D’Angelo Russell Filling the PG Hole

When Magic Johnson was forced to retire in 1991, his replacement was thrust into the limelight for reasons that were out of his control. Sedale Threatt, a back-up guard, rose to the occasion. In 1991-92, Threatt put up very respectable numbers: 15 points, 7 assists, 37 minutes. He was the second best player on the Lakers besides James Worthy, leading the team in assists and steals. The next year, he led the team in scoring, assists and steals, the only Laker to ever do that besides Magic Johnson. But as competent as Threatt was as a floor general, he was hardly Magic Johnson in a smaller body.

Threatt was replaced when Jerry West took a chance on high risk, high reward, Nick Van Exel, a dynamic, charismatic, clutch shooting point guard who had dropped in the draft for personality issues. But West could spot a star a thousand miles away. Van Exel gave lifeblood to a team, fan base and franchise that was missing an on-court celebrity and was desperate to fall in love with one of their own. Van Exel fit the bill. He was all personality and arrogance and swagger.

Two years later, Jerry West traded for Kobe Bryant. Van Exel and Bryant would play together for three seasons before the point guard, who was an All-Star, went to Denver. It ushered in a less than dubious era, the revolving door point guard. The Lakers signed veteran Derek Harper and pushed Derek Fisher into a larger offensive role as the memory of Magic Johnson faded into the history books.

In his 20 year career, Kobe Bryant never had the luxurious benefit of a great point guard. It only illuminates how talented Bryant was over time, and how effective the triangle offense was for Bryant’s particular skills. Bryant played eleven years for Phil Jackson and his triangle offense, an emasculator of the point guard position. Jackson’s championship system was reflective of the era: big, tough minded, physical guards who set screens, guarded the perimeter and made open shots.

The 9 years Bryant played without Jackson, his point guards were Smush Parker and Steve Blake and Ramon Sessions and Kendall Marshall and a bunch of other no-names, all serviceable in one area or another, but none were versatile on multiple levels and none as talented as D’Angelo Russell.

Russell came into the Lakers orbit being billed as a Magic Johnson 1A.  He was called gifted and an elite passer with the kind of court vision that is mystical. The narrative further went on to say Russell controlled tempo ala Chris Paul and had the ability to deliver the ball with a variety of passes: the bounce pass, the cross court pass, the chest pass, the behind the back-no-look pass, the fake-and-then-pass, the alley-oop, the lob. More Russell hype: he had velocity and didn’t over dribble when he was in the lane. When need be, he could dominate as a straight isolation player, he had scoring talent. But, he looks for teammates first and his shot second until everything breaks down.

That was how Mitch Kupchak sold Russell as the reason not to take Jahlil Okafor and it was a pretty impressive sell job. The only problem? If any of it was true, it was going to be a long time coming to fruition. By Russell’s own admission, he wasn’t a point guard at Ohio State but a basketball player who filled in at all positions. He had to learn to be a point guard.

“I’ve never really played point guard in my life. I went to college. I was a basketball player and I played every position. I got to this level and point guard was just thrown at me, so it’s something you got to adjust to. It’s the hardest position in this league. I’d rather it be hard now than later.” (D’Angelo Russell)

According to Mitch Kupchak, Russell was scintillating in his second workout, “zipping” passes all over the court and most importantly, playing with confidence. More rave reviews followed Russell’s first week of practice with the team as his teammates were dazzled with his passing, leadership and putting the ball exactly where it was supposed to be. But once the regular season started, his comfort level dissipated. He looked like he was thinking on the court, trying to decide, do I score, do I pass? Not an explosive athlete, Russell couldn’t fall back on his blow-bys to the rim ala Russell Westbrook when everything failed. Often, he looked like a rookie trying to figure out what he did wrong. He looked like he was 19.

In drafting Russell over the skilled offense of Jahlil Okafor, it was a Lakers gamble. The Lakers viewed it as a calculated risk, the kind of gamble Jerry Buss made his living on. James Worthy over Terry Cummings, Byron Scott over Norm Nixon, Kobe Bryant over everyone. The scouts believed Okafor would be a good NBA player but not a dominant center. Russell, according to many, had star written all over him, a necessary characteristic as the Lakers transition from the Kobe Bryant era into the era of who knows what the future is. Russell has the “it” factor, a requirement for a star in a city that gravitates towards the glittery and the special. Seeking the limelight, pressure, big situations, large moments, D’Angelo Russell’s swagger had a Van Exel and Magic Johnson familiarity. But scouts also said that of all the lottery picks, D’Angelo Russell had the biggest chance to be a bust.

 2016-17 Draft Pick Minutes Points FG% Offensive Rating
Jahlil Okafor (14 games) #3 20.4 10.2 48.4% 95
D’Angelo Russell (13 games) #2  26.8 16.1 41.3% 102

To say the NBA has been a huge adjustment for the 20 year old is an understatement. Nothing could compare Russell for what he was going to face. Because the Lakers over hyped his abilities as a way to justify their selection of Russell, they were inadvertently setting him up to fail. He wasn’t Magic Johnson 1A. He had to learn the position. But he could score in bunches. He had a natural gift for it, for getting in the lane, for the cross over. Why didn’t the Lakers hype that?

D’Angelo Russell FG%

  • Catch and Shoot: 44.2%
  • Pull Ups: 36.2%
  • Drives: 39.1%

By drafting Russell, the Lakers made one huge adjustment. They finally nailed the door shut on a piece of their revered past, the Phil Jackson Wonder Years. Jackson’s sensational teams that were absent playmakers at the guard position were known as Kobe Bryant facilitator teams or Lamar Odom point forward teams or Derek Fisher toughness teams.

Now, it’s back to the basics for the Lakers as they try to regain respect and push ahead this agenda to incentivize their back court. Russell will be out two weeks so it is point guard by committee as they try to pretend his loss will not hurt. Even with Russell, many believe the Lakers are playing over their head. Yes, their offensive numbers are outstanding- 5th in fast break points, 4th in points, 4th in field goal percentage, 5th in three point percentage.  But their defense is pathetic. Near last in almost everything.

It’s a work in progress and it may take awhile for the Lakers to get a sense of who Russell is. He may not have the Kobe Bryant ethic or  be the Magic Johnson playmaker. He may not possess Kyrie Irving’s agility at the rim or Chris Paul’s maniacal willfulness.

D’Angelo Russell is going to be D’Angelo Russell. Talented scorer. Still learning the point. Star in training. Injured for a couple of weeks. It’s a whole lot better than Darius Morris and Ramon Sessions and Kendall Marshall.


photo via llananba