Passing the Magic Johnson Test

It’s been a tough 48 hours for D’Angelo Russell. Against the 76ers, he tripped out of bounds as the ball bounced into never never land, an image tweeted and retweeted hundreds of times with the usual Russell shade. Then late in the game he didn’t know the clock after a timeout and launched a desperation heave (and missed). Last night in Denver, he was benched for Jordan Clarkson. He had an otherwise forgettable game on the second night of a back to back in Denver which is one of the worst trips on the schedule, from L.A. to Colorado. A lot of players over the course of their careers struggle on that particular back-to-back. But everything Lakers is magnified through the D’Angelo Russell lens. When he messes up the haters come out in droves. When he has a good stretch, his apologists say, see told you he’s our future. But what if he is somewhere in the middle, not a disaster but not extraordinary either, a good NBA player that will never live up to the #2 billing?

It’s been a tough year for D’Angelo Russell. He is taking more shots and is making more shots but he is playing less minutes and his overall percentage of 40% is down from what it was last season, his first in the NBA. His three ball is nearly where it was his rookie year and he is slightly improved at the line. His assists are trending up which is a great sign for Russell. He is figuring out how to share the ball more. His steals are up and he is averaging 15 points a game. But his defense remains unchanged, in other words, horrible, while his offensive rating has seen a little bit of a bright light now that Byron Scott and Kobe Bryant are gone.

Speaking of Scott and Kobe. The wisdom of last year was that they both, for differing reasons, were suppressing Russell and with them gone he’d feel freedom under player friendly coach Luke Walton. So why does his game feel like it is one hiccup after another ?

It’s not the metrics the old timers say, it is what you see. The not passing the ball in key moments. The difficult pass over the simple pass. The laziness on defense.

His rookie year, D’Angelo Russell was ranked 60th among point guards (Real Plus-Minus). This year he is ranked 25th. These are small steps towards a more complete game and it must be noted he should be in the NCAA tournament. He entered the NBA as a very young 18 year old. At 20, he has a lot of growth ahead. And a lot to learn.

But here is the D’Angelo Russell problem.

The person evaluating him is not just the best point guard in Lakers history but the best point guard in NBA history. Magic Johnson knows how the position should be played. He knows what the skill set has to be for those who play the position. He knows how talented players perform at that position under stress. It is the basic eye test through which Russell is being judged, by a Hall of Famer who dominated the position until he was forced to leave the NBA.

Magic Johnson and D’Angelo Russell do have something in common. Neither wow with athleticism. But Magic had a skill Russell has yet to demonstrate. Russell isn’t gifted with the ball. At times Russell’s shot selection and shot is suspect. He is improving but how much is Magic expecting from him? When he was just the Lakers advisor Magic went on record saying he wanted Russell to be more of a leader on the floor, more vocal. The kid is 20. What if Russell is not that guy. All point guard’s aren’t the team leader. What is Magic willing to accept about Russell and what is he not?

Russell has more innate comfort when Jordan Clarkson or Brandon Ingram are the point and all he has to do is move the ball and score. Teaching D’Angelo Russell the NBA game has been a struggle at times and there have been flashes, like the game against Phoenix. Reggie Miller said during the game, “why can’t D’Angelo Russell always play like this?”

Every coach of every young player has the same gripe. Why can’t you be consistent?

D’Angelo Russell was pretty dejected after the game against Denver as he glanced at his numbers. The #2 pick is a polarizing figure and his second year isn’t even complete. He can’t undo that Kristaps Porzingis has outshined him in his career so far and should have been the #2 pick in 2015.

Recently, an NBA analyst said he thought Russell was a good player in the wrong market. The Lakers bubble creates stress and talent has to be special to overcome it. This analyst thought Russell would be thriving if he was in a smaller market. It is too early to say if that is true. Or maybe not.

Paul George and a deal between rivals Magic and Bird may be the summer blockbuster. The Lakers would have to let go of their young talent. But who? Julius Randle? Jordan Clarkson? Or D’Angelo Russell?

If Russell is still a Laker in 2017-18 it will be his most important year. He is going to have to up his game a lot for the Lakers to decide to give D’Angelo Russell a healthy extension and keep him in purple and gold long term.


photo via llananba