A year ago, Magic Johnson made the decision that he would rather have D’Angelo Russell playing somewhere else. He chose Lonzo Ball as the face of the Lakers franchise and at the same time very directly slapped D-Lo as he was going out the door, saying he wasn’t a leader, while embracing Ball as if Ball was Prometheus about to save us all from the underworld. Russell took it on the chin but turned the page, motivated to prove something. Meanwhile his replacement, Lonzo Ball, did his introverted Lonzo Ball thing, replete with bricking shots and serving up dimes and having more downs than ups.
Both Russell and Ball had injuries this year. But before Russell went down he was serving up 20 points a game and before Ball went down he was barely scratching 11 points. More context needed, though. Russell has been around the block and he’s a scorer. Brooklyn is finding out what the Lakers refused to recognize: D’Angelo has more shooting guard game in him than point guard game. He knows how to score and when to score. Lonzo, on the other hand, isn’t much of a scorer, has a tendency to be passive to the point of comatose in certain sections of the game but has a great pace and pushes the ball up with energy. When he’s on, he’s on. When he’s not, it’s ugly.
Questions arise about both. Can they stay healthy in this uptempo high torque NBA? Both were taken out by knee injuries and for it to happen when they are both so young- Russell is 21 and Ball is 20- is a serious red flag. Knee injuries often come in multiples (see John Wall). But take the broken body out the equation. Did Magic do the right thing by moving Russell and is Russell better than he was in La-La Land?
The Russell-Ball comparison.
Scoring: Russell wins and it’s not close. He is just more talented. Before the Lakers game, he was struggling since returning from his injury: 37%, 26% from three, 9 points. But his back to back outings, 76ers and Lakers, are giving the Nets hope. 45%, 30% from three and 18 points. He has a natural scoring talent that Ball just doesn’t have. Every part of the floor except threes he is shooting over 40%. 62% at the rim. 43% 3-10 feet. 52% 10-16 feet. 46% long two’s. 28% three pointers.
Ball isn’t as versatile. 48% at the rim. 27% 3-10 feet. 38% 10-16 feet. 22% long two’s. 30% three pointers. Ball has to rework his shot in the summer.
Assists: Ball wins. He has 255 assists in 36 games and Russell has 79 assists in 18 games. Ball wants to feed players the ball, make the extra pass. He’s not interested in scoring. Russell is the exact opposite.
Speed: Russell is quicker and has a little bit more athleticism than Ball and will always do better on a team that plays half court and pick and roll. Russell can take his man into the paint and post him up. He has good footwork in the paint and a nice turnaround jumper. He can play pick and roll if he has to. Ball isn’t a pick and roll point guard. He wants to push the ball, and because he doesn’t have elite foot speed, he moves the ball around rather than driving into the lane and dishing out to the corners. He does a good job of manipulating the pace whereas Russell does a good job going downhill on the break.
Defense: Ball is better, though Russell’s defense in Brooklyn is better than it was in Los Angeles. Part of it has to do with the personnel. Russell has more veterans to his right and left. They are more physical. They don’t get lost and get caught up in screens. They play hard each and every night and they contest shots.
Surprisingly, Lonzo’s defense is the best part of his game other than his passing. He has a better defensive rating than D-Lo. He can stay in front of his man and he has quick hands allowing him to get steals and start the break, something Russell just does not have in his bag. Plus Lonzo blocks shots.
Magic did Russell a favor by trading him, regardless of not putting respect on Russell’s name. He’s only played 19 games this year because of his knee and that’s a troubling sign. He is eligible for an extension this fall and the Nets should gamble and be generous because when Russell is on and in full throttle he entertains. Plus he is a scorer.
Magic won’t admit it but he misses Russell. The one thing the Lakers don’t have is a consistent scorer and it is the hardest thing to find. They had one and traded him.
It’s too early to project if Russell is a better player in New York. He hasn’t been on the court enough but it’s not reinventing the wheel to say when he is healthy D’Angelo Russell can score buckets in a hurry and he loves the limelight. If he’s surrounded by other talented players and not the Allen Crabbe’s of the world, in the near future, a healthy D’Angelo Russell has a shot at an All-Star team.
Not so much for Lonzo Ball and his broken shot and his don’t look at me game. He will have years where he averages 10 assists and grabs 7 rebounds and 3 steals and be a player of impact. But a NBA scorer, in a make or miss league, he is not. Good player. Not great.