This is the introduction Los Angeles Lakers fans will hear for D’Angelo Russell this upcoming season, and possibly for years to come.
“From Ohio State, 6’5″, at guard — D’Angelo Russell!”
What we know? He’s a guard.
What we don’t know? Exactly what kind of guard he’ll be.
Lakers fans are well aware of Russell’s incredible vision and passing abilities. So much to the point he’s been compared to Magic Johnson. However, it’s unlikely that he’ll become a consistent double-digit assist machine — and that’s completely fine.
For one, Russell has only been playing point guard for about two years. Additionally, when faced with the task of facilitating the offense last season, he often struggled. He ended up averaging just 3.3 assists.
For comparison, current top-level guards such as Chris Paul (7.8), Steph Curry (5.9), Kyrie Irving (5.4), and Russell Westbrook (5.3) all averaged more assists in their respective rookie seasons.
Furthermore, his assist percentage (21.3%) was lower than the aforementioned players as well. All of those players currently start at the point guard position, but aside from Chris Paul, most of them are considered “score first” point guards.
This has been the trend of the league as of late, which is why Russell will be just fine.
Despite his numbers being lower than the All-Stars mentioned, keep in mind Russell was playing alongside a ball-dominant Kobe Bryant and within a Byron Scott system that limited him in a number of ways. Essentially, those stats need to be taken with a grain of salt.
Nonetheless, Russell appeared much more comfortable when he had more freedom on the offensive end.
Once he starting looking for his shot, he began to have games where he actually looked like a number two draft pick. His breakout game came on March 1 against the Brooklyn Nets, where he notched 39 points, six rebounds and three assists on 8-for-12 shooting from three. Oh, he also hit a dagger three to put the Nets away in a 107-101 victory, which berthed his “I got ice in my veins!” catchphrase.
This is the kind of game we should expect to see from Russell, rather than a high-assist output.
Although Russell’s scoring average was lower than all of the players mentioned above, his eFG% (47.8) was lower than Irving and Curry’s, but above Westbrook and Paul’s. His overall numbers were actually relatively similar to Kobe Bryant’s second season.
Bryant was seldom played during his rookie season due to the team already being a playoff contender. However, in his second season, Bryant averaged 15.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 26.1 minutes. He shot an eFG% of 46.9. Russell, in his rookie season, averaged 13.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 28.2 minutes.
By no stretch of the imagination am I saying D’Angelo Russell is going to be the next Kobe Bryant, but he does appear to be more of a scorer than a playmaker. With Bryant, once he was given playing time and placed into the right system, the rest was history. Which brings me to Russell’s current situation and why he can be very successful.
Now with Luke Walton at the helm, Russell will have the freedom to create plays, but also won’t be relied upon solely to make the offense go. While he’ll be asked to initiate the offense, he won’t have to run pick-and-rolls every time he sets up in a half-court set. Nor will he be asked to blow past guys and kick out the ball to the perimeter.
While he should definitely work on those things, they’re not his strengths.
Where Russell can thrive, however, is making smart reads, frequently playing off-ball within the offense, and being aggressive with his shot.
When asked what he improved over the summer, Russell stated he worked on his jumper and touch around the rim. He didn’t mention anything about play-making.
While he’ll certainly work on his point guard skills as well, he’ll be in a system with a lot of player and ball movement. Everyone will be touching the ball and be crucial to the offense, much like the Golden State Warriors team Walton came from.
Last year, Russell showed he’s able to get his shot off quite easily, which should only improve. And the Lakers are going to need him to score big this season. (They’ll also need him to defend well too.) Additionally, in a three-point dominated league, his long-distance clip of 35.1 percent was pretty good for a rookie. Following the All-Star break last season, he actually shot a very respectable 38.9 percent.
Surely, Walton is going to incorporate those strengths, as well as Russell’s recent improvement in the post, into his system.
Traditionally, you’d want your starting point guard to be able to set the table for everyone on the team and himself. While Russell will have his hand on the tempo of the game, him not having to dominate the ball offensively could actually work out beautifully.
Certainly, someone like Chris Paul is great at what he does, but surrounding personnel requires him to dominate the ball. Walton is going to encourage the entire team to touch the ball and make plays, and he has the personnel to make that possible. Placed alongside versatile players like Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, and Julius Randle, Russell’s game might be the perfect complement.
The best model for Russell is going to be, you guessed it, Steph Curry.
While he obviously isn’t on the same level as the reigning back-to-back MVP, his role may be similar: Initiate the offense, constantly look to attack on and off-ball, and always be ready to shoot the long ball. Basically, the motto is, “Help your teammates, but rely upon them as well.”
The Warriors underwent this change under Steve Kerr in 2013. Instead of relying on Curry to set up the whole team, Kerr decided to use the talents and versatility of the entire starting five.
If we look at Curry, his assists average dropped from 8.5 to 6.7 between the 2013-2014 season and the Warriors’ record setting 2015-2016 season. His points not surprisingly increased by almost six per game during that span. Incredibly, as a result he notched the highest PER (Player Efficiency Rating) in NBA history (31.5) last season.
It wasn’t by design to benefit Curry’s individual standing, but it inadvertently elevated him from All-Star to Superstar status. It also opened up Draymond Green’s game exponentially, as it could for someone like Julius Randle.
Most importantly, it benefited the Warriors to the tune of an NBA championship followed by a record 73-9 season.
While Curry certainly had a penchant for play-making, using a more aggressive and team-involved offensive approach worked out better for the team (and Curry) as a whole. With Russell and his natural scoring mentality, surrounded by other aggressive — yet unselfish — players, his game could be perfectly complemented.
Last season, he didn’t notch double-digit assists a single time, but exceeded 20 points on 13 occasions. If he remains aggressive offensively, it’ll open up more instances to showcase that gifted floor vision. Even if he only averages around five assists per game this upcoming season, each one will come much more naturally.
D’Angelo Russell will undoubtedly be the Lakers’ starting point guard, but he’ll likely be a “score first” one. And that’s perfectly fine. Paired with Walton’s system and other versatile, talented young players, it might just be the perfect storm for the Lakers.