Fantasy Basketball: What's Behind D'Angelo Russell's Bust of a Second Season?

Fantasy owners expected a breakout from the sophomore guard, but have instead gotten nagging injuries and awful shooting.

Fantasy basketball owners were certainly thrilled to see D'Angelo Russell return so emphatically after his latest injury. However, this only made it all the more disappointing when the young point guard once again disappeared before their eyes.

Back early from a minor knee injury in late January, Russell put up three of his best games of the season. In that short stretch, he scored just under 20 points per game while dishing out 9 assists and sinking nearly 3 three-pointers per contest.

Just when we thought the young Los Angeles Lakers point guard was finally making good on his massive preseason hype, his next three games saw him average under seven points on a mere five shots per game.

It’s been that kind of year for Russell, and his fantasy owners are understandably at wits' end. After all, Russell was drafted around pick 56 on average (per FantasyPros ADP data), but his injury-riddled play and stop-and-start production currently find him outside of the top 120 in Yahoo! 9-category rankings.

What exactly has gone wrong for the promising young guard?

No Stroke, No Hope

In one sense, the problem with Russell’s middling production seems fairly simple -- his shooting has been downright awful.

Look at the fairly steady decline outlined in his monthly field goal percentage and free throw percentage splits.

Sample GP FG% FT%
November 10 44.2% 82.1%
December 10 35.8% 87.5%
January 12 40.8% 70.5%
February 5 38% 75%

Russell’s only stretch of passable shooting from both the field and the line occurred during the first month of the season, before he succumbed to a series of injuries that would cause him to miss 16 games across four separate stints.

His funk has been total. Of late, he's been a liability not merely in percentage from the field, but also from the free throw line.

Do the counting stats make up for Russell being such a percentage liability for most of the season? Hardly, and certainly not during his recent play.

In November, he maintained respectable per-game averages of 16 points, over 2 three-pointers, and 5 assists. In the last 10 games, Russell’s per-game assist production is up to over 6, but his per-game scoring is down nearly 5 points, and his long range output is down by half a three on average.

Considering that Russell is totaling well under two combined steals and blocks on the season, the diagnosis seems to be exactly what skeptics warned against: he is a score-first point guard, and if he doesn't have his stroke, he's unlikely to emerge as an impact producer.

But are there larger factors at play in Russell’s prolonged slump?

Out of Long Range

On the surface, it’s encouraging to see that his nagging injuries have not resulted in any sharp decrease in playing time. Indeed, Russell has hovered between 25 and 26 minutes per game in all of the relevant month-long samples. Sure, it would be nice to see him approach a 30-minute starters load, but at least there's no precipitous downward trend.

However, as we see in the table below, when comparing Russell’s stronger-shooting, pre-injury November sample with his last 10 games, the overall usage (USG%), field goal attempt shares (FGA%) and three point attempt shares (3PA%) show an alarming downturn.

Sample MPG USG% %FGA %3PA
November 25.6 28.3% 27.6% 38%
Last 10 games 26.5 24% 23.2% 27.1%

The decline in three-point shares is especially troublesome. After all, long-range shooting is Russell’s main strength as a fantasy asset. Up-and-down production aside, he still has 12 games this season with 3 or more made threes.

The shot table below shows that the above-the-break three remains Russell’s go-to offensive weapon, the one that sees by far his highest percentage of field goal attempts (%FGA) across both samples.

Shot Area % FGA, November % FGA, Last 10 games FG%, November FG%, Last 10 games
Above-the-Break Three 46% 37% 37.9% 29.7%
Mid-Range 25% 23% 40.6% 39.1%
In The Paint (Non-RA) 15% 20% 57.9% 50%
Restricted Area 13% 15% 62.5% 40%
Right Corner Three 0 3% NA 0%
Left Corner Three 1% 2% 50% 100%

One could argue that the 20-plus percent decline on shots in the restricted area could be a culprit in Russell’s shooting woes. After all, he did shoot over 57 percent from that spot during his rookie season. But then again, this type of shot represents a relatively minor fraction of his attempts share.

Much more concerning here is Russell’s diminished effectiveness from his go-to spot above the break. The struggles with the long three ball don’t seem like a sample size aberration, considering Russell is only shooting 33.7 percent on above-the-break threes across the entire season, a notable step back from the 36.1 percent mark he carried his rookie year.

Alone in L.A.

It’s hard to pin down one single cause for a particular player’s shooting woes. Sometimes guys just get cold. Russell’s playing time has been staggered by injury, so maybe he’s struggled to find rhythm.

But one thing the numbers can tell us is that Russell has, in the recent sample, become an increasingly iso-reliant shooter, even from the long range.

Look at how his shot type splits from the relevant samples line up in terms of percentage of makes off assists.

Shot Area % FGM off assists, November % FGM off assists, Last 10 games
Above the Break Three 63.6% 36.4%
Mid-Range 15.4% 33.3%
In The Paint (Non-RA) 0% 20%
Restricted Area 60 16.7%
Right Corner Three NA 0%
Left Corner Three 100% 100%

In both above-the-break threes and in the restricted area, Russell has seen a precipitous drop in the number of assisted makes. This likely means tougher shots for Russell, and it could explain his especially poor recent production.

The Lakers’ offense has been iso-heavy overall this season, even more so as the season wears on. In November, the team boasted a slightly below average 55.7 assist percentage, and over the last 10 they’re down to 51.8 percent, a bottom-five mark league wide. In fact, they’re a bottom-three team in terms of makes off assists over the course of the full season.

The iso-heavy approach is not a death sentence by any means. After all, the Raptors boast the lowest assist percentage in the league by some margin yet still manage to be a top-three team in terms of offensive efficiency, per numberFire’s algorithm. The Lakers, though, are a bottom-half team by that same efficiency metric.

Clearly the Lakers’ talent is too unpolished to execute at the level of the Raptors’ historically efficient offense. And part of that does lie at the feet of Russell, who, whatever the cause may be, simply has not taken the step forward that many assumed he would.

Outlook Going Forward

Russell is currently the 81st ranked guard per numberFire’s fantasy value formula. (That’s not an overall ranking, mind you -- he’s 81st among guards alone.) Russell’s Z-score ranks lower than the likes of Tony Snell, Solomon Hill, and Vince Carter, players who have been readily available on most standard league waiver wires all season.

And if Russell continues to see his marginal positive contributions in threes and assists cancelled out by his poor efficiency and lack of consistent difference-making scoring, it’s hard to see his fantasy prospects getting any better.

Owners who have secure playoff spots certainly have nothing to gain by bailing on Russell’s upside, and nor do owners who are actively punting field goal percentage. Usage woes aside, he still has the potential to be a force in points and threes down the stretch.

As for owners on the fringe of playoff contention, it’s hard not to see Russell’s roster spot as a potential asset. Just know that once he’s dropped, he’s gone -- his name value won’t let him wallow on waivers for long.