On Thursday, the NBA announced the full rosters for this season’s All-Star Game. Brooklyn Nets fans were really, really hoping to see the name of D’Angelo Russell pop up on Twitter, but when the names were released, well…
2019 East All-Star reserves: Kyle Lowry, Victor Oladipo, Blake Griffin, Nikola Vucevic, Khris Middleton, Ben Simmons, Bradley Beal.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 1, 2019
Nets Twitter was not happy about this. Brooklyn is the NBA’s feel-good story this season, a team that most expected would hang around the bottom of the Eastern Conference, especially after Caris LeVert‘s foot injury, currently sits sixth in the East, and with the Oladipo-less Pacers not too far ahead of them, the Nets have a good shot at finishing fifth in the conference.
A lot of this has been driven by the skill of D’Angelo Russell, acquired during the 2017-2018 season from the Lakers in a deal that sent Brook Lopez to Los Angeles. Russell, a former number-two overall pick, had gotten off to a disappointing start to his career, but he’s put it all together this season: 19.5 points and 6.4 assists per game while shooting 44 percent from the floor and 37.6 percent from three. In 14 games from January 1st to January 29th, Russell’s numbers look even more impressive: 23.7 points and 7.1 assists. 48.9 percent shooting. 42 percent from deep. If we’re picking All-Stars based on January production, Russell would have to be on that list.
But Russell wasn’t an All-Star. He still could be, as he’s one of two names that have been dangled as injury replacements along with Jimmy Butler. Something tells me that Adam Silver is going to pick Butler, and I think I’ve come to peace with that. Russell is probably not going to play in the All-Star Game. It’s okay. It is. D’Angelo Russell not being named an All-Star isn’t the end of the world. It’s not the huge slight to his game that a lot of people seem to think it is. Let’s talk a little about why.
First, we can’t just say that Russell’s recent play being at an All-Star level means that he should automatically be an All-Star. Yes, D’Angelo Russell playing like he is now would be in the game, but he had a bit of a slow start to the year in comparison to where he’s at now. Through 20 games, Russell was averaging 16.8 points and 5.4 assists per game while shooting 40.9 percent from the field and 36.6 percent from three. Those aren’t bad numbers! In fact, if you asked me to characterize what those numbers meant on November 23rd, I would have told you that they look like the numbers of a young player who was putting it together and was showing flashes of being the guy he was expected to be when the Lakers drafted him.
And that’s what they were! They were the numbers of a future All-Star! The problem, though, is that Russell made that leap to All-Star level contributor just a little late to make his overall case look strong enough. D’Lo has found his shot lately and become a dangerous weapon for Brooklyn, but it happened just a little too late in the year.
But, again, it’s okay! Russell is playing at an extremely high level right now and is the engine that’s fueling this team and keeping them alive with LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie sidelined. That his overall resume isn’t quite where some other players’ resumes are says nothing about his current level of play.
Another issue that hurts Russell’s All-Star case is minutes. Coaches and fans and players care a lot about counting stats, and Russell’s minutes load hurts his potential to build up those big numbers. D’Lo is 34th in the NBA in scoring, but Julius Randle is the only player higher than Russell is to also play fewer than 30 minutes per game. Russell’s per 36 scoring numbers ranks 23rd among players to play at least 1000 minutes this season. I’m still not sure the scoring is high enough to make him a guaranteed All-Star if he played more minutes, but it does strengthen his case when you extrapolate things out like that.
Now look, I teach first-year writing to college students, and I know that there are counterarguments to every argument. For this situation, that counterargument is probably this: Butler shouldn’t get the spot over Russell because Butler did that whole thing where he sat out for the Timberwolves. I can understand that argument, and I think the stats are close enough that I can partially buy that argument. Butler’s been more efficient and is the better defender, but their scoring numbers are close, and scoring is one of the big stats that the people who decide who’s an All-Star rely on.
You know what, though? It’s okay! Butler has a good case for making it. Russell has a good case for making it, too! One of them will, and one of them won’t, and we can argue all day about which one should and which one shouldn’t. What’s important for Nets fans to remember is that Russell is playing like an All-Star now, and though he wasn’t for a chunk of this season and that’s what cost him a spot in the game, don’t focus so much on the snub but instead on the fact that his current level of play is high and that if he continues to play like this, the Nets will have a chance to win a playoff series.
And besides, we have a bigger travesty! You can argue for or against Russell as an All-Star and you can come up with reasons to be on either side of that line, but Joe Harris not being in the three-point contest? He’s third in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage! Let Joe shoot!
(And a second beside, isn’t Rudy Gobert, the NBA leader in win shares and defensive box plus/minus, an even bigger snub? You can make an argument for why Russell’s total resume just misses that definitive All-Star level, but there shouldn’t even be an argument against Gobert making it.)
Anyway, the short version of this? D’Angelo Russell is having a stellar season, and he spent January looking like a star, but he wasn’t named an All-Star, and it’s okay that he wasn’t named an All-Star, and it shouldn’t take away from how well the fourth-year guard is playing right now.