Examining D’Angelo Russell’s Slow Start
From those who cover the NBA, there has been the notion that this current rookie class for the 2015-16 season could be among the deepest and most talented we have seen in years.
The jury is still out on that and will be for years to come, but there is some early evidence to support the belief.
Number-one overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns is putting up All-Star caliber numbers. Jahlil Okafor appears to be a shining star within the Black Hole that is the 76ers. There is “Zinsanity” in New York as Kristaps Porzingis has the Knicks' faithful regretting their boos on draft day.
The same cannot be said in Laker Nation.
Using their second overall pick in the 2015 Draft to land Ohio State standout, D'Angelo Russell, the Lakers believed he would team up with Kobe Bryant to create an instant top echelon backcourt. The excitement for the present, joining those two with the 2014-15 breakout player, Jordan Clarkson, and a now healthy Julius Randle, buried beliefs about the Lakers being in the middle of a rebuilding project.
However, the Lakers head coach Byron Scott was put in an odd situation going into the season with this roster.
The patience necessary for the development of young talent like Russell, Randle and Clarkson would require some growing pains, but the additions of veterans Lou Williams , Metta World Peace and Brandon Bass in the offseason combined with this being the twilight of Kobe's career placed some emphasis on the here and now.
This has created somewhat of a dilemma for Scott, who is still trying to sort out what he has to work with in this roster. In just the first 11 games, Scott has used a multitude of different lineups (20 to be exact) and has experimented with a variety of rotations. As a result, Russell has often found himself on the bench late in games and playing fewer minutes overall than many of other top tier rookies to this point.
A Frustrating Start
Through the first 11 games, Russell is averaging 9.5 points while shooting just 39 percent from the floor, along with 4 rebounds and 2.7 assists. He is averaging just 24.38 minutes per game for a team that does not have an established leader at point guard. In four of those 11 games, he has watched the fourth quarter from the bench. He did so most recently in LA’s win at home over Detroit last Sunday.
Commenting on the bench time of Russell, Scott reportedly noted it was primarily because of Russell's defense not being ready and not wanting to “throw him to the wolves, per se, just because he’s the number-two pick.” There may be something to that. According to NBA.com/stats, players guarded by Russell have shot 51 percent from the floor, approximately 9 percent better than their overall average shooting percentage.
Russell's nERD, which indicates how many wins above or below .500 a player would make an average team over a full season, is third worst on the team at -6.2. His nF Efficiency rating, which is an estimate for the point differential that a league-average team would have with that player as one of the five starters, hasn’t been great. That rating stands at -3.0 through his first 11 games.
Promise on the Horizon?
Russell has plenty of potential and promise, and there are multiple facets to his game that could lead you to believe that this will turn around, perhaps even before the end of this season.
Out of the gates this year, Clarkson and Bryant were dominating the ball handling, which forced Russell to be off the ball in the half court much more than we were accustomed to seeing last season at Ohio State. However, there are clear signs of change. With Clarkson playing much more off the ball to go along with injuries to Bryant, Russell now leads the Lakers in time of possession with the basketball at 4.5. The next closest to him is Clarkson at 3.5. He also now leads the team in touches per game at 53.3, ahead of Clarkson and Randle who are both at 52.1.
There is no doubt that Russell can shoot. Last year at Ohio State, he shot 44.9 percent from the floor and 41.1 from three-point range. But as a Buckeye, what made him successful was not only his perimeter shooting but also his ability to attack the basket. Defenders had to play up to defend his shot, so he would exploit those who pressured him defensively off the dribble and attacked the paint with his great athleticism.
This is an area ripe for improvement, as Russell has thus far been reluctant to take the ball to the hoop. He is averaging just 1.8 drives per game, which is behind even a banged-up Kobe, who is averaging 2.0 per game. Based on this, Russell will see his points, field goal percentage, assists and maybe even minutes increase once he gets his confidence up and starts attacking at the NBA level.
Frankly, the Lakers just aren’t winning basketball games, and there are no signs that this will soon change. They are 2-9 on the season with the 26th ranked offense and 24th ranked defense in the NBA. Even at this early stage of the season, it cannot be ignored that the presently have just a 1.4 percent chance of making the playoffs, per our algorithms.
The longer this lasts, the more it will be to the advantage of Russell. He will be given the chance to learn on the job and the increased court time will allow him to gain the confidence that made him such a standout at Ohio State.
The attention and early productivity of other rookies may cause Russell to be overlooked, leading him to become a great buy-low candidate in fantasy basketball. If you have him on your roster, be patient. If he is somewhere else in your league, the lack of instant success may make Russell right for the plucking from his frustrated team owner. This may be the perfect time to play "Let's Make A Deal."