In the lead up to the draft, when I wrote about whether D’Angelo Russell was worth the #2 pick, I ultimately concluded that I thought he was. Nothing through the Lakers first 11 games has changed my mind or made me second guess that. Not Russell’s sub 40% shooting from the field, not his sub-3 assists per game, not Byron Scott playing him so few 4th quarter minutes, not…anything. I still have full belief in Russell as a prospect.
In saying that, the same concerns I had about Russell heading into the draft still exist. He can get lost off the ball defensively and is susceptible to getting beat off the dribble too often. He is not an elite athlete and there are times where his motor does not rev very high. There are times I want him to play faster and with more urgency. These are all things that have shown up in his game through the first part of his rookie season. This, really, is totally expected.
This is why we preach patience with young players like Russell. It takes time for these guys to learn the league, to grow out of some of their bad habits, and to learn how to maximize their strengths. Add to this the context of the schemes they play in, the teammates they are surrounded by, and the role they are asked to play and any given young player’s situation can be complicated further.
So, when looking at Russell, one has to look at more than his box-score stats and dive deeper into what his role is, what system he’s playing in, who his teammates are, how much he is being asked to do, and how much he is actually capable of doing as a 19 year old rookie. The reality is, many of those factors are not in Russell’s favor.
Russell has a relatively high time of possession, but in the Princeton offense the Lakers are running, a fair amount of that is handling the ball at the top of the floor looking for a teammate to break open off screens or in calling a play where his first pass will trigger the scheme’s motions. Russell shares the floor with other players who all like to create shots with the ball in their hands and three players who have usage rates over 20 (including Kobe who leads the team in usage at 29.4).
Russell also plays for a coach who, admittedly, is still learning to trust him and wants him to play a very specific way:
“And as I’ve I told him, I’m not looking for you to average 20 points a game, I’m looking for you to be our facilitator and get everybody where they need to be, but also to be aggressive when you have the opportunity to be aggressive. I think he’s trying to figure out that happy medium.”
“Players have got to make me want to trust them,” Scott responded when asked about how he builds trust with rookies. “He’s (D’Angelo Russell) one of those guys that I’m getting to that point where I’m trusting him, but I still want him to continue to learn and not try to do things on the fly just try to stick within the system as much as possible.”
In unpacking these quotes, it’s pretty clear Byron Scott wants Russell to be a pass first player who understands where his teammates are on the floor while operating within the offense to find his success. Scott notes he’s not telling Russell he can’t look to score, but in emphasizing balance and facilitating, I would imagine Russell’s role has been pretty well defined.
This is why I have difficulty comparing Russell to other rookies. Among other top picks, Russell’s 20.4 usage rate is 7th and behind Jahlil Okafor (28.0), Emmanuel Mudiay (27.6), and Kristaps Porzingis (25.0). These three players just happen to be the other rookies Lakers’ fans are comparing Russell to because they were all on the board when the Lakers selected. To see them put up some of the numbers they are while Russell’s stats are pedestrian can get frustrating.
Again, though, it’s important to understand context. Okafor and Mudiay lead their team in usage. Okafor is the number one scoring option and the focal point of his team’s offense. Mudiay is playing in a P&R heavy scheme where the entire flow of the offense is based on his decision making from possession to possession. These two guys* have been given the keys to the kingdom and told to play their respective games. Whether they succeed or fail is simply part of the growth process.
Russell, meanwhile, has not been given that same luxury. Whether you agree with this approach or not (and, to be clear, I do not) is not as important as this being what his reality is. Shouting at the clouds will not change the offense he plays in nor that his coach has other high usage guards he can (and will) turn to for long stretches.
I understand that patience is hard. But it is also necessary. Russell is young and has a lot to learn, but he’s also playing under circumstances several of his highly touted peers are not. This may or may not hinder his short term growth, but I still have a lot of confidence in his long term prospects. As I said up top, nothing to this point has changed my view.
*I did not mention Porzingis has having the “keys to the kingdom” because, of course, he plays with Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks are Melo’s team. But Porzingis, I would argue, is in a much more advantageous position than Russell in that he’s playing in an offense which is a great match for what he does well. Kristaps is a skilled big who sets good screens, moves well off the ball, can post up, has a nice jumper, understands passing, and does good work crashing the offensive glass. These are the exact skills a Triangle team would want in a PF and it is showing in his production and in how he’s exceeding expectations. On the flip side, if you can look at me with a straight face and say you think he would be doing similar things in the Lakers’ offense, playing for Byron Scott, while very likely playing behind Randle on the depth chart I would imagine you have used too much botox and your face no longer moves.