While some have suggested otherwise, the majority of people seem to have decided the #1 pick in this year’s draft is a head to head debate between Jahlil Okafor and Karl Towns. Towns and Okafor are great prospects, and both deserve to be in the conversation, but D’Angelo Russell shouldn’t be left out of the discussion. Russell is not the clear best prospect or anything, but he’s on the same level as Okafor and Towns. Watching the NBA today, and seeing the way guards can change the game with off the dribble shooting, it seems foolish to dismiss Russell as an option for the #1 pick.
The thing I keep coming back to with Russell, is just how hard it will be to defend a high pick and roll against him. It’s a simple play obviously, but his skillset makes it really difficult to stop. What initially challenges the defense is his ability to pull-up off the dribble, and still hit from three at an accurate clip. If the man defending him is able to get over the screen the danger is averted, but no defender is going to get over the screen every time. Due to the threat of his jump shot the opposing big has to at least meet him at the three-point line, and maybe even hard hedge to send Russell backward. Russell also has shown the ability to handle the hedge pretty darn well.
The problem with deterring Russell’s shot, is it almost guarantees that for a brief moment the defense is going to have two defenders with their attention on Russell, leaving someone open. Russell is unique because he has both the size and the vision to hurt a defense in this instant. His pick-and-roll reads aren’t always precise yet, but he already shows an advanced understanding of passing the ball. He whips passes around the court from one or two hands and can make all type of bounce, hook, and lob passes to shooters and cutters.
It might seem hyperbolic to say it, but I’m honestly not sure there is a single player in the NBA who will match prime Russell in size, passing ability, and shooting off the dribble. There are others who are superior in two of the three categories, but after going through literally every semi-major player in the NBA right now the only guys I think are comparable are fellow lefties Manu Ginobili and James Harden. In fact doing a basketball-reference search on guys since 2000 who attempted at least 5 3-point shots per 36 minutes, hit them at 37% or higher, dished at least 5 assists per 36, and stood at least 6’4 you get a list of thirteen names:
Many of these guys are far superior to Russell in other areas of the game, but it is fair to say that Russell can be a more talented passer than KD or T-Mac, and a more talented off the dribble shooter from deep than anyone else in that group. Regarding Manu and Harden, Russell’s passing and perimeter shooting ability is very similar, but his college numbers suggest he could be superior in both departments. Any guy who has the chance to be the most well-rounded shooter and passer for his size in the league, should be in the conversation for the number one overall pick. Now the question becomes, can he actually attain those thresholds in the NBA, and how will the rest of his game hold-up.
Russell hitting those statistical benchmarks at some or multiple points in his NBA career is actually highly plausible. Russell measured well over 6’4 in shoes at the combine, so it is safe to say he will be listed at either 6’4 or 6’5. Passing the ball, Russell averaged 5.9 AST/40 minutes in the much slower paced college game, where scorekeepers are noticeably stingier about handing out assists. Considering he did this as a college freshman it is a somewhat safe bet that Russell will be given enough ball handling responsibility in the NBA to cross the 5 AST/36 minutes threshold. Shooting volume also shouldn’t be a problem, if he is given the requisite usage on his NBA team; he already averaged 6.6 3PA per game in college.
Hitting 37% percent from three is the only mark that really is in doubt. Russell shot 41.1% from three on his high volume of attempts in college, but with the deeper line, and against tougher NBA defenses, he could drop off considerably. Russell has a somewhat low release and shot only 33.6% from three against BCS teams at or over .500 (via DraftExpress), so maybe he will never attain that level. Still, Russell has a very smooth and lightning quick release that he did hit at an elite 41% this past year. I’d bet he figures it out and is able to be a 37%+ shooter in the NBA, maybe even 40%+.
The combination of size, shooting, and passing is what will make guarding him in pick and roll situations so difficult. Those skills alone give him a high floor on the offensive end, and a ceiling that is through the roof. Honestly, Russell’s elite skills might be better than any other prospects in the drafts elite skills, the rest of his game is where my real questions lie.
On the offensive end, Russell’s casualness and desire to make highlight plays oftentimes forces him into silly turnovers, and his ability to read the court sometimes is lacking. But considering his usage and his age his 14.8 TOV% and decision making as a whole aren’t as bad as some detractors say. In the vein of decision making, he also settled for some pretty bad long two’s where his heels sometimes even touched the three-point line, shot selection could be an issue for him. Russell’s biggest problem by far is his inability to get to the basket, and his poor finishing when he gets there.
The finishing is an issue, but not a massive one. Russell shot 59.4% at the rim in half court situations according to hoop-math, a below-average number. Despite measuring with good leaping ability in pre-draft workouts, Russell rarely exploded to the rim around the basket to finish, and didn’t quite have the craftiness or touch to make up for it. He finishes almost exclusively with his left hand at this point, and he never really showed the ability to leap into defenders and make in-air adjustments to finish at the rim. Russell does have a soft touch, good size, and the massive hands that allow him to extend the ball around the hoop so I don’t consider this weakness a glaring issue. Finishing is something he may struggle with a lot early in his career, but he will improve considerably as he figures out how to be more crafty around the rim.
Russell shot 2.1 FGA per-40-pace-adjusted at the rim this year, a decent number, but considering his 30.2 USG%, an unimpressive one. Russell lacks the first step or burst to blow into the lane, and his side to side rhythm and hesitation when making dribble moves is a little too slow and methodical. His handle is fantastic and he can break down defenders with it, he just doesn’t quite have the side to side shake or bounce to his step to actually get in the lane all that often. Being a great shooter causes defenders to play up on him, and combined with his handle alleviates concerns about attacking the basket to a degree.
I still consider getting to the rim a big issue, and probably my primary concern with his game. It’s just very hard to profile as a potentially main offensive option on an NBA team when you don’t have the quickness to threaten getting into the lane. Bringing it back to my original point about the pick and roll; the solution for opposing teams seems to be simple, just switch. Russell will be able to beat it occasionally, but he lacks the first step or ability to dance side to side to consistently take advantage. Forcing the defense to switch will always give the offense at least a slight advantage, but with Russell it might be a way to slow him down considerably.
His jump shot is more of the “lull your (similarly sized) defender to sleep with a series of rhythm dribbles and then quickly launch it over them” style than Curry’s ability to feint back and forth to create space, or Harden’s footwork to sidestep defenders. The best way to say it seemingly escapes me, but Russell just doesn’t create space like many stars do. Aside from the few times Russell gets his defender off-balance with a great move, Russell is almost never creating space between him and his defender. It’s an iffy concept to get into, and he’s succeeded so well without this not necessarily real ability that I don’t place too much weight on it, but it’s a legitimate question, and possibly explains his poor splits against good competition.
(Quick note on that: everyone plays worse against good competition, Russell’s splits are slightly out of the ordinary, but not enough that it is a huge red flag for him. Any player will inevitably struggle adjusting to quicker and bigger defenders.)
The other major issue with Russell is his defense. He’s not a particularly quick or strong athlete, so defensive questions will inevitably follow. At Ohio State, Russell played a fair amount of zone early in the season, and more man later on. Playing in a scheme where he started off the ball, and often switched with his teammates on off-ball actions caused him to actually guard on the ball somewhat rarely.
When he was guarding the opposing ball handler, Russell was generally impressive. His lateral quickness is better than advertised, and at times he even pressed up and bothered smaller guards. When put into ball screens Russell was inconsistent, but his bigger frame helped him navigate things pretty well, and he only really ran into trouble going through double screens, where he often gave up on the play.
Off the ball, Russell is a bit of a man-watcher. Guarding his man in the corner while other actions occur, Russell would stay close to his man instead of helping out, and be late on help rotations as a result. When Russell did try to make off the ball plays he was pretty effective with his length, and even had a couple impressive blocks, though his STL and BLK numbers were a little inflated by playing the zone.
Russell profiles as a generally below-average defender, and especially if he’s forced to guard point guards he will struggle. Defense won’t be his downfall though, he’s going to be capable against 2’s, and he looks like he won’t be a sieve even against 1’s. In fact, the playmaking he occasionally flashed in college gives him some upside that he could even be an above average positional defender.
Russell’s combination of shooting and passing with non-awful D from a perimeter spot give him the chance to be a true superstar in the NBA. His lack of hop to his step on offense is really my biggest concern, but I only fear that will prevent him from being great, not that it will inhibit him from being really good. It’s possible Russell never really adjusts to NBA speed, but I just have a really hard time seeing his passing and shooting not making him a good NBA player. Another thing he has in his favor is draft models, as he is seen as the #1 prospect averaging across different models. Russell is a really great prospect with both a high floor and a high ceiling, and he should absolutely be in the conversation for the #1 pick.