Russell Chasing Greatness

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

After a difficult rookie year in which D’Angelo Russell saw his team go 17-65, something may have been lost in the carnage: Based on analysis of current NBA All-Star point guards, Russell is directly on track to become an All-Star.

When the Lakers drafted Russell with the No. 2 overall pick, they rightfully had the expectation and hope that he could turn into a great NBA player one day.

At 6’5’’, he had many tools: hoops savvy; confidence; a wet jumper; easy three-point range; a slick handle; an ability to see plays develop; and the skill to put the ball in tight spaces.

But as a 19-year-old, Russell struggled in the 2015 Summer League and to start his rookie NBA season. If that shouldn’t have been a surprise for a point guard still growing into his frame under a hard-nosed coach in Byron Scott, it was initially below the lofty expectations of a top pick.

At season’s end, he clocked in with averages of 13.2 points on 41.0 percent shooting (35.1 percent from three) with 3.3 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game in 28.2 minutes a night (48 starts in 80 games).

We know that Scott was hard on Russell, whom he started at the beginning of the season, put on the bench in December and finally reinserting with the starters for good on Feb. 21 at Chicago.

But it was at that point – when Kobe Bryant wasn’t playing every night and Russell was given more freedom to run the offense – that he started to really flash the talent that made him the No. 2 pick.

In his first 10 games back in the starting line up, Russell averaged 21.0 points, 4.8 assists and 3.1 3-pointers made, highlighted by a 39-point outburst in a March 1 win over Brooklyn that was capped by his dagger 3 (his eighth triple of the game) and his “ice in my veins” celebration.

Eventually, even Scott was saying, “Man, this kid can play.”

Since we’ve now known Russell for over a year, it’s prudent to remind ourselves that he is still just 20 years old, and he’s actually right on All-Star schedule.

Below is a list of current NBA point guards that – with the exception of Mike Conley and Kyrie Irving* – were all on the 2016 All-Star team, and their production from the ages of 19-22. *Irving made the All-Star team from 2013-15, but was hurt to start the 2016 season, while Conley’s never been on one.

In short:

Only one of these players was in the NBA when he was 19 (Irving), while Lillard was 22 and Curry 21; None of these numbers as 20-year-olds are out of Russell’s reach for 2016-17 – Westbrook went for 15-5-5 when he was 20, and D’Angelo should improve upon his 13-3-3 by at least that much; Russell’s rookie-year stats were better than Lowry or Conley managed in their respective first, second and third seasons; Curry’s the best shooter in the NBA, but his 46.2% FG’s and 43.7% 3’s shouldn’t be so far above expectation for Russell by the time he’s in his third season.

Damian Lillard

1 22 19.0 6.5 3.1 0.9 42.9% 36.8%

Steph Curry

1 21 17.5 5.9 4.5 1.9 46.2% 43.7%
2 22 18.6 5.8 3.9 1.5 48% 44.2%

Russell Westbrook

1 20 15.3 5.3 4.9 1.3 39.8% 27.1%
2 21 16.1 8.0 4.9 1.3 41.8% 22.1%
3 22 21.9 8.2 4.6 1.9 44.2% 33.0%

Kyrie Irving

1 19 18.5 5.4 3.7 1.1 46.9% 39.9%
2 20 22.5 5.9 3.7 1.5 45.2% 39.1%
3 21 20.8 6.1 3.6 1.5 43.0% 35.8%

Kyle Lowry

1 20 5.6 3.2 3.1 1.4 36.8% 37.5%
2 21 9.6 3.6 3.0 1.1 43.2% 25.7%
3 22 7.6 3.6 2.5 0.9 43.5% 25.5%

Mike Conley

1 20 9.4 4.2 2.2 0.8 42.8% 33.0%
2 21 10.9 4.3 3.1 1.1 44.2% 40.6%
3 22 12.0 5.3 2.4 1.4 44.5% 38.7%

For Russell himself, there was never any doubt that his game would emerge. Privately, throughout the season, he had a “You’ll see” attitude that he backed up with hard work.

“I know that once I get comfortable with my team, my coaches and all that, the same problems I was having months ago, people are going to be like, ‘Dang, he’s come a long way,’” Russell told us in December. “Because everywhere I’ve been, I’ve struggled first, but then made (success happen).”

That was before Russell went on his impressive run out of the All-Star break, finished the season as the youngest player in NBA history to make 120+ three-pointers in a season (130), and this week was the leading candidate for Summer League MVP after three games in Las Vegas.

Russell averaged 22.7 points on 53.3 percent shooting (47.1 percent from three) to lead the Lakers to a 3-0 record, securing a bye into the second round of the Vegas playoff. He hit a buzzer-beating three to win the team’s second game (vs. PHI) and went off for 22 points in the first half of the third game (vs. GSW) on 7 of 10 shooting (four three-pointers).

His defense still needs to improve considerably, and he turns the ball over more than any coach would prefer, but overall, he’s been terrific.

“That’s why the expectations are there,” said Summer League Coach Jesse Mermuys, Luke Walton’s lieutenant. “(D’Angelo) has a chance to be special. As an organization (and) as a coaching staff, we have to push him and pull him and prod him and try to help him along that path to be great. And that path is hard. It’s a really tough, long grind.

“He’s willing. He’s coachable. Already he’s given a ton of effort with the new coaching staff. It’s a process, but these are the types of learning lessons that Summer League is about.” Russell is still figuring out the balance between getting his own shot – which is easy for him – and getting his teammates going. He has the chance to be a truly special passer, and Walton’s offensive system, once installed, should help bring that out.

He’s emerged as the leader of a young Lakers core who have fully embraced Russell and moved on from the difficult misstep with Nick Young last season. Jordan Clarkson sprinted out of his courtside seat to embrace his buddy after the game winner against Philly, and as exuberant rookie Ivica Zubac put it, “I love D’Angelo!!!! He makes the game so easy!!!!”

Back to the main point of examining those statistics of current All-Star caliber players: Russell’s right on track.

“I’d always rather be a late bloomer at anything I do,” he said in that same December talk. “I don’t want to be great right away. I love the process. I love when people say, ‘You suck! You’re a bust!’ I love that. Because whether it’s months or years, whatever it takes, best believe they’ll be thinking about those words they said a while ago.”

After the Lakers finish their Summer League experience, Russell will join Team USA’s Select Team to help the full National Team get ready for the Olympics. He’ll square off against many of the players we just compared him to.

Russell’s game has grown since April, and Team USA should help him take another step before he reports to Walton’s training camp in October.

True NBA greatness will take some time to wrangle, but the ball is in Russell's court.

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