D’Angelo Russell was the second overall pick just two years ago. However, Magic Johnson decided to move on from Russell in return for one year of Brook Lopez, the 27th overall pick, and the ability to dump Timofey Mozgov‘s contract.
Russell will have a tough time replacing the beloved Lopez in the hearts of Nets fans. However, he has incredible upside. D’Angelo’s production before turning 21 should have turned more heads than it already has. His relative anonymity on the basketball floor will certainly change next season.
While D’Angelo has room to grow on both ends of the floor, he is in truly elite company as a young guard with his level of production. With a presumably larger role in Brooklyn, D’Angelo is poised on the brink of stardom.
More Minutes, Fewer Problems
D’Angelo Russell averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists per game last season, which would already be fantastic numbers for a point guard who did not even reach the legal drinking age until more than halfway through the season. However, those numbers do not tell the whole story of D’Angelo’s incredible start to his career.
For some strange reason, D’Angelo averaged just 28.7 minutes per game last season. A small minutes load might make sense in the context of a team that was not one of the worst in the league. However, it is even more perplexing that Russell played fewer minutes per game than Jordan Clarkson.
If you look at Russell’s numbers on a more even playing field–in terms of production per 36 minutes–his performance jumps from solid to historically elite. D’Angelo Russell averaged 19.6 points per 36 minutes and 6.0 assists per 36 minutes.
Only 11 guards in NBA history since the advent of the three-point line averaged more points per 36 minutes in either their rookie or sophomore seasons per Basketball-Reference—Allen Iverson twice, Kyrie Irving twice, Dwyane Wade, Isiah Thomas, Tim Hardaway, Damian Lillard, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, and Reggie Theus. Every single one of those players made at least two All-Star teams, and Theus and Rose will probably be the only ones to not make the Hall of Fame.
If you add in Russell’s six assists per 36 minutes, Lillard, Rose, and one of Iverson’s seasons drop off the list. Furthermore, only Wade and Kyrie in his rookie year matched D’Angelo’s 4.4 rebounds per 36 minutes. Although it is far too early to assume that Russell becomes a superstar player, history shows that it would be unprecedented for him to not be a multiple-time All-Star.
While D’Angelo Russell has not had much playing time to showcase these talents, he is already a solid scorer with a diverse offensive repertoire. Russell is not an explosive vertical athlete, which leads to occasional struggles in scoring near the basket. However, his jump shot is both accurate and versatile. Russell canned 41.1 percent of his jumpers from 15-19 feet per NBA.com. Additionally, he made 34 percent of his shots from 25-29 feet, an impressive mark on deep three-pointers.
I already discussed Russell’s penchant for corner three-point shots in my breakdown of the trade, but those shots will be a huge part of his game next season. Russell’s effectiveness as a primary creator (he was assisted on just 40.5 percent of his baskets last season per NBA.com) belied his fantastic spot-up shooting, a skill he will get to use far more often next season.
Russell’s biggest weakness is driving to the rim and scoring. He converted on just 50.7 percent of his looks in the restricted area, far below the league average of around 60 percent. While that would normally be a troubling sign for his future, Russell will get to play with one of the league’s more effective driving point guards next season in Jeremy Lin. With Lin there to cover up for D’Angelo’s weakness in driving to the rim, his offensive efficiency can take a major leap next season.
While D’Angelo Russell is a gifted offensive player, he has struggled on defense in his first two seasons. The same lack of elite explosiveness that limits his ability to get to the rim is a huge issue on the other end of the floor.
Russell’s defensive metrics are unavoidably ugly. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus of -2.45 ranked 79th out of 86 qualified point guards. The Lakers’ already-abysmal Defensive Rating of 110.6 spiked to 113.4 with Russell on the floor–and dropped to 108.2 when he sat.
However, while it seems overly simplistic to say this, Russell is still just 21 years old. NBA defense is at least three steps above college defense. While Russell probably does not have the athleticism to be an elite defender, his 6’5″ frame and 6’10” wingspan (as measured at the 2015 Draft Combine) should allow him to at least be average on that end.
In the meantime, Russell will benefit tremendously from playing with Jeremy Lin. Lin was one of the league’s better defenders at the point of attack, ranking 21st among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Furthermore, Lin has the size to keep up with all but the biggest shooting guards. Indeed, Lin played 63 percent of his minutes as a Charlotte Hornet at 2-guard.
Pairing Lin and Russell in the backcourt will allow Kenny Atkinson to put Lin on the stronger offensive player in most situations. With Caris LeVert as the presumed starting small forward, Atkinson could even play around with sliding Russell onto small forwards on defense. Russell’s issues guarding quicker players would be less pronounced on the wing, and he has the size to avoid getting bullied by those players down low. Jeremy Lin is a great fit with D’Angelo offensively, but he might be an even better fit defensively.
Most of the biggest concerns about D’Angelo in Lakerland were questions about his maturity. The incident with Nick Young certainly did not help. Magic Johnson added more fuel to the fire after D’Angelo’s departure, calling Russell “an excellent player” but questioning his leadership: “What I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make the other players better and also that players want to play with.”
Despite those harsh words, D’Angelo took the high road in his response. When asked about Magic’s comments, D’Angelo simply said to ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk: “[I] can’t really control that, what they say, I’m gone. So it’s the past…It’s irrelevant, honestly.”
Russell also spoke in more detail about how he would be a leader going forward: “I know what I am capable of. …I am tired of talking about what I do or what I am going to do… I want to get in right away and let my actions speak.”
Shortly after this initial interview at the Nets practice facility, Russell started posting videos on Instagram of his late-night workouts. Russell has already worked out with most of Brooklyn’s young players, including Caris LeVert. While he cannot erase his past in Los Angeles, Russell has started off on the right foot in Brooklyn.
Future Outlook: Room to Grow
There are still some concerns about D’Angelo Russell. His defensive struggles are worrisome, and it is still too early to completely move on from the whispers about his immaturity.
However, Russell has said and done all the right things since coming to Brooklyn. It is always a good sign when the 21-year-old comes out of an exchange with a Hall of Famer and lead executive looking like the more mature of the two parties. Kenny Atkinson has a history of developing guards like Russell (including his new backcourt partner Jeremy Lin). Furthermore, Russell’s offensive ceiling is nearly limitless.
The Brooklyn Nets did not deserve Brook Lopez, and it was sad to see him go. However, D’Angelo Russell is already a special player who has plenty of room to grow. For a Nets team building around a young nucleus, D’Angelo Russell was a steal at his price. His probable future All-Star berths will soften the blow of Brook’s departure for Los Angeles.