D’Angelo Russell Where Art Thou?

The second pick in the 2015 NBA draft is having a season similar to (though slightly better) than the previous season when it was Byron Scott and Kobe Bryant and not D’Angelo Russell who were the scapegoats to a car wreck. The Scott-Bryant tandem ended on a 60 point high note, but it didn’t take long for their imagery to be buried and forgotten- sports is clinical in that way- replaced by Jeanie Buss having dinner with Magic Johnson, triggering all sorts of complicated scenarios where Johnson is in and Jim Buss is out. The backstory is that the Lakers are the second worst team in the league- only Brooklyn has lost more games- and D’Angelo Russell is still a mystery.

The Lakers, though, are not (a mystery). They are who we knew they would be with a bunch of kids trying to figure out who among the group are role players, bench players, starters and stars. The evidence is inconclusive. But on the bright side, the Lakers are doing an exceptional job of keeping their top-3 lottery pick hopes alive.

What is very real is the tough road that D’Angelo Russell has been on. His first two years have not gone according to Hollywood script. He won 17 games last year. This year he may win 25 games. Maybe. More importantly, he is crafting a reputation as being a player with talent and a player  who does not make friends.

Last April, Russell threw his teammate under the bus in a well documented and talked about videotaping leaked online scandal that made Russell appear much younger than his 20 years. And then a week ago, he unearthed all the Russell is immature talk when he challenged Oakland born Damian Lillard.

Some of Russell’s antics just don’t make sense. On a Tuesday night in January, Damian Lillard wasn’t putting much interest in the Lakers-Blazers game, perhaps looking to the next game and LeBron James. And for reasons even Russell couldn’t explain he “poked the bear”, woke Lillard up and then, on cue, like a lion destroying his prey, Lillard humiliated Russell, shot after shot after shot. Russell, thinking he could go toe-to-toe with Lillard and challenge his street cred, came up incredibly small. He couldn’t back any of his talk up. It was clear that Lillard had zero respect for Russell and took pleasure in taking his heart.

D’Angelo Russell is still stuck with the reputation of annoying and young and, oh, can we add in immature. After the Lillard encounter and after Lillard carved Russell up like a surgeon, Russell had to deal with what he had done.  A game in which the Lakers were in charge turned on a dime. Lillard was going to end the matter once and for all, meaning in a contest between Russell and Lillard there isn’t a contest. Russell isn’t in the same stratosphere offensively as Lillard. He doesn’t have the mental game or basketball skill. Lillard was going to have the last word.

Lillard entered the NBA as a four year college player, mature, disciplined and ready to take on the challenge of a NBA franchise. Russell came into the NBA as a one year college player, immature, complaining about minutes but good in spurts, like many 19 year olds. But he isn’t in the special category of a Lillard. We still don’t know who D’Angelo Russell is as a player.

This was the year Russell was supposed to break out close to 20 points a game but his season has been disappointing only in the sense that he has not made the leaps and strides that he was thought to make.

Russell had a lot to prove this year. He has had glimpses of great play and a lot of bad play. He still struggles at the point. He isn’t accomplished (yet) at controlling pace, getting others the ball, making the team better. To be fair to Russell though, he isn’t blessed with the speed of a Lillard who can always break off a play and get to the rim. Russell doesn’t have that advantage. He can’t blow-by. He has average athleticism.

His numbers in his second year are up and down. He has taken more shots and is making more shots but at a lower efficiency. His rebounds and assists are up as are his turnovers. He is a 15 point per game player, not great, not terrible, middle of the pack. It won’t land the #2 pick an All-Star bid anytime soon. Russell is a terrible mid-range shooter, 31.5% and his long twos aren’t anything to write home about, 38.3%.

Defensively, he struggles, sometimes to the point of zero effort. His screens are, at times, half-hearted. On the road, he is miserable. 31% from three. Abysmal defensive rating of 114 (it is 109 at home.) Fewer assists, rebounds, three point attempts but a higher usage rate on the road.

When the Lakers win, Russell has the same amount of assists as he has rebounds and he scores almost 19 points a game. And there is this elite metric from Russell in wins, 43% from three.

But when the Lakers lose, which is all the time, Russell falls way off, 12 points a game, 27% from three. Since Russell has been in uniform for 21 of the Lakers 31 losses, it is a logical conclusion that who Russell is stems from those ghastly performances, not the 12 games in which he was on the court when the Lakers won. Russell can be an enigma. And he can be a ghost.

His underachievement notwithstanding, Russell has NBA veterans looking at him like he’s a kid who doesn’t know much. Don’t get it twisted. The reputation you have with your peers is more important than the reputation you have with fans and the media. Remember when NBA vets couldn’t wait to punk Blake Griffin at every opportunity? They thought Blake’s dunks at the expense of any other game was trying to show them up and they gave him cheap shots at every opportunity. It is not that bad for Russell but it can get there if he keeps going down this road.

First and foremost, Russell needs to get his game in check. His isn’t a consistent scorer. He makes 45% of his catch and shoot jumpers but only 31% of his pullups. The Lakers are such a shaky offensive team, particularly in the third quarter, they need a confident and productive Russell. Luke Walton coaching acumen is being tested.

Russell apologists will say he is young and that is true. He will be 21 in a month. But youth isn’t an excuse. There have been a lot of young players who have done things before their 21st birthday. Russell is playing a tough position but it is hard to tell if he wants to be a point guard or if he is trying to be something he is not and has no heart for.

Often, when rookie Brandon Ingram has the ball, he seems better suited for the point. His passes are crisp. He sees the action. He is athletic enough to dribble in the lane and make the pass. Of course Ingram has two things Russell does not, length and athleticism.

The Lakers are winning at a higher percentage than they did last year but they are years away from a playoff berth. They have nothing inside. They don’t/won’t defend the three. Nick Young has transitioned back into Swaggy P, bad offense, no defense. Julius Randle is versatile but his jump shot is still iffy and until he gets one he won’t be able to compete against premier front court talent. As a team, the Lakers don’t move the ball. They have a lot of one dribble jack ups instead of moving it from side to side. Luke Walton has failed in bringing the Warriors offense to L.A.

So maybe the draft picks haven’t all worked out. Still. Only one player will be blamed. D’Angelo Russell.

The Lakers sold D’Angelo Russell to the L.A public as a star. Everyone penciled him in as replacing Kobe Bryant. But the mental game is way below average and the fans have noticed. The Lakers were selling some tickets for the Portland game at $25.00 dollars.

The Lakers will go as D’Angelo Russell goes. This is the bed they made on draft night in 2015. Free agents that matter won’t be coming anytime soon until the Lakers and D’Angelo Russell figure out exactly who he is and what he can do.

The bad news for the Lakers is the Western Conference is where Russell is his worst. He shoots 36.3% against teams in the West, 42.6% against teams in the East.

The West is analogous to the 1%. They show off their privilege. They live in luxury. They are the Mercedes league. Steph Curry and Damian Lillard and James Harden and Russell Westbrook, guards more athletic than Russell, with  a higher skill level compared to the defensively challenged Russell, have their way against him and it’s not even close. Russell simply cannot get in a shoot out with them nor can he challenge their manhood. Talking trash to them ala Lillard backfires too. So what is Russell to do?

Shut up. Keep your head down. Get better. It worked for Kemba Walker who struggled his first couple of seasons until he figured out where he was the most effective. The difference for Kemba was he had an experienced coach who preached defense, and his teammates were veterans not out of their prime. It wasn’t an episode of the Young and Restless.

By all accounts, and you know this if you watch him play more than a couple of games, D’Angelo Russell has a long way to go. But we knew that coming in to the season. Still. There was hope of a rebirth sans Kobe Bryant, that a torch would be automatically passed because Kobe and his history were gone. What there has been though is a collection of D’Angelo Russell hits and misses as the pressure mounts for Russell to be who the Lakers want him to be, an All-Star. Will that day ever come?


photo via llananba