angled passes. And if Russell can’t do that? What we expected to be his best skill at the NBA level probably turns out to be average.
All of the stats we’ve discussed and video we’ve broken down has been on offense. There has been a lot of bad, but all of it would be forgiven if Russell were a lockdown defender. Unfortunately, he’s the reverse. Teams absolutely destroy the Lakers on defense when Russell plays to the tune of 112.1 points per 100 possessions. The average team essentially turns into the 2015-16 Warriors against the Lakers when Russell plays.
The average player’s field goal percentage increases by 2.6 percent against Russell. He has a negative defensive box plus-minus according to Basketball-Reference, and according to NBA.com he doesn’t even have one percent of one defensive win share. He’s barely clinging to the top 30 in steals per game.
His effort isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either. Hovering around 40th in the league in deflections as a 20-year-old starting point guard is fine. I might like a few more loose ball recoveries from someone that precocious, but this is not an Andrew Wiggins situation. Russell tries, generally. He’s going to get caught napping on back cuts like any young guard will, and who’s to say how much effort he’ll exert on defense if his offensive role increases? But for now, that doesn’t seem to be the problem.
What often happens are extremely basic mistakes:
In the first play of this video, Russell gets caught by a back screen at half court. That shouldn’t be possible. That’s the most Rick Carlisle moment in the history of Rick Carlisle. That’s what happens when you aren’t aware of your surroundings on defense.
This video has a few more garden variety bad defensive plays. The play from 1:23-1:30, for instance. Russell lets himself get dragged to the basket to help on Roy Hibbert’s man… except Roy Hibbert is literally standing right there. Also, he’s Roy Hibbert. He doesn’t need your help that close to the rim. It makes no sense, and naturally, leads to a wide-open three-pointer.
At 2:30-2:35, he and Hibbert fail to communicate on a pretty routine pick-and-pop. Talking is one of the most important things you can do on defense, and Russell still struggles with that aspect of basic communication. The play from 3:31-3:37 is the most egregious ball-watching I’ve ever seen. The list goes on and on.
Russell’s defensive IQ is just pathetic. He makes completely basic mistakes that no NBA player should make. Teams abuse him in pick-and-roll situations because they know he’ll get lost in switches or watch the ball long enough to create an open three. Combine that with his mediocre athleticism, and his best-case scenario is probably becoming an average defender.
But realistically? This seems like it’s always going to be a weakness of his. He simply doesn’t have the instinct as a defender that he does as a passer. You don’t have to be Justise Winslow and dominate on defense from Day 1. But if you’ve gone 134 games and have shown no signs of improvement, or even any sort of grasp on basic defensive concepts like “make sure you know where your man is at all times,” that indicates that you’re probably never going to be a good defender.
The Lakers, or any other team Russell might play for (a quickly approaching potential reality as Los Angeles tries to tank their way to Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz), could probably live with his bad defense. You can hide one bad defensive guard to some extent if the rest of your defense is very good. Tony Parker is a miserable defender and the Spurs have the best defense in the NBA.
But ultimately, Russell’s offensive success or lack thereof is going to come down to his ability to trust himself as a player. He has to be able to make quick decisions, to find ways to get to the rim without having elite athleticism, to make passes that he isn’t used to making. There is more than enough basketball skill for him to be a really good NBA starter. Maybe even an All-Star. But if his overall confidence with the ball in his hands doesn’t improve, he’s never going to be anything more than a fringe player.